The Home Front


The Guelph entrance to Grosvenor School. The original doors were solid oak with brass hardware.

In September 1942, I had started grade three, which meant moving up to the second floor of the school where the older classes were.

Climbing the granite staircase, I felt that I was truly moving up in the world. Our teacher was Miss Walsh and she was very strict.

Her front teeth stuck out, which gave her a pouty look.

‘She has buck teeth,’ said Angus MacPherson, whose father was a dentist. But Mother said that wasn’t a nice thing to say.

‘Miss Walsh has an overbite,’ she told me, ‘and it’s not her fault. God gave it to her so you shouldn’t make fun of it.’

In grade three, we learned to write like grown-ups, and we got black wooden pens. Everybody chewed the ends of them, but Miss Walsh said not to do this because we wouldn’t get a new one until after Christmas. We got a new pen nib every month. The pen nibs made scratching noises on the paper. Each desk had an inkwell with a little glass bottle that was filled every morning by the ink monitor from Miss Walsh’s big crockery jug. I didn’t want to be ink monitor because the jug was so heavy it was hard not to spill the ink.

‘Do be careful! You’re making a mess!’ Miss Walsh always shouted at the ink monitor.

There were lots of ink stains on the oiled wood floor; no doubt some of them had been left by ink monitors long past.

Maybe they were now serving with the armed forces overseas. I wondered if perhaps an ink monitor of long ago was in the prison camp with Daddy.

Handwriting was hard to learn. We used the Palmer method, and we had writing books with exercises in them. We were supposed to make all of our letters exactly like the ones on the cards above the blackboard, and we had to do the exercises in the books every day. It was called ‘Penmanship’. Miss Walsh said that doing the exercises would make our wrists and fingers strong.

‘Keep your wrist flat, don’t turn your hand sideways, move your whole arm,’ Miss Walsh repeated as we struggled for perfection. She paced up and down the aisles, looking over our shoulders, and made us balance erasers on our wrists to keep them from turning over.

Our school days were not all work though. To help the war effort, we joined the Junior Red Cross. The Red Cross sent representatives out to the schools to teach us to knit squares for afghans for the soldiers overseas. We each paid ten cents and got membership cards with our names on them and white buttons with a red cross to wear on our tunics. We also joined the Junior Humane Society to help lost dogs and cats get good homes. For five cents we got a membership card and a button with a picture of a dog or a cat. We collected rags and paper and tinfoil for the Patriotic Salvage Corp and there was a competition to see which grade would bring in the most.

Miss Walsh was short and stout with humourless greyish eyes that peered accusingly from behind wire-rimmed glasses.

‘You’re a liar,’ she said to me one day, when I returned to school after being at home for two weeks with bronchitis. The events that led to her calling me a liar were these: I was late handing in a booklet about the Belgian Congo. Mother, afraid that I might come down with pneumonia, had ordered me to stay in bed until my fever went down.

‘I don’t want to stay in bed,’ I whined.

‘Well, you have to. You might get pneumonia, and people die from that. A friend of Mrs. Baird’s lost her little girl that way.

She refused to stay in bed, and one night her fever went up to 105 degrees and she kept getting sicker and sicker all night long. She died at four o’clock in the morning.’

The way Mother emphasized every syllable in ‘four o’clock in the morning’ made it sound like the most desolate time of the day to die.

‘They called the doctor,’ she went on, ‘but he didn’t get there in time. The poor little girl couldn’t breathe. She was the same age as you are – eight years old.’

Over the next week, Mother treated me with mustard plasters, and pinned wads of orange Thermogene to the inside of my pajama top. My chest turned red and peeled from the treatments.

I finally returned to school after being away for almost two weeks and found out about the Belgian Congo project the day I returned. It was due the next day, and Miss Walsh sent me home with pages of purple hectographed images of straw huts and African children with spears and African men in loincloths and African women wearing dresses and strings of beads. I was supposed to crayon these and tie them into a booklet by the following day.

‘You can’t do all that tonight,’ Mother said. ‘You’ve been sick.

You need to get your sleep.’

