Their names were suggestive of their time and place. Those of the twenty-one girls tilted more to traditional choices, including three Margarets, three Joans, and two Kathys. Some of the fourteen boys had modern, saintless names — Daryl, Murray, Wayne — while Gord and Bruce were established Scottish Canadian favourites. Officially, based on a test and their standing in grade 8, these thirty-five grade 9 students who entered Etobicoke Collegiate Institute in September 1960 were called the Selected Class. Unofficially, they were known as the Brain Class.
The Brain Class had two Kens, one of them Ken Dryden — the future hockey star, lawyer, politician, professor, and author. In his ninth book, The Class: A Memoir of a Place, a Time, and Us, Dryden returns to his high school in what was then still a suburb west of downtown Toronto and to the boys and girls with whom he spent every school day for five years. (This was back when Ontario high schools tacked on an extra year, grade 13.)
Summing up a country, a burgeoning community, and a class of smart kids as they have evolved from 1960 to now is a daunting project. First there was the job of excavation. Dryden had heard that two classmates had died; he would discover that the correct number was four. The girls, as he calls them, were especially difficult to find, since almost all of them had taken their husbands’ names when they married. A more serious problem was that Dryden hadn’t kept in touch with his cohort, so he was renewing relationships that had been dormant since graduation fifty-five years earlier.
But, for him, there was something irresistible about the subject. For decades, he has been preoccupied with both education (see his 1995 book, In School: Our Kids, Our Teachers, Our Classrooms) and the changing nature of Canada (see Becoming Canada: Our Story, Our Politics, Our Future, from 2010). Now he would attempt to retrace the steps of the Brain Class, as everyone made their way through that larger landscape. Of the twenty-six classmates he located, he Zoomed with one person. He spoke with most one-to-one on the phone, for a total of ten to twelve hours each.
Dryden comes to this work with some important advantages. He writes well, with a vivid, punchy style. He has some tics, especially a flurry of short sentences or semi-sentences at the end of paragraphs, culminating in the shortest line of all. His summation of the oft-told fate of the Avro Arrow is typical: “The Arrow is what we had in us to be. Now it was gone. Because of the Americans.” If Dryden’s rhythms become predictable, they are never less than serviceable.
He’s also a close observer: Gord Homer had “the kind of red hair, not too light or too bright, that punctuated his looks but didn’t dominate them.” Describing the “shit-disturbers” who sat in the back corner of the classroom and mostly ignored the teacher, Dryden notes shrewdly that “because disruption is all about timing,” they had to do some selective listening to know the right minute to act out.
In the early 1960s, the student council president was always a boy, and girls playing basketball were considered too fragile to run more than half of the court. So women from the Brain Class became nurses and teachers, not doctors and academics. Dryden’s account of a girl “star” is acute and devastating. She had to know most of the answers but not raise her hand every time. She needed a sense of humour, but she couldn’t rival the boys in funniness: “Being better at answers was mostly acceptable, being better at opinions was not.” A girl could outshine the boys at certain subjects, but not math, physical education, and maybe science. “Boy stars could get things wrong and remain stars. Girl stars couldn’t. It’s the way it was.”
“Every person’s story is a life and times,” Dryden writes. He has a lot to say about the times, and I was intermittently engaged by the broad strokes with which he paints decades and developments: Canadians were preoccupied by highways and roads in the ’30s, by education after the war, by health care in the ’60s. The Brain Class — one or two generations away from farmers or an urban working class where life had barely changed for years — was aimed at the future. Central to that future was Etobicoke and the mushrooming outskirts like it: “The suburbs would offer people in working-class jobs that paid middle-class wages a middle-class life of houses and cars and TVs and washing machines and better schools, longer lives, and more time and more opportunity.”
What did the Brain Class do with their good educations, long lives, and greater opportunities? Dryden offers periodic updates of individual successes, disappointments, job changes, and moves, as his peers advanced from high school to university to early, middling, and later careers. As a devoted reader of the Globe and Mail ’s paid death announcements, I was fascinated but ultimately frustrated by these pocket summaries. The outer events are here, but at one point I wrote in the margin, “I still don’t have much sense of their individual personalities.”
