The long-ago Riot in Cellblock #5
Somewhere in their pop opus the Beachboys crooned a ditty entitled ‘Be True to Your School.’ I never got that sentiment. Maybe their school was very different from my school, but I never had any thoughts about Burnaby Central High School that didn’t include a scenario of seeing it erupt in flames, taking the administrator (though not the vice-principal) with it, as well as probably half the faculty. In other words, my retrospective view of BCHS is not one of bittersweet nostalgia, but one of deep antipathy and anger that can still prevail if I think about it enough. Fortunately, I don’t think about it enough, because it’s not worthy of such rumination.
The one thing that wasn’t strange, however, was our principal. To my horror the boss of the place was to be the same cold fish I’d had at elementary school lo those many years before. ‘Those many years,’ by the way, was a grand total of three years, but time is a relative thing when one is young, and three years prior seems like the distant past.
I suppose the insult implied in his placement in the position was – aside from the fact he was a man so square he would have made Richard Nixon seem like a hip hellraiser in comparison – that he was an elementary school principal. An elementary school principal who brought with him, tucked in his little briefcase, elementary school principal values and attitudes as to what student behavior should look like. What it should look like, in his esteem, was ongoing and utter deference. It didn’t work for him, and it most certainly didn’t work for the students.
Back to the subject at hand. Everything considered, it might be seen that any woes I faced at Central were largely ones of my own making. But, that’s not entirely so. Central was a bit like a prison cellblock in the sense that the coldness of the principal’s personality filtered through the place. He ran a tight ship and any violation of the rules only meant the imposition of further rules, and the loss of more freedoms. The man was a fool and had obviously missed the message of The Caine Mutiny, if he had ever seen it. While rendering the lives of the students less-and-less salutary, he decried the lack of school spirit – the sort of spirit to be found at the other two high schools in the municipality. He would pound this message to us at our Monday assembles, which were held first period each and every Monday, and in which further rules would regularly be thrown at a student body growing increasingly restless and unhappy. What he didn’t recognize was that there were rumblings of discontent. Growing rumblings of displeasure by a group of young people who finally came to realize that they did not need to accept his unfair and punitive decrees. “Kill our shore-leave and Saturday night movies, will ya?” That’s right, ultimately, in my twelfth-grade year, the boss was to have his “Captain Queeg moment.” I wonder if he ever fully recovered from it?
It was at just one of those aforementioned Monday assemblies that his fan became dung-splattered and the repercussions were huge. It was in the late spring, as I recall. We had been guilty (we were always guilty in the man’s little mind) of some sort of new malfeasance, and therefore we were to lose yet another privilege. The audience greeted his decree with silence. And then somebody – I have no idea who – began to stamp his feet on the gymnasium floor. And then somebody else picked up on it. The stamping grew louder and louder until, or so it seemed, the entire gym was stamping in unison. He raised his hands and cried for our silence; he uttered threats; he told us our conduct was disgraceful and that we would pay for it; he even threatened to call the police if we didn’t cease the behavior. His face blanched as students began rising up from their folding chairs and began approaching the stage. The man retreated, and his place was taken centre-stage by the vice-principal who appealed to us to calm down. We did, sort of, out of a certain respect for the veep. He appealed to us to go back to our homerooms. We shuffled back, taking as long as we chose to get to those destinations.
Back in the homeroom the teacher lit into us. Known (not affectionately) as “The Guillotine”, this guy, who ruined senior history for me with his Marxist and stridently anti-American spin on virtually every topic, was a big man with flaming red hair and a temperament to match his fiery curls. He was a sonofabitch who terrorized his students into complacency. It seems it had worked for him for years. This time it didn’t. We ignored his fulminations as he told us what a disgrace we were and how we were going to pay for this transgression. Nobody was intimidated any longer. The moment of tyranny had passed and no terrorism by officialdom was going to bring it back. The commander had lost control so his underlings were rendered impotent. We had won!
What we had witnessed was the decline and fall of a man who was a victim of the Peter Principle in action. As an ironic aside, the then-wife of Lawrence Peter, who created that principle, was my math teacher at Central. Maybe she should have warned her boss what was coming.