It was a school for boys, an institution with a century of credibility in an enclave of privilege serving the children of successful middle-class parents. I thought the Headmaster and his team had seen something sophisticated in me when I interviewed for the post, but time revealed they were seeking a French teacher who understood boys first, and French second. I was working class, loved the outdoors, and I spoke French. That was good enough for them. Middle school boys have been known to frustrate passionate Parisian purists who never seem to understand the concept of taking grammar with a sporting grain de sel. In retrospect I think the Headmaster’s search team, frustrated by the annual prayer wheel of French applicants, was looking for a lumberjack with a modicum of gaulois.
Not surprisingly, my new students were pretty much exactly like boys everywhere. They detested drudgery but would gladly do a Hades of grammar if they were promised a game of murder ball. I had never been in a school going from primary to preuniversity, and it did not take me long to realize what an absolutely perfect idea it was.
As part of my assignment, I was entrusted with coaching duties for the Under-12 hockey team. Think Grade 6. As per school policy, all four hockey teams at the academy had two coaches. As I was a neophyte in the culture, the Head of Studies for the Upper School was assigned to be my mentor. As a veteran of two decades teaching, I didn’t think I needed a shepherd but old school is old school, and the extra hands made for a lighter load.
I shall call him James. He was a wise and witty Gandalf. He embodied old school protocol and standard of practice in everything he did. He lorded by example, and whenever necessary, with strict instructions. The boys learned how to manipulate a knife and fork, dress properly and hold the door for the next person. Hockey practices ran smoothly not merely because drills were planned, but also because of the simple civility that was always expected of the boys. There is something to be said for an unwritten code of behaviour.
We were met in the lobby of the arena by Harry, the opposing coach. He and James exchanged backslapping hellos. They had known each other for years. After introductions, Harry requested that we take it easy on his team. “This is a building year,” he smiled. James’ signature booming laughter resonated in the brick foyer. “Oh, yes, we’ve heard that one more than once before, Sir,” James said. He called everybody Sir, and when he was speaking about me to the boys, he spoke about Sir, as if it were my Christian name.
“I’m not fooling! Honest,” said Harry.
The puck was dropped and our first line made short work of setting up, making the pass and slapping it into the net. It had been too easy. “Time-out!” James called the boys to the bench. He suggested we use the game as a practice in passing the puck. The boys gathered round, and were instructed that the next goal would be scored only after they successfully completed three intentional passes while in the opposition zone. If any one of the three passes were interrupted, our boys had to start again to count three successive passes. Only then did they have permission to shoot the puck.
Predictably, the boys won the next face-off, penetrated and scored on their first shot. James motioned to me; I nodded. I called for a line change, but held everyone at the door for a message. I told the first line to move up into the bleachers behind the players’ bench. They had ignored the game-plan, so they were suspended. One boy began to utter protestations but he was shushed by his linemates. They wanted to preserve the faint-hope clause.
The second line took to the ice. They crossed the blue line and set up for three passes. After twice resetting from zero they completed the assignment. With a score of three nil, the third line promised, on their own, to raise the bar to four passes. Spontaneously the boys were turning a highly forgettable rout into a skill-building exercise.
A voice from the detention row behind the players’ bench uttered a plea. James turned and froze him with a stare. They knew if they wished to play, they should not ask. The tension passed. James returned to his coaching duties. At first timidly, then with conviction, the suspended line began cheering for the team and counting out the passes. They were soon shouting, “One, …two, …three,” and so on, starting over at “One, …” every time the chain was broken. They were making the best of their incarceration.
At the conclusion of the second period, James called the suspended players down to the bench and held a conference. “Raise your hand if you have seen something happening on the ice.” Up went ten hands. He called on three of the players, each of whom alluded to teamwork in one way or another. “What do you think Sir noticed?” he said, turning to me.
“The helmets are turning,” I replied. “Why is that, Everybody?”
The chorus clamoured, “They’re finding somebody to…” “…seeing who is open.” “…checking where to pass.” “…planning their pass.” “…who’s free.”
James let out another booming laugh in the vacant barn. “We are playing hockey even when we don’t have the puck, lads. OK, the first line can start the third period,” he announced.
The game ended with an official score of five nil (the maximum spread allowed to be displayed on a scoreboard), and the pass count had gone into double digits. In that otherwise meaningless game we had seen the boys do what children do best. They had invented a new game in the effortless manner known only to children. If only we could bottle the magic and pass it on.
Next game we were to meet a school north of the city. They were known to recruit students who showed promise in sports. Their players were all at the top of the age group and they could skate. Not only were they were the only undefeated team in the league, no one had scored so much as a single goal against them in the season.
It was a light-hearted dressing room. At the prospect of meeting the best team in the league our boys were giddy, wishing all the best to our goalie. James and I bet the boys a pizza lunch that our diminutive captain would be the star of the game. There were no takers. It was a happy tumult of the condemned, all together looking forward to a drubbing.
After announcing the lines, I challenged the boys to smudge the opponent’s perfect record. I challenged them to put at least one puck into their net. Deafening laughter, and shouts trampolined from wall to wall. “OK, Sir! You bet! No problem!”
Our lads won the game.
The day those twelve-year-olds won the impossible game was an epiphany for me. I remember it as the day the helmets turned. I relearned that day, that everyone is a learner. There are no exceptions, and it is always true. What had happened was entirely natural but it rarely jumps out at you. In the first game we had defined the boundaries, set expectations and imposed a consequence. Dumb luck and the keen ardour of children playing had done the rest. We had constructed the perfect learning laboratory. The elements of motivation, risk-taking free of fear, responsibility to help, encouragement to push past the comfort zone, reward for improvement, and the joy of physical activity with a tribe of your own were all present. In the first game they had acquired a skill in a controlled experiment, and in the second they seemed to have more time to decide what to do with the puck. They had figured something out, and everything had changed.
Mastering the order of operations in mathematics, or three ways of saying hello in French, or the art of a round-off back hand-spring in gymnastics requires profound scaffolding in the architecture of the brain. Getting there involves a mysterious and variable sequence of mind-body events. The key is found within, but it is not the same key for everyone. Stumbling over the roots and rocks along the path, James and I had accidentally kicked open the rabbit hole.
Wonderland is always present. There are no exceptions, and there are no unqualified learners. I had been lucky. Students constantly try to teach us. Sometimes we don’t notice. Sometimes a team of voices breaks through.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hugh McKechnie, a retired teacher, worked in Catholic separate, public and private schools in Ontario for 37 years. He lives in Newmarket, ON.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Jan/Feb 2015 issue.