Class by class we would file to the main auditorium and for a couple of hours, watch a selection of 16 millimeter films. The variety was immense, with titles ranging from science, history, human interest and the odd humorous piece. A great human tragedy would occur should you miss Film Day and be made to study as a result of unfinished homework, slumping grades or some type of misbehavior.
The source for most of these films was the National Film Board of Canada. Every week a large carton of movies, pre-selected by the teachers, would arrive at the school. One of the benefits of a "socialist" country was that in certain eras a great deal of money was spent on the arts. In 1939, The National Film Board of Canada was established to produce and distribute audio-visual works which would provoke discussion and debate on subjects of interest to Canadian audiences and foreign markets. Exploring the creative potential of the audio-visual media, it would achieve recognition by Canadians and others for excellence, relevance and innovation.
I will never forget a certain Friday when we were in grade 8. We all filed down to the auditorium after lunch, ready for a good afternoon of film watching. Our teacher, Arthur Freeman, had already threaded the film projector by the time we arrived. The lights were turned off, the machine started rattling away and we were off. One of the films that day was entitled "Walking". I'm sure when Mr. Freeman ordered it, he thought that it was a short film extolling the benefits of good healthy exercise. As it turned out, it probably was. Animator Ryan Larkin used an artist's sensibility to illustrate the way people walk. He employed a variety of techniques - line drawing, color wash, etc. - to catch and reproduce the motion of people afoot. The springing gait of youth, the mincing step of the high-heeled female, the doddering amble of the elderly - all were registered with humor and individuality to the accompaniment of a special sound track, without words. Released in 1968, the 5 minute short film begins with a silhouette of a man cast against the strains of a nylon string guitar. The film had some very current music, sounds which we would not have heard much in those days.
After the movie began, Mr. Freeman would often leave his post at the projector and walk to the back of the auditorium. This was a much better vantage point from which to survey the entire class and watch for any disturbances that might occur. At about the minute and a half mark, as the soundtrack started to gather steam, a male walker entered the screen from the left. One of this particular fellow's distinctives was that he had not one stitch of clothing on. There he was, fully nude, pendulum swinging in the breeze, nothing on but a smile on his face. Let me assure you that by now every person in that room was paying very close attention! At this point Mr. Freeman began running towards the projector. He arrived just after a female participant had made her appearance from the right hand side of the frame. In a similar state of undress, large headlights proudly announcing her entrance, she bounced across the screen. Even though the movie was an early form of animation, there was still enough detail for us to get the point. Reaching the projector, Mr. Freeman quickly covered the lens with his hand. The darkened room masked his ever reddening face as he blurted out, "I think we have had enough walking for today . . . class dismissed . . . you can all go home."
We sat there a little stunned. He was obviously embarrassed that this film had slipped by on his watch and more than a little flustered. Nudity was not something that we saw everyday on the screen at Prairie and while we were more than happy to get the rest of the day off, more than one of us was left wondering how the rest of the movie might have unfolded. It was unusual to see Mr. Freeman rattled, but it wasn't the first time.
Arthur Freeman and his family moved to Prairie in the summer of 1960, from Bridgeton, New Jersey, to teach at Prairie High School. Born in the Boston, Massachusetts area, he met his wife Katherine at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. Teaching first in the High School and later becoming principal, Arthur's love for his students was evident from his very first class. He later accepted the position of teaching English, Language Arts, Social Studies and Bible to Grade Seven and Eight.
I don't remember too much about the older Freeman children, but I do have a memory of an infamous story which has gone down in Prairie lore. Evidently, the Freeman boys ran their own brewing company. The liquid which was the object of this endeavor was none other than Hires Root Beer (or root pop as Cathy's Grandpa referred to it) The staff store sold kits for brewing your own root beer and the Freeman lads took it to one more level. Mixing up the ingredients in the bathtub, Joel and Steve would bottle the elixir, placing a raisin in the bottom to aid in the aging process and give the liquid refreshment a little extra oomph. One year, my Father, who was Principal at the time, received one of the bottles as a gift. The bottle in question must have contained a powerful concoction, because to Mr. Freeman's great embarrassment, and to his boys perverse delight the bootleg bottle exploded in our pantry.
Arthur kept a couple of large bulletin boards which he would continually update with newspaper and magazine clippings of current world events. His grasp of history, as well as the present day, allowed him to teach with a balance few teachers seemed to possess. He, along with my own Father, instilled in me a love of news and current affairs and fostered a desire to create an expansive world view. Just because we were from a small town in the middle of the prairies didn't mean we shouldn't and couldn't know what was going on in the world. He would engage us in intelligent adult level conversation, always expressing interest in what was going on in the rest of our lives. He loved to have fun and his quick wit and sharp mind made his classes a great experience. There were limits however, as there should be, and we learned very quickly that there were certain lines that you dare not cross.
