Class of '64 shares memories of well-mannered and polite rebellion

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Sainte-Catherine Street, downtown Montreal,1968. Image credit: Archives de la Ville de Montréal/Flickr

Our high school class of 1964 had a Zoom reunion, not too long ago, and it turned out to be an experience rich in memory, some of which I wrote about in part one of this two-part series. Here is part two.

The school was Outremont High School, part of the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. We were the math class, sometimes called the brain class (and that was not necessarily meant as a compliment).

The school sought to groom us to get the highest marks possible in our final exams.

In those days, there were province-wide matriculation exams at the end of high school, and newspapers would publish the names of those with the top marks. Outremont High invariably placed more than its share in the top 10 -- a source of great pride for the school.

High final-exam marks were the singular goal for our school, where not much else counted.

There was no band. Music was an afterthought, as were sports and the visual arts. When one math class student signed up for an extracircular art class, the head of the math department offered to give him extra mathematics lessons instead.

Neither the school nor the school board now exist.

The Outremont High building is there, but is now occupied by a school that offers adult education in French. And Quebec abolished school boards based on religious denomination more than two decades ago, via a constitutional amendment to which the province and Ottawa agreed, bilaterally. There are now only French and English school boards in Quebec.

The majority of our group, six decades ago, were Jews, which meant we were directed to the Protestant system. There was no such beast as a neutral, non-denominational option back then. Public schools all had to bear a sectarian, religious label.

Nuclear disarmament and the Quiet Revolution

Our class came of age in the turbulent '60s. For the most part, however, the political and cultural upheaval we associate with that decade had not yet happened.

The girls wore conservative hairdos: the flip, the bob, the bouffant bob. And we boys kept our hair cut short and neat, not quite military style, but close to it. Only one girl wore her hair beatnik style, in the manner of Mary Travers of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary.

We all had to wear school uniforms: neckties and white shirts for the boys, and navy-blue tunics for the girls. There were no jeans, love beads, or flowered shirts in our school.

Our teenage years witnessed a big shift in popular music.

When we started high school, artists such as Bobby Vinton, Little Eva, Neil Sedaka and Elvis Presley topped the charts. By graduation year, the Beatles, Roy Orbison, and Motown groups such as The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas had taken over.

Mind you, parallel to the newer pop music sounds, old-school performers, whose music remained firmly rooted in jazz and big band, remained popular. In 1964, the Beatles still had to share the charts with the likes of Dean Martin, Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, Louis Armstrong, and Barbra Streisand.

A few of us went out to hear live jazz from time to time.

On Saint-Antoine St., in Montreal's historic Black neighbourhood of Little Burgundy, there was a subterranean place called the Black Bottom, which served nothing stronger than chicken wings and coffee.

They had an old upright piano there, and the great Charlie Biddle used to hold court on his bass fiddle. Visiting musicians would pop by after their gigs and jam. One wet-behind-the-ears 14-year-old Outremont High kid even sat down at the piano once. Nobody shot him, although some might have been tempted.

In politics, we were in the heady days of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec.

In 1960, premier Jean Lesage and his équipe de tonnerre, starring former broadcaster René Lévesque, had taken over from the backward-looking, nationalist-conservative Union Nationale.

Lesage's Liberals had embarked on an ambitious program of progressive reform, which included nationalizing hydroelectricity and vastly expanding the secondary and post-secondary education systems.

Federally, we were in the Pearson-Diefenbaker era. As in Quebec, it was a period of activist government in Ottawa.

Perhaps because we were Quebeckers, our group tended to favour Pearson's Liberals over Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives.

In retrospect, there was little policy difference, in those days, between the two larger federal parties -- except, perhaps, for Diefenbaker's over-the-top affection for the Queen and the institution of the monarchy, a passion we did not share one little bit.

The fusty halls of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle did not stir our imaginations nearly as much as the bright lights of Hollywood and Broadway.

Some of us, certainly not the majority, felt an affinity for the recently formed New Democratic Party. Ours was a time before universal health care, the Canada and Quebec pension plans, and many of the other social supports we take for granted today. In that context, Scandinavian-style social democracy seemed like a humane approach whose time had come.

It was also the era of the Cold War, the most fearsome feature of which was the nuclear arms race between the West and the Soviet Bloc. To the extent any of us tended toward activism, it was focused on the nuclear issue.

Some of us would buy the little magazine Our Generation Against Nuclear War from the local left-wing bookseller, Abe Bonder, together with the latest issue of I.F. Stone's Weekly, and a few even marched in ban-the-bomb demonstrations. One classmate turned up for a march in a tie and tweed jacket. "We don't want people to think peaceniks are all scruffy bohemians," he explained.

'Yet we are angry'

In the ninth grade some of us wrote about peace, democracy and other world issues in a mimeographed, alternative newspaper we put out: Perspective, a forerunner in its own way of rabble. Amazingly, one member of the class of '64 kept his copy for six decades and shared it with the rest of us.

