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I needed no-fail policy in Grade 7

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I should have failed Grade 7, even though I had an average in the 90s.

All the talk about no-fail and social promotion has me remembering back in the day. One of the things I’ve been writing recently is that there is a widespread but unwritten rule that kids in Manitoba don’t fail, that they move on to the next grade with their peer group regardless of academic performance and achievement.

Also, kids don’t skip grades anymore either.

I skipped Grade 4, and I’ve never met an adult who skipped a grade who believed in retrospect that it had been a good thing.

But back to 1959, and the year I should have failed.

In Ontario in the 50s and 60s, kids either passed or failed their year, from kindergarten through Grade 13. Failing one course cost children an entire year of their lives, the entire grade to be repeated, while their peer group moved on.

My teacher in Grade 7 was Mr. M, it was a strong academic class, and with an average in the low 90s I wasn’t the top student in the class.

I won’t get into Mr. M, maybe one of these days......I still remember what it was like to sit staring straight forward, while he stood at the back of the room, and if you didn’t give the right answer, Mr. M would tiptoe up while every other kid held his or her breath, and hit you over the head with a hardcover book, really hard.....oh, wait, I said I’d leave that for another day.

Anyway, in those days both spelling and handwriting were core subjects, marked out of 50 rather than 100, but core subjects all the same.

And Mr. M told me angrily that my handwriting was abysmal, and that I deserved to fail handwriting and therefore my entire year. A year out of your life, because the teacher didn’t like your handwriting. And as I started to snivel and wondered how a terrified 11-year-old would ever explain that to my parents, Mr. M told me he was cutting me a huge break and giving me 26 out of 50 on handwriting, even though I absolutely didn’t deserve it and should have been held back.


I’ll let the debate over fail and no-fail rage. I just remember what it was like when kids failed a year.

I guess in Toronto word just spread over the summer about who wasn’t going on to the next grade, but when I lived out in a small town, the weekly would sell a lot of papers by listing each school in town, with grade-by-grade of all the kids who’d passed. And you’d grab the paper and see whose name was missing.

I remember a lot of years that there were kids in my class who were a year or two older — we’re talking elementary school now, as young as Grade 3. I don’t ever remember getting beaten up by anyone whose age was appropriate to the grade, but I remember that a lot of those kids who had failed two or even three years of school were almost invariably bullies. They were so much older than the rest of us, they’d been labelled stupid and were treated as such by the system — no diagnoses of learning disorders or special needs back then, resource teachers in the 1950s, virtually no teachers who’d even been to university — and they took it out on the rest of us.

When I got into senior high, say Grades 11 to 13, I can’t recall any classmates being two or three years older than everyone else — they’d pretty much all dropped out when they turned 16 back in Grade 8 or 9.

And in a seamless segue.......

I was at Principal Sparling School this morning, making another pleasurable visit to Mr. Salfert’s class, where the tables turned and I was interviewed for a class project.

When I came into the school, kids still outside, I saw teacher after teacher with the whole day still ahead, and every one of them was smiling....not a Stepford smile, but a real smile, as though the day ahead with the kids was evoking pleasurable anticipation.

I’ve made no secret of it, I believe that Principal Sparling principal Lionel Pang is one of the gems of the public school system, and that school is incredibly lucky to have him.

And enirely unrelated......

I’ve been on the Toronto Star website each day looking for news of the possible community college strike in Ontario. Professional interest, it goes without saying. The colleges have said they won’t strike until mid-February at the earliest, but I’m following it closely.

The colleges have offered eight per cent over four years, but there are issues around working conditions, and the employer’s right to impose any working condition not spelled out in the collective agreement. But the strike vote received only 57 per cent support from the college faculties, which I’d think is not great news for the union.

So I watch with interest.

But my primary and quite selfish concern is that the Ontario College Athletic Association includes a handful of smaller universities, including my kids’ school, and that strike threat could be implemented just about the time that volleyball playoffs are scheduled to start. Both teams are in the top four in their divisions, and this is child the elder’s last season.

And now for something completely different.......

Winnipeg’s own Jonas C, now living in Toronto, wrote enthusiastic support for my blog earlier this week in which I ranted about how so totally devastated I would be if The Border didn’t come back next fall for a fourth season and resolve last Thursday’s cliffhanger ending.

