It was the first day of my first year as a teacher. Although I was not familiar with my new job, I was certainly familiar with my surroundings. I was back as a teacher at the same school I had attended from grades eight to eleven, and I'd also done my teaching practicum there. It was home ground and I felt quite at ease.
The school bell rang and as was the custom, I took my place at the door to my grade six classroom. As the pupils moved into the room, I could see at the end of the long corridor a few stragglers dawdling their way slowly along when suddenly the stentorian tones of the principal rang out from the other end. "Get into your rooms," he trumpeted loudly. Without a moment's thought, I hastily turned into the room. Years of hearing that same voice ring out daily had conditioned me (and hundreds of other pupils) to move as soon as the first word was uttered. Wait a minute, I said to myself. I don't have to hurry. I'm the teacher now!
This was but the first of many memorable experiences I had that year. But without a doubt, among the most outstanding were the meetings of the Junior Red Cross (JRC) club. I was quite familiar with JRC, as it had been a regular part of the school routine when I was a student. It had been first organized in the 1920s but came into prominence in World War II when teachers saw the JRC as a socially acceptable way to involve young people in the war effort by sewing and knitting comforts for the soldiers and raising money for such things as hospital supplies. These were lofty aims for Newfoundland students living in relatively poor communities and I have no idea how widespread or effective Junior Red Cross clubs were in accomplishing these aims. But as a pupil in a St. John's school following the war, I was very aware of the JRC as a means of promoting good health, cleanliness and safety. Good habits were reinforced by large, colourful posters with such catchy rhymes as: "When you cough or sneeze or sniff/ Always use a handkerchief," or, "Stop, look and listen before you cross the street./ Use your eyes, use your ears, before you use your feet." However, over and above these aims, in my experience, JRC clubs taught children the basics of democracy - how to nominate others for positions of leadership, hold an election and work with the elected leaders. In the upper elementary grades these were president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer and programme convener.
Junior Red Cross club meetings were usually held on Friday afternoon and were eagerly looked forward to by pupils and teacher alike as a release from the routine of learning; a time when discipline was more relaxed and everyone could enjoy the change of pace.So here I was, a brand new grade six teacher, setting up my first JRC club.
The first meeting took the form of an election of officers. It was an election the like of which I had never before witnessed. The first position to be filled was, of course, that of president. With complete confidence, I explained the proper procedure to be used and asked for nominations, inwardly hoping that at least one or two of the children would have enough courage to speak. To my surprise, I was immediately faced with a forest of waving hands and the task of choosing the pupil privileged to speak first. When the first nomination was proposed and the nominee found agreeable, I dutifully wrote the name on the blackboard and looked around. About half the hands had been lowered.
The next candidate was greeted with cries of "Oh no miss! She's no good." After momentarily quelling the electorate, I wrote the second candidate's name on the board. After three nominations had been proposed I suggested that perhaps this would be sufficient, only to be corrected with, "Oh no miss. Last year we had ten!' Not wishing to subdue their unexpected ardor, I agreed to carry on with the nominations. However, when eight names had been proposed and the nominations were still coming thick and strong, I decided that enough was enough. The candidates were asked to leave the room and the voting began.
"How many people voting for this first person?" I asked. A few supporters timidly raised their hands and everyone looked around the room to see who was voting for whom. I wrote the number of votes on the board after the person's name. The next candidate, a boy, was obviously popular with one section of the class, the boys. However the girls showed little or no interest.
And so the voting continued. It was a large class and I conveniently overlooked the fact that several pupils were voting more than once. Changing one's mind during the voting process was obviously quite acceptable.
Candidate number six was a girl who was apparently a favourite with the whole class. When it was obvious that she had received a majority of votes, the class cheered loudly and showed no interest in continuing with the rest of the voting. However, this boring necessity was soon over and the candidates entered the room amid extremely loud whispers of "You won, Jean!", "Hey Jean, you won." I suggested that perhaps they should applaud the winner which they did quite heartily. (I later discovered that this girl had been president of their JRC club the year before, and although quiet, she was a good student and well-liked by her classmates.)
And so the elections continued for the positions of vice-president, secretary, treasurer and programme convener. The method used in selecting a candidate for nomination was unique. The prospective nominator would stand and look around the room, (there were 46 pupils in that class) surveying the field, as it were. Upon spotting a likely candidate (either his best friend or someone he felt indebted to), he would raise his hand and await recognition. After voicing his nomination he would once again survey the room to measure "audience reaction." If this were favourable, he resumed his seat, satisfied with his part in the affair. If unfavourable, he looked around again for a more promising subject.
