A Far-ranging Education

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When I was trying to summarize my life for the About Tim page, I got thinking about how my education took place all over the planet, and how that made me the person and the writer I am. Snort. As a writer, I like to describe myself as a reject. I have reached that awkward stage where I have to send query letters to agents, a process about as satisfying as printing out the whole thing and throwing it off  a cliff. But I don’t plan to blog about my book much. Back to the education part. I don’t remember much about my first school except that it was called Saint Andrews and I learned there that I cannot dance, which is useful information. I was only there for one year  before dad took a sabbatical at Scripps Institute in San Diego and I had the pleasure of attending Grade 2 in an American school. A keen young teacher there ran a remedial reading class and I was placed in it. I owe her and Doctor Seuss a lot: I learned that books could make me laugh, and I have never looked back. To this day, if someone laughs while reading, I have to know the reason. When we returned to England, I devoured children’s books by the library shelf full. Doctor Doolittle and Professor Branestawm were early favourites. Meanwhile, I attended Plymouth College Preparatory School for Boys. See photo above. They taught me to write with a dip pen and when I had mastered that, (Report Card comment:”Timothy’s handwriting looks as if a spider fell into the inkwell and crawled out on the page to die”) a cartridge pen. Then at the age of nine, I moved to Canada, specifically Winnipeg, home of the newly created Freshwater Institute. What they wanted an oceanographer for, I cannot imagine, but Dad managed to make himself useful as a water chemist and a chemical methodologist. The South end of Winnipeg was growing at a furious pace in the sixties and schools were popping up like toadstools. I attended grade five in St. Avila, then grade six in Fort Richmond Collegiate in its inaugural year when it hosted grades one through twelve (I think). Canadians learn an entirely different style of cursive writing, and use ballpoint pens. Epic fail. By the time I got to grades eight and nine, Dalhousie Junior High had been built (by a blind designer who hated windows and a crazed architect who specialized in split-level monstrosities.) In this bold new school they believed in ‘open-plan’ classrooms, ‘parallel learning streams’ and ‘student projects’. I learned that if you give me six weeks to do a lot of work, I do a little of it in the last three days. Period.  I wrote one of my earliest short stories in the hours after midnight and before breakfast. I still have it. By this time, I was reading Science fiction by the wheelbarrow load: not just the obvious and popular ones – everything I could get my hands on. I read Catch-22 because I thought it was set in an alternate universe. (Having grown up in Britain, I knew almost nothing about the Pacific Theater.) I also wrote my first science fiction then, about a naval team retrieving an alien probe from the ocean. Back to FRC for grades ten and eleven. By this time, my handwriting was so awful that I took typing lessons in evening classes so that my assignments would be legible. I had three good English Lit teachers there, two who were funny, popular and effective, and one who was serious and rather foreign, but who loved literature enough to try and teach it to unappreciative teenagers. I respected him the most. I also met my first computer.

FRC had a dedicated land-line to MUM, the Mainframe at the University of Manitoba. This connection was probably rated at several bits per minute. We used card-punch machines to write baby programs in Fortran V (Watfour.) What for indeed. Somehow, this captured my imagination, and with two of my other slide-rule toting geek friends we went far beyond the curriculum. We would sneak into the Engineering Building (Computer Science wasn’t a faculty back then) at the university and log directly onto the mainframe by plopping ourselves down at one of the IBM Selectrics adjacent to the clean room where we would search the wastepaper baskets for useable logon passwords. And then consume some poor saps processor allotment by playing Maze and Howitzer.  Now that was educational. These games, by the way, printed out one line at a time on the electric typewriter. Pong was still years away.

Grade twelve was a challenge. Dad accepted another sabbatical, at CSIRO in Sydney, Australia. The school year there is completely out of sync with Canada, and the curriculum is vastly different, too. I took Physics and Chemistry in summer school at the University of Winnipeg, packing a year of work into six grueling weeks before we went, and then took English, Math and Anthropology from Winnipeg’s School Division number one by correspondence from down under. Hated Tess of the D’Urbervilles and wrote a scathing essay about authors who torture their protagonists. I joined a surf club to make some friends and ended up, due to a misadventure involving beer and bawdy songs, joining the junior boat crew, which won medals at the national level. This was my only significant foray into organized athletics. Sydney was also where I took my first full-time job, but I’ll save that stuff for another post one day.

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