Two things Jonas C pointed out: first, I’m mistaken that ICS headquarters is on Toronto island (I thought the show used the airport building as the exterior of the HQ), it’s actually on Cherry Beach. My bad, it’s getting on 25 years since I ran and cycled along Cherry Beach, the Boardwalk, and The Leslie Street Spit.

His second quibble was that I didn’t include in the cliffhanger elements the fate of Slade the ICS computer nerd, a character of whom Jonas C is quite fond.

As you’ll all recall, Slade is enamoured of Khali the new female agent, and it’s not clear if she just kind of thinks he’s amusing, or likes him platonically, or if there’s a possibility of more there. Meanwhile, Slade has been offered big bucks by the Secret Service’s shadowy, creepy version of Cigarette Smoking Man to move to the States and play with the latest technology toys and gadgets.

The possible romance is certainly a matter of considerable suspense, but I saw nothing cliffhangerish about Slade’s career decision: he’s Canadian, he’s smitten, he’s being asked to put money ahead of heart and homeland....he’ll do the right thing.

And I’ve gone too long without ranting about soccer......

What is it with 12-year-old boys and gestures? Do they teach this one that annoys me, especially in 12-year-old boys developmental, the competitive level from which most of next year’s 13-year-old premier players are drawn?

This gesture seems to be almost the exclusive province of 12-year-old boys playing developmental level. Call a foul on them, and suddenly we’re in drama class. They extend their arms out from the body, elbows slightly bent, palms up, and then they move their arms and palms up and down in unison, while twisting their faces into absolute bewilderment and anguish, and beseeching the entire park or arena with "What??? What???? What is he calling on me?"

I invariably tell them to knock it off, but after they’ve done it a few times, I lay down the law and tell them that they’re showing contempt for my calls and inviting the entire buiding to join in showing contempt, and then the next time, I card a kid for dissent. One of those coaches in spiffy track suits told me there’s nothing wrong with the gesture — I beg to differ.

And the other one that really gets me, and this is always adults, adult spectators and adult players, who do the routine of screaming at me, while repeatedly pointing two fingers at their own eyes and then at me. I got that a few weeks ago, 15-year-old girls playing, very low skills, the ball went out of play at U of M at least 150 times in 60 minutes, and on one of those 150 occasions and in insignificant circumstances, the father completely loses it over which team was awarded the ball for an inconsequential kick-in. I finally had to get the coach and referee liaison to calm down the guy, while, of course, his daughter watched.


It took a while in indoor soccer, but I have my first threat of a formal complaint. It was 15-year-old boys, very rough game typical of the testosterone-overendowed lads of that age, and after an incident on the floor, I suddenly had the one bench screaming at the players on the floor, then the players screamed back, and both benches started in on each other, the adult coaches spraying kerosene on the fire instead of getting their kids under control. I stopped the match, told everyone to knock it off, take a deep breath and calm down, and let’s get through the final three minutes without anyone’s getting hurt.

And after everyone calms down, this one kid who’d been in the middle of everything and was already on a yellow walks towards the opponent’s bench, clapping his hands towards them, laughing, taunting, challenging, and I give him the second yellow and then the red.

We get the match done, and suddenly I’ve got an adult screaming exceptionally ride vulgarities across from the spectator side and challenging a coach to go at it in the parking lot. A referee liaison comes up and says it’s the father of the kid I tossed, and says the coach called the boy ‘a freak’, and that the dad is justified in what he’s doing. And says the team is filing a formal complaint.

All I’d heard during the match was a wall of noise. The timekeeper heard profanity, though nothing she could attribute to any individual, and she hadn’t heard the word ‘freak’.

So I told the coach to stay in the dressing room for a few minutes, told the RL to get the dad out of the building, into his car, and off the property before we had serious trouble.

Haven’t heard anything further yet. For all these threats of formal complaints that coaches and parents make, the only one that’s led to an investigation, though not to a disciplinary hearing, was two years ago in an 11-year-old girls game, when the coach who’d lost 5-0 spend three months trying to get me kicked out of youth soccer for failing to notice that the husband of the opponent’s bench mom had brought over a chair to keep her company during the match.


OK, gotta go now and commit some journalism, need to get out of here on time ‘cause recreational volleyball starts tonight.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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