Kathy McNab spent most of her life in Sudbury, for example. When reading about her, I jotted, “More Sudbury than Kathy.” Murray McKenzie had various big jobs at Mount Sinai Hospital, in Toronto, before becoming the president of North York General Hospital. I learned more about those institutions than I did about Murray as a person. Although I reminded myself that the subtitle of the book is A Memoir of a Place, a Time, and Us, it’s clear that Dryden finds delineating place and time more congenial than bringing his classmates to life.
A notable exception (and my favourite part of the book) is his gallery of thumbnail portraits of the Brain Class’s teachers. Dryden concedes it’s odd that they are the most memorable part of his and his classmates’ school days, but they were the authority figures at the front of the room, trying, sometimes vainly, sometimes eccentrically, to interest teenagers in Latin or physics. The ’60s were, as Dryden writes, a good time to be an educator, and most of his teachers sound impressively dedicated. Deftly leavening his earnestness with humour, he presents Mrs. Coupe, whose eyes sometimes filled with tears as she read aloud from their grade 12 English anthology; Mr. Orton, another English teacher, loud and theatrical, who one day, without changing his expression, held his bulging briefcase over his head and emptied its contents onto his desk and the floor; Miss McKinnon, who persisted in speaking only French to her baffled grade 9 students; and Mr. Smith, their Russian teacher at a time when everything connected to Russia was menacing and suspicious. Mr. Smith gave each of his students a Russian name and job description they never forgot: “Chief Revolutionary and Underminer of Party Spirit,” “Official Party Mouthpiece,” “Head Collector of Party Propaganda (homework).”
Sometimes the teachers’ devotion extended beyond the classroom, as in the case of Mrs. Botterell, who taught history and wore pearls and cashmere. When Lorna Casey’s father died in grade 13, Mrs. Botterell showed up at the funeral home — much to Lorna’s surprise. Ten years later, when Lorna’s husband died, leaving her with a five-month-old baby, Mrs. Botterell made the two-hour trip from Toronto to her former student’s house in Gravenhurst.
Brief as these sketches were, these people lived for me, as did a few of Dryden’s classmates. Understandably, the most fully drawn, multi-dimensional character in the class is Ken Dryden himself. Wry, self-effacing (but not too much), proud of his achievements (but not too much), he’s okay with describing himself as “stupid” (leaving the Canadiens in 1973 to article in Toronto) or admitting when he “got it wrong” (not staying in Montreal after he retired from hockey).
Wayne Yetman is another memorable member of the class. A dreamer, unsure of himself, he was the unlikely son of cautious, working-class Newfoundlanders and wore his green leather ECI jacket unzippered in every weather to look more virile. Yetman never stopped marching to his own drum. A spirited writer, he decided he wasn’t smart enough to become a professor. A marathon runner, he finished thirty-sixth out of sixty-seven in the 1976 Olympics.* A man who swore he would never marry, he did at the age of forty. It’s Yetman’s own words that lift him off the page.
There are tantalizing glimpses of other classmates: Pat Gregory, whose lifelong interest in snakes stretched from his boyhood to an emeritus professorship at the University of Victoria; Lisa Sweeting, who got involved with two driven, artistic men and brought up her children without much in the way of a plan, until, at almost forty, after vowing she would never become a teacher, she became one; Cheryl Beagan, who struggled for decades with her violent childhood; Daryl Browne, who took a long, winding path to adolescent psychiatry.
Yet they remain glimpses, with their resumés more prominent than their personalities. There’s a good book struggling to get out in The Class, but Dryden keeps smothering it with institutional and sociological mini-histories. If, rather than talking on the phone, he had Zoomed with his old classmates or, even better, met them in person once again, he would have gotten valuable visual information from their hesitations, pained looks, shifts in position, smiles. That might have led to deeper conversations and more telling vignettes. Perhaps he was too shy (and it’s worth noting that the sexual revolution, surely a big development for kids who started high school in 1960, goes almost unnoticed in these pages). Perhaps his interest was simply more in sociology and politics than in the foibles and contradictions that make us unique.
* The print version of this review incorrectly stated the number of competitors at the 1976 Olympic Marathon. There were sixty-seven, not thirty-seven. The magazine regrets the mistake.
Katherine Ashenburg is a novelist in Toronto and the author of The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die.