I did some of it, but it wasn’t finished when I left for school the next morning and I was worried.

‘Tell Miss Walsh you’ll hand it in tomorrow,’ said Mother.

‘She knows you’ve been sick.’

Timidly, I approached Miss Walsh’ desk. I stared at the floor, swallowing hard.

‘My booklet is almost finished,’ I whispered. ‘Mother says to tell you I’ll hand it in tomorrow.’

‘You’re lying,’ Miss Walsh said. ‘You haven’t done any of it. I can tell by the look on your face. You’ll have to stay and do it after four o’clock today.’

As the morning dragged on, I could barely concentrate. The chalk screeched against the blackboard as Miss Walsh drew a pie to teach us about quarters and eighths. After recess we read a story about a pony named Pongo in the Highroads to Reading book. At lunchtime, I ran home sobbing to tell Mother I had to stay at school after four.

‘Miss Walsh said I was lying. She doesn’t believe I’ve almost finished my booklet.’

‘Poor Margaret! We’ll finish it now, and I’ll write you a note.’

I picked at my pork and beans as Mother helped me complete the last few pages. Then we tied it together with green ribbon from the sewing basket and Mother wrote a note to Miss Walsh.

Dear Miss Walsh,

You know that Margaret has been sick. I wrote you a note to tell you this when she returned to school yesterday. She did not know about the Belgian Congo booklet until she came back. It was far too much for her to do all that work last night, and I suggested she finish it tonight and hand it in tomorrow. However, you told her she would have to stay after school today to finish it. This will not be necessary as it is now done and she is handing it in this afternoon.


Lucy Dennis

P.S. Margaret was telling you the truth when she said the booklet was almost finished.

Timidly, I put the booklet on Miss Walsh’s desk and handed her the note.

She read it silently without looking at me. When the four o’clock bell rang I went into the cloakroom and put on my coat and hat and galoshes, hoping that Miss Walsh wouldn’t stop me from leaving. Just at that moment Peter Johnson peed his pants, making a huge puddle on the floor under his desk. As Miss Walsh was glaring in his direction, I made my escape. That night, as I lay in bed I overheard Mother talking on the phone, telling Auntie Henrietta about Miss Walsh calling me a liar.

‘She just doesn’t seem to like children, but good teachers are hard to find nowadays. Most of the bright young women have joined the service, so we have to put up with the older ones, and some of them can be very difficult to get along with.’

For the next two years I had the most difficult teacher of all.

Miss Ormond was tall and heavyset. A true martinet, Mother said. Her thick, wavy grey hair was pinned into a bun with giant wire hairpins. Her wrinkled cheeks were caked with rouge, and her lips were permanently pursed. Too old to join the active service, she was determined to do her part to fight the war by peddling war savings stamps to her pupils.

Every Wednesday morning she expected each child to bring a quarter for a stamp. These were stuck into folders, each of which held twenty stamps so that each completed folder was worth five dollars. Miss Ormond had a contest to see which pupils would fill the most folders by the end of the year. First thing on Wednesday morning each of us had to file past her desk one at a time, whether or not we were buying a stamp. Those who didn’t have money had to explain why. Then we had to march all the way around the room back to our desks. War savings stamps aided the Allied effort, a quarter at a time

Since Mother was raising the three of us on a government allowance, she had to budget carefully. Each week one of us would be given a quarter for a stamp, so on two Wednesdays out of three I would have to face Miss Ormond with an excuse. ‘My sister is buying it this week,’ I’d say, or ‘It’s my little brother’s turn today.’

Then Miss Ormond would boom in her thunderous voice:

‘Well, Margaret, I should think that since your father is overseas, you of all people would buy one every week to help end the war!’

As I slunk back to my desk, Miss Ormond would continue to taunt me. ‘Now, Margaret, walk straight! Keep your shoulders back! Hold your head up! After all, your father’s in the army — you should march proudly like a soldier!’

On my report card Miss Ormond wrote: ‘Margaret has difficulty speaking out, which brought her reading mark down.

No doubt as she gains confidence this will improve.’ But it was impossible to gain confidence under Miss Ormond’s constant intimidation.