The paper dubbed itself a "journal of high school thought." The opening editorial states it will not be a "journal of attack or destruction" nor of "criticism for the sake of doubt and anarchy." "Yet," it continues, "we are angry."

Perspective's articles include several that complain -- in a high-minded way, quoting authorities such as philosopher John Dewey -- of the school's oppressive rules and limits on freedom of expression.

There is a book review of George Orwell's Animal Farm; a piece on Quebec's intellectual and political ferment which refers to Cité Libre, a magazine edited by a certain Pierre Trudeau; and a cartoon depicting the crumbling pillars of Outremont High, among them "conformity" and the "status quo."

For its second issue, Perspective promises a two-part supplement on nuclear war and a story that asks the question: "Catcher in the Rye, should it have been banned?" J.D. Salinger's famous portrayal of teenage angst was indeed banned at our school. Not many years afterward it was added to the curriculum.

There is also a poem, written by one of the co-editors, a fellow student who went on to become a musician and composer. It shows a mature sensibility for a 14-year-old:

Has left me
Naked in this world
Yet it has revealed
The scattered corpses
And the dead minds
It has shown me
The world of dead people
And it has let me taste

Our rebellion was intellectual and well-mannered. We did not want to overthrow the established order. If we advocated for anything, it was for reason and tolerance.

If we had heroes, they were not Che Guevara and Lenin; they were John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, and the American pragmatists.

It was all very tame stuff compared to the militant confrontations on campuses and in the streets that came a few years later.

The irresistible pull of the big leagues (south of the border)

One of the big revelations of our reunion was how a good part of our class had quickly abandoned Montreal, Quebec, and Canada, shortly after high school, never to return -- except, as one classmate put, as visitors.

A fairly large number of our group went to prestigious U.S. schools straight out of high school -- Yale, Dartmouth, MIT and Tufts. Many others went to graduate school in the U.S. The majority of both groups stayed there.

These days you can find members of our class of '64 in: Texas, New Jersey, New York City, Connecticut, Chicago, and Maryland. As well, there is one classmate now living in Paris (France), and a few in Ontario.

And, oh yes, there is a handful who still live in Montreal and its environs, but only a handful.

Subsequent classes of English Montrealers tended to migrate, en masse, to Toronto. In the 1990s, Wagar High School in the Montreal suburb of Côte Saint-Luc famously chose to hold a school reunion in Toronto. That's where the majority of its graduates had settled.

Our classmates were more attracted to the U.S. than to Ontario's largest city.

In our time, Montreal had not yet lost its status as the biggest city in Canada, and many of us still viewed the Queen City as something of an overgrown provincial backwater, where they rolled up the sidewalks at night.

At graduation, a significant number of our classmates reasoned that if they were going to seek bigger and more exciting opportunities they should look south not west.

Leonard Cohen lives upstairs

During our Zoom reunion we smiled at the thought that we are all now much older than our teachers were in the 1960s.

There was one unfortunate teacher whom some of us boys mercilessly tormented, to the point where three of us got ourselves suspended for a few days in ninth grade.

We were teenagers. We sometimes acted up, rambunctiously. It wasn't political or intellectual protest; it was just being childish. In a photo one classmate produced, the teacher whom we had victimized looked unbelievably young, younger than many of our children today.

Another classmate related how he kept in touch with some of our teachers after high school.

He told us about one who always fascinated us, because of his preternaturally amiable, kind and relaxed manner.

This teacher lived in an older house in downtown Montreal, in a neighbourhood where the homes had mostly been converted to rooming houses. And he was always happy to receive visits from former students, even late at night, and offer tea, sympathy and kindness. The challenges of the bigger world we encountered after high school could be stressful.

During the reunion, we learned that, during the 1960s, this teacher rented out an upstairs apartment in that old, downtown house. His tenant, for a while, was a little-known young poet by the name of Leonard Cohen.

It was just another revelation in a sea of memories and revelations.

Today many of us have children, some of them as old as 50, and grandchildren, and at least one classmate decided to write an extensive memoir for his family, including a long chapter on a high school that was not perfect, but somehow formed us.

Some in our group have experienced the most excruciating grief.

One lost a child to a traffic accident, at which point, he told us, "everything changed." He now devotes himself to the creative pursuit of photography. His crafted and carefully composed photos are not the kind you could shoot with a smartphone.

One classmate who lives in the U.S. stays connected to Montreal by visiting his aging mother. She is one of the Holocaust survivors, the one who was instrumental in founding the Montreal Holocaust Museum.

Getting together in this serendipitous way created a new and entirely surprising esprit de corps among us.

There are few social media users in this group, so we do not have a Facebook page or anything like that. But we do use email, and following the reunion a good many of us cannot stop ourselves from constantly -- obsessively, my wife tells me -- communicating with each other.

If we all get out of this pandemic alive, maybe, someday, we will arrange a face-to-face reunion.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image credit: Archives de la Ville de Montréal/Flickr

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