It was an unwritten law in the grade six class that if you were nominated by your best friend, you were duty-bound to return the compliment. Whether or not either of you were qualified for the position seemed to make no difference, and it was also immaterial if either of you were elected or not. Once social duties had been discharged the matter appeared to be forgotten.
Tact was a foreign element in grade six elections. When candidates were proposed, the rest of the class frequently felt called upon to state the qualifications of the person in such colourful and enlightening terms as, "Aw, he's no good." "Hey boys, vote for John." "Jim Smith, hahaha!" "Oh no, not her again," and similar expressions of goodwill. This last candidate had been unsuccessfully nominated for two other positions and was finally elected treasurer.
A suggestion that perhaps they should refrain from making comments on the nominees fell on deaf ears. But the other pupils didn't seem to mind, so deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, I let the matter drop.
When nominees for the position of programme convener came up there was quite a bit of bargaining among the members of the class. This position had with it the added prestige of being able to select a small committee to help in arranging programmes, an integral part of all JRC club meetings. One young boy said to his neighbour, "Hey George, if I nominate you can I be on the committee?" Later I noticed this was exactly what happened. I was puzzled to know why being on the committee was such a coveted position. The answer to this question came at the very next JRC club meeting which was held on a Friday afternoon two weeks later.
A few days before the meeting I notified the president and programme convener and on Friday morning I announced to the class in general that there would be a JRC club meeting that afternoon. The programme convener revealed that he had no programme ready, but appeared unconcerned about the lack of time for preparation. Wisely, as I later discovered, I said nothing, inwardly fearing that there would be no programme forthcoming that afternoon. But before the bell rang after the dinner break, the "committee" (of one) was busily at work commandeering members of the class for the afternoon's programme. When protests were made, the committee solved the situation by the time-tested method of asking the teacher.
"Miss, you have to take part in the programme if you're asked, don't you?", this from the committee. "Miss, you don't have to take part if you don't want to, do you?", from the compulsory volunteer. 'Well,"I replied, hoping to avoid any hard feelings on either side, "I can't make you take part, but everyone should do what they can, don't you think?"
As the two parties separated, I heard the committee say, "There. Teacher said you have to do it." And the volunteer said, equally assuredly, "See, I told you. Teacher said we didn't have to." One bright girl asked the committee "Why don't you be on it?", meaning of course the programme, "I'm on the committee," was the reply.
When the minutes of the meeting had been read and the business (choosing a name for the club) was over, the president said the magic words, "the programmer convener will now take over." Everyone settled back with sighs of happy anticipation. "Raymond's going to do it," were the convener's opening and closing remarks. Raymond was the "committee". Raymond hastily consulted the back page of his exercise book and announced, "Donna and Mary will sing a duet." Amid giggles from girlfriends and frankly skeptical looks from the boys in the class, Donna and Mary came forward and after one or two false starts, sang a very acceptable duet which the whole class applauded warmly. "Sandra will now recite." Sandra came forward with her literature book in hand and read a poem from a section of the book which we had not covered in class. Once again, applause ensued, which evolved into a sort of tom-tom beat and had to be stopped by the teacher with, "that will do." The next item was a trio. "Jean, Caroline and Linda will sing." Loud cries from the back of the room caused a very hasty correction in the programme. "Jean, Barbara and Mary will sing."
Although most of the programme consisted of unaccompanied singing - solos, duets and various other combinations, it was all very revealing to me. Most of the performers showed little evidence of stage fright or self-consciousness and were not in the least dismayed by one or two bad starts, having a member of the group miss a few lines here and there or having to change the song at the last minute. One pair of singers, after singing one verse of a song, declared it was no good, an opinion which their audience obviously shared, and decided to change it there and then, which they promptly did, continuing with the performance unabashed and quite self-controlled.
The enthusiasm which went into the elections and meetings of the JRC club in grade six that year would put to shame many a PTA, Home and School Association or similar adult group. I often wonder if, in later years, those eager grade six pupils became like many adults, reluctant to take responsibility or show enthusiasm. I rather think that even the cares of maturity could not entirely dampen the fires of energy and enthusiasm which burned brightly in the JRC club of my first grade six class.