Our grade six teacher was Miss Hallen, who was also the school principal. A short, stout woman with flashing eyes and a patriotic heart, she was hell bent on following the laws of church, state and society to the letter. Her elderly mother had died the summer before I started grade six, and for the next six months Miss Hallen dressed each day in official mourning, black from head to toe. Then followed three months of semi-mourning when she wore only gray. Finally, as if released from the clutches of a long, cold winter, Miss Hallen blossomed forth in the brightest of reds, yellows, purples, blues, greens and pinks.

Miss Hallen was a true-blue Tory and a staunch Anglican.

As well as saying The Lord’s Prayer and reading from the Bible each morning, she insisted that we repeat in unison the confession and general thanksgiving from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, along with any other prayers she thought fitting. No pupil was exempt from these religious exercises; Jews, Catholics, Anglicans, Mormons and members of the United Church, as well as those with no religious affiliation at all, were included in the daily worship. One morning, David Schwartz leaned confidentially across the aisle.

‘Margaret,’ he whispered, ‘do you believe in Jesus?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Doesn’t everyone?’

‘I don’t. I go to Hebrew School every day after four.’

I thought about this all morning, and when the lunch bell rang, I ran all the way home.

‘Mother, what’s Hebrew School?’

‘It’s where the Jewish children go to learn about their faith.

It’s like our Sunday school, only they go there during the week.’

‘David Schwartz asked me if I believe in Jesus.’

‘And what did you tell him?’

‘I said yes. I thought everyone did.’

‘Well,’ said Mother, ‘there are many different religions in the world, and it’s best not to argue with people. You just believe what you learn in Sunday School, and let others follow their own beliefs.’

Miss Hallen was also a paragon of patriotism. If the singing of Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, The Maple Leaf Forever and There’ll Always be an England, along with O Canada and God Save the King had been responsible for leading the Allied forces to victory, Miss Hallen could have taken credit for winning the war single-handedly. As she pounded the ivory keys of the battered oak piano, her eyes raised to heaven and her shrill voice proclaiming praise of king and country, we all stood rigidly at attention and sang our hearts out.

I was a member of the school patrol. We were Miss Hallen’s own little white-belted army, and she drilled us with military precision. It was our duty each day to raise and lower the flag in front of the school, a ritual Miss Hallen insisted we perform with great awe and reverence. Her sharp eyes made certain that the revered Union Jack did not touch the ground, and was metic-ulously folded according to protocol.

Members of the school patrol wore white belts during the 1940s.

We wore white leather patrol belts that went over one shoulder and around the waist, just like Daddy’s big brown army belt. We were expected to keep these belts spotless, and twice each day before going on duty we had to line up for inspection. Miss Hallen marched down the line armed with a bottle of white shoe polish, scrutinizing each belt; if she detected the slightest bit of dirt, its owner would have to step aside while she rubbed furiously at the spot, decrying the offense in the shrill tones of a sergeant major. I often felt faint with the effort of standing stiffly like a soldier, but I didn’t let on. If Daddy could do this, so could I. After the entire team had passed inspection, the patrol captain gave the marching orders: Right Turn, Forward March, Left Turn, Halt, as we marched to our posts on the street corners. As the captain passed by on his rounds, each patrol was expected to greet him with a snappy salute.

Looking back, I realize that our teachers shared a mission: to enforce Victorian standards of morality, and imbue us with a sense of loyalty to king and country. Aiding and abetting them in this undertaking were the Highroads to Reading books that held between their blue and orange covers copious doses of history, geography, nature, science, classical literature and patriotism.

One poem, ‘The Empire is Our Country’, speaks of ‘Mother Isle [Britain] whence freedom’s rays are sent to light the world’, and declares that all countries of the Empire ‘with loyal hearts acclaim across the foam the Empire as their country.’These books preached and moralized, conveying the cardinal virtues of honesty, patience, fortitude, temperance and justice, and warning against such evils as selfishness, anger and greed. They also bade us to strive to follow the example set by the soldiers, sailors and airmen who were fighting to keep our world safe.