Back in the day

Columnist Jon Willing notes major differences between current school protocols and the ones he experienced as a student

Jon Willing graduated from Grand River Collegiate Institute in Kitchener in 1997. Photo Courtesy Jon Willing


With the arrival of a new school year, it has struck me that it’s been almost 25 years since I graduated high school, and so I’ve reached a point in my life when I’ve earned the honour of uttering, “You know, back in my day…” (although some might say I actually earned that right three years ago when I became a father).


When I joined my decades-long best friend at a restaurant recently to swap stories from our past, I found myself watching a highlight reel in my head of all the strange incidents in high school that somehow didn’t draw heavy criticism like they almost certainly would today.


On that point, two memories come quickly to mind.


The job was simple: Design the booklet directory for our high school.


As members of the yearbook editorial board — which was a full course worth an academic credit at the time — a friend and I set upon the task with the kind of irreverence and slapstick you’d expect from students going through high school in the 1990s.


We plastered the thing with clip art of vegetables and declared that the directory was “brought to you by produce.” Every carrot, pepper and gourd available in that computer program found their way onto the cover pages of the booklet for no reason other than various pieces of produce were available for printing in sizes of our choosing.


The supervising teacher didn’t seem to care.


However, that wasn’t the bizarre part of the project.


The directory was a phone book of all student home phone numbers in the school, and unless they knew how to opt out, everyone in the school community had easy access to the information.


It wasn’t a matter of just scrubbing the numbers from a webpage if a student protested after publication. Those booklets, probably printed several hundred times, were delivered to homerooms and distributed to whoever wanted a copy.


Today, it’s hard to comprehend a scenario where a school would make the personal phone numbers of students widely available, especially when landlines would be directly connected to home addresses. It seems like an unquestionable breach of privacy.

But the most innocent of reasons why someone might need another’s phone number, like to get a ride to school or to clarify a homework assignment, clouded any notion of indecency.


And then there’s this whopper: a teacher went on a March Break vacation with a group of my close friends to the southern U.S. I happened to be on a family vacation that same week, so missed out on what seemed to be a five-star scandal. Who knows if the school administration caught wind of this — certainly the student population did — but the teacher kept on trucking. 


You can imagine what would happen today. The escapade would likely be plastered on social media, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see such a caper land in the newspapers, probably after a teacher disciplinary hearing.


Of course, those were still the days of anyone, including students, being allowed to smoke on school property, right outside a door. Hazing in sports was frowned upon but still strangely accepted as apparently being essential for team-building. Half of the cafeteria menu was food doused in cheese or gravy, and usually both.


It’s possible that I’m simply thinking about these incidents through my inescapable lens of a daily news reporter, knowing full well what kind of stories hit hot buttons these days. Still, 25 years isn’t really that long ago when it comes to the measure of appropriate behaviour for a school. You know, back in my day, it seemed we — schools, teachers, students — all just had a longer leash.