Some Nanaimo classrooms ‘worst the inspector had ever seen’

"In some…classrooms…I found it almost impossible to read from the back of the room what was written on the blackboard or to read what the pupils had written in their notebooks…"

Is it that long ago that Sunday was meant to be for church service and day of rest? Attitudes and lifestyles certainly have changed.

The Sabbath was one of several issues that faced the Nanaimo School board in January 1936. It made front page headlines when the Nanaimo School Board banned Sunday (Sabbath) Day gym practice. Apparently, during the illness of the regular janitor, an unspecified youthful organization had been charging participants to use a school gym on Sundays, and a senior team facing a championship had been practising on Sunday evenings because they couldn’t get sufficient time during the week. The board unanimously ruled

that, championship or no, "the Lord’s Day would be observed as far as the school gymnasium was concerned".

On the issue of providing free textbooks to some students, Mayor John Barsby’s firm response was equally inflexible, even remarkable, by today’s standards: "If people can spend their money in beer parlours, we are not going to use the ratepayers’ money to buy books for their children." He was wholeheartedly supported by the board. The parents in question were not identified, nor was the board’s source of information regarding their drinking habits.

The matter of heated showers for gym students was put on hold until costs and labour could be worked out. (This was during the Depression, remember.) Not quite so easy to decide was an application for damages from Dick Lafeck, who claimed to have been injured while playing on the North Ward school grounds. The legal question was whether or not the boy had been on school or city property when he injured his thigh to the extent that he’d required surgery. The matter was deferred for further medical and legal information.

On a more positive level, the trustees unanimously voiced their support for continuation of a new commercial course.

Then it was on to the bluntly worded report of A.R. Lord, school inspector, who obviously didn’t mince words: "In visiting your schools for the first time I am forcibly impressed by certain aspects which would appear to me to be in urgent need of immediate attention. In this connection I do not include the general physical condition of your elementary school buildings, which, as I am sure you are aware, is far below that usually found in communities commensurate in size and importance with Nanaimo.

1. The lighting arrangements are unsatisfactory in all your elementary schools. In some, however, they are passable, but in certain rooms in the Thomas Hodgson School and in the Middle Ward School and in all the rooms in the South Ward, lighting conditions are the worst that I have ever seen. In some of these class-rooms at two o’clock in the afternoon I found it almost impossible to read from the back of the room what was written on the blackboard or to read what the pupils had written in their notebooks for me. The effect upon the pupils’ eyesight is so serious that immediate installation of electric light [!] in South Ward School and the correction of the present conditions in the other schools is imperative. In this connection I may point out that these buildings are of such an unusual design that the services of an expert in lighting will be necessary to secure satisfactory results. An amateur would, in all probability, merely cause you useless expense.

2. For the second time in 20 years’ experience in inspecting schools I have found double desks very generally used. With your present enrolment every child could be provided with a single desk by cutting down all double to single size and by purchasing about 20 new single desks. In this day and generation it is scarcely necessary to point out the unfortunate physical and moral results arising from the use of double desks. [I leave it to readers to make of that statement what they will.-TW]

3. In practically every elementary class-room in your system there are some pupils who are unable to profit by the ordinary type of classroom instruction. The majority of these children are decidedly below normal mentality but a few are pupils from foreign countries with an adequate education in their native language but not, say, English… In both of these groups the solution is the employment of a specially trained teacher who would give these children an opportunity to progress along the lines where profit is possible. The employment of such a teacher would, in the aggregate, save money for your district through permitting the regular teachers to devote their time to normal pupils and thus reduce retardation.

4. The Schools Act provides that the Union Jack should be flown at all schools in the Province. I am informed that this practice has not been followed in Nanaimo for a number of years. I am also informed by pupils who have been in school four or five years that they have never seen the flag flown at school."

Such were some of the issues facing school trustees, 80 years ago. Readers can judge for themselves how far we’ve come.

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