Guest Commentary

Hon. Kelvin Ogilvie

School Days

Public school is destined to drive you to distraction. The level of individual expression has been dumbed down to the point of confinement and there are enormous opportunities to fail in the school system. It’s very difficult for many boys to avoid the pitfalls unless they have supportive families and can get into programs that really inspire them.

Looking back, I’d say I survived high school. I was small for my grade and subject to a schoolyard environment that today we’d call bullying. I accepted that as my responsibility and quickly learned how to avoid the worst kids. Today administrators might label a kid like me as ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder. I wasn’t evil, but if the teacher wasn’t looking I’d snap erasers around the room. I needed challenges to expend my energy.

I was born in Summerville, Nova Scotia, a village of about 150 people. Summerville had a wharf and a two-room school house with some 35 students. My dad, Carl, sold life insurance, a challenging occupation in rural Nova Scotia in the 1940s.  He met my mother Mabel who lived right across the Avon River in Falmouth. My parents moved us to Bridgewater when I was in Grade Five so their children could receive a better educational opportunity.

I remember strong teachers, all of them women. The Mailman Sisters were impressive. Mrs. Mackenzie taught math in junior high and took no guff. Once in Grade Nine, she dragged a boy away by the ear after he threw his chair and books into the coatroom.  Another teacher, Mrs. Burgoyne, took an interest in me, followed my career, and sent notes every time I recorded an achievement. I’ve kept her letters.

Boys often find their way through sports but my hockey career ended quickly. I recall going to the high school tryout at the rink in Bridgewater in Grade 9. Many of the boys I’d known in pond hockey were there with full equipment – big, strapping athletes. I knew I’d never make it. I remember watching from the penalty box, discouraged as this possibility evaporated.

The curling rink was next door. It occurred to me this was a game you could play for a lifetime so I took it up. In 1959  the team I was on won the Nova Scotia High School Championship and went on to the nationals in Calgary. I’m still a curler and belong to the Wolfville Club.

By Grade Eleven I’d gained all the positive experience I could from high school. So I took Junior Matriculation and at age 16. I entered Acadia University with a scholarship and the savings I’d earned from delivering newspapers, lawn mowing, berry picking and pumping gas. In those days tuition, room and board totaled about $900 a year. I worked hard for those nine hundred dollars. I graduated with honours in chemistry and earned my PhD at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Of course, small-town kids have more opportunities today than we had in the 1950s. I know many people of high character who’ve come from small towns and enjoyed success in life. Yet many of the challenges I faced are still valid today. My advice? Never be inhibited by the colossal inadequacy of the school system. You can make it in life, even if you’re mediocre in hockey.

(Editor’s note: Dr. Ogilvie, an organic chemist, a leading expert in biotechnology, inventor and former president of Acadia University, retired from the Senate in 2017 after serving as chair of the social affairs, science and technology committee)

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