This was brought home to us very early in Grade Seven when an enterprising student, or perhaps an art hopeful, spent a good deal of time modifying the cover of one of our textbooks. The book in question was entitled, "Words Are Important" and this student had taken great care in trying to match the font color and style and re-christened his book, "Words Aren't Important". Arthur did not find this amusing in the very least. To him, words were very important and he knew that they would be some of the tools and building blocks we would use later in life to carve out our futures. He went on a tear in front of the whole class on the disrespect this student had shown, not only to school property, but to the very ethos of words. I will never forget the passion with which he delivered that speech!
In Grade Eight, one of our assignments was to write 4 separate, 2500 word papers on the major world religions; Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. This was a daunting assignment and for some very strange reason I took to this like a duck to water. I went into major research mode searching out books at the Prairie and Town libraries. Dad helped me find relevant books from his own personal library. I scratched out the assignments on ruled loose leaf paper and my Mother did her best to interpret my hieroglyphics, kindly typing them out, giving them a professional, polished look. Papers handed in, I was astonished to receive an A+ on each one, due in no small part to the neat presentation I'm sure. One of the aspects that stands out was the encouraging words that Mr. Freeman scrawled at the top of the papers in his red pen. His writing alone took some deciphering, looking something like a doctor's scribble. Handing me one of the papers and looking me square in the eye, he said, "Steve, you can really write . . . and then he paused . . . when you apply yourself." With a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face, he moved on to the next student. For the remainder of my school years, it was the applying of oneself that became my Achilles heel, but in some ways I always found comfort and felt some degree of confidence in those life affirming words from Mr. Freeman. Utilizing the classic Plain English Handbook, his careful teaching on grammar, adverbs, adjectives, nouns, and proper punctuation have helped me in writing ad copy, multi-media scripts and marketing materials over the years, and given countless students a solid foundation as they went on in further studies and occupations.
Arthur loved colorful posters and would decorate the classroom according to season. He would allow us to order posters from a company called Giant Posters. Animal, sports and scenic shots in all kinds of sizes could be ordered several times a year. He would handle all the paper work and distribute the posters when they arrived. I remember ordering a giant Minnesota Vikings poster and presenting it to my Grandpa Norbo as a Christmas present. In either a show of love for me, or as an indication of his great loyalty to the Vikings, he hung that poster up in his bedroom where it remained for another 15 years until his death.
In 1963 a book was published, entitled The Cross And The Switchblade. It told the true story of David Wilkerson's first five years in New York where he ministered to disillusioned youth, encouraging them to turn away from the drugs and gang violence they were involved with. The book became a best seller, with more than 15 million copies distributed in over 30 languages. In 1970, a film adaptation was released, starring Pat Boone as David Wilkerson and Erik Estrada as Nicky Cruz, the teen gang member whose life was transformed by Wilkerson's work. By the time we hit grade 8, many of us had either read the book, seen the movie or both. While the point of the story is one of redemption and transformation, I think there were a number of us boys who were quite enamored with the portrayal of gang culture and the whole underbelly of the story. Whether this was the impetus for what happened next, I can't be sure, but it was certainly in our consciousness.
One day some of the "tougher" guys in our class decided it was time that we as the big kids on the block do something to assert this lofty position. During the morning recess, several guys manned the door of the boy's bathroom and would only allow other grade eight students in to use the facilities. I'm not sure exactly where we thought the underclassmen would find relief, but the tactic seemed to work and we all returned to class as the bell sounded. That afternoon, the "gang" resumed its terrorism tactics and the guards took their positions on the inside of the bathroom, once again only allowing grade eight boys access. Towards the end of recess, there was a knock on the door. "Who is it? . . . Grade 8 turf", was the response from the inside. The knock had now turned into pounding and the same call was issued. "Grade 8 turf . . . who is it?" In an instant the door burst open. There stood Arthur Freeman, veins bursting out of his skull, nose as red as Rudolf's, sweat dripping down his face, fire flashing in his eyes, demanding to know exactly what was going on. He had simply needed to use the facilities himself before class resumed and had encountered resistance when he tried to open the door. To say all hell broke loose would be a gross understatement. Every one of us grade eight boys were rounded up and ordered into a separate classroom. We were then given what can only be described as a well deserved tongue lashing about respect, abuse of younger students, rebellion, selfishness, disobedience and anything else that came to his mind; all things we needed to hear! I'm reminded of the scripture which makes reference to righteous anger. We saw some of it that day. Punishment was meted out and the short lived flirtation of a bunch of grade eight students with the gang life came to an abrupt end.
Arthur Freeman had one other quality for which I have the deepest respect. On the birthday of every one of his former students, he would send an envelope containing a bookmark with a personalized greeting and verse. He did this until the student got married or turned 21. When I think about this, it still boggles my mind. Talk about being faithful in the little things!
The world needs more teachers like Arthur Freeman. Teachers who know what their role is in a students life. Teachers who are not afraid to uphold principles. Teachers who instill personal responsibility and a love of learning in their students. Teachers who will not back down from what they know to be right.
Arthur Freeman passed away on March 19th, 2009 at the age of 91, 33 days after the passing of his loving wife of 65 years. I don't claim to know a lot about heaven and what it may or may not be like. There is one thing I do know however, and that is this; The streets of gold that Arthur Freeman now walks on . . . are not Grade 8 turf!
© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.