Peter Swalwell was an accomplished educator—an impassioned teacher, a “change agent” for various Ontario educational policies, and principal of a number of secondary schools within the Peel Board of Education. I knew him near the start of his career at Lorne Park Secondary, both as my history teacher and as staff advisor, first for our school yearbook in 1968/69 (when I was editor-in-chief) and then for the Students’ Council in 1969/70 (when I was president).
I’m not sure whether Peter asked for the job of advisor or whether he was just unlucky enough to get it through some fateful drawing of lots in the staff lounge.
However it came to pass, Peter landed a couple of the more challenging extra-curricular assignments. We were a group of ambitious and idealistic 17- and 18-year-olds, totally convinced of the merit of any goal we might choose to promote.
As it turns out, we actually did have things to learn, but it took an educator like Peter to help us reach that conclusion on our own, through trial and error.
Our 1968/69 yearbook at Lorne Park was not destined to be just any yearbook. For one thing, it had to be the biggest—ever. In preceding and following years, the yearbook was 160 pages. Normal, rational. Ours clocked in at 272.
Peter’s misfortune was that we discovered that an additional 16 pages would only cost $150. The ensuing advertising frenzy brought in just about every business in the region—150 advertisers in total—which made possible a 4-page history of the Lorne Park area, a 13-page section for student art and writing, a 2-page commentary on student unrest in the 60s, photos galore, and, since we opened the gates for our yearbook class reps to create two-page photo/art spreads ($15 for the extra page), an additional 19 class pages.
We weren’t aware at the time, but Peter’s job as advisor included vetting all of this glorious content. Before he passed in 2018 after a battle with cancer, I had a chance to exchange recollections with him about our shared adventures. He did allow that it was “generally well after 11:00 pm through eyes that were barely open” that he carried out his work as chief proofreader.
I am pretty sure Peter also ran invaluable defence for us with the vice-principal. We were not at all into taking the usual group photos on risers in the gym—no row-on-row for this crew! We were renowned for Picture Days during which we completely disrupted normally scheduled classes to pull the members of clubs and teams out into trees, up on goal posts, up on the roof, up on ladders…
Somehow we all survived the adventure—even Peter, who decided (or was he told?) to take on the job of staff advisor to the Students’ Council the following year.
He must have liked working with us. Peter did say in our 2018 exchanges that ours was “the best yearbook in [his] 33 years of seeing yearbooks.” It was long; it was uneven (our hopes of winning The Toronto Telegram’s annual contest for best yearbook were cruelly dashed by our rowdy democratic aesthetics); and its release was delayed until the fall. But it was memorable. Peter called it a “wonderful, creative and accurate portrait of that time and place…. [Everyone’s] personalities, proclivities and presence just leapt right off the page.” So let’s call the yearbook unorthodox, but a win. It was also mere prologue.
Our Students’ Council in 1969/70—the crowning year of the 60s—could not just be your normal council, responsible for school dances and support for a few school clubs. No, it had to be a massive, world-beating operation, engaging each and every student in an impassioned quest to invigorate and expand their educational experiences.
Normally a students’ council has periodic meetings of class reps and a few committees. That’s about it. Ours had six action groups, including Inter-School Relations; Concern and Action in Society; Education and Culture; and Improvement and Maintenance of School Services and Facilities—all running with diverse student input captured through weekly Ideas Sessions open to all comers. Plus four additional departments covering personnel, communications, fundraising, decorating, and publicity.
For us, it was a grand experiment in direct democracy, focused on students exercising their inherent rights to ensure an educational experience second to none. Such, at least, was the theory—a theory (insert heartfelt apology here) that we (ok, especially your humble servant) hammered away on all year—in speeches to student assemblies, in the student newspaper, and in myriad morning broadcasts over the PA system. To the point that, by Christmas, our theory of educational engagement had morphed into a form of philosophical anarchism centred on a proposal that the Students’ Council dissolve in favour of a weekly general forum on ideas to be managed by consensus. Something the administration was not at all keen on supporting.
Thinking back, I imagine my fellow students, the teachers, and especially the school’s administrators must have been so happy to welcome that spring’s graduation ceremonies.
Peter must have been particularly relieved to reach the end of his duties as advisor that year. I suspect it was his steady diplomatic efforts that had allowed council and the administration to make it into 1970 more or less in one piece. Not that we ever gave up the good fight. During the year’s final general assembly, I had a chance to thank everyone for their “patience through all the philosophies we’ve thrown at you,” but was still arguing that “our education is not controlled by us to any real degree but by others. We are not in command of the ship.” Ah, to be young again.
Peter’s exasperated comment to me that June as I headed out into the “real world” included a rather picante reference to my “incredible inability to comprehend reality.” Years later (it did take a while), I had to admit he had a point. I still think our idealism was crucial to many of our accomplishments that year—notably a student-organized community conference on pollution in April 1970—but all that rowing against the current was pretty exhausting for everyone.
Ever the gracious and equitable educator, Peter received my 48-years-hence concession to reality by recalling an outing to Algonquin Park he had shared with a group of 18-year-old friends. One evening, somewhere near starvation, there had been a vigorous debate about how to warm up a can of brown beans on the fire—opened or unopened. Peter carried the day with option no. 2—evidence, he later allowed, that as a student he had always been able to “state a position with authority based on very little knowledge.” But what, I can hear my indefatigable advisor ask, are a few errant beans among old friends?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Craig McNaughton is a retired public policy advisor and programs manager living in Ottawa. He graduated from Lorne Park Secondary School in Mississauga, then obtained his Hons. B.A. in History and Religion from Queen’s University, along with an M.A. in International Affairs from Carleton University. He advised on northern and Indigenous relations at Environment Canada and led a number of divisions and special initiatives at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. He has worked with various non-government organizations, including as executive director for the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and the Movement for Canadian Literacy.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2022 issue.