FOTM Gare Joyce is responsible for the following prose. If you enjoyed this, you will also enjoy his piece on the voice of Charlie Brown, Peter Robbins.
Upper Canada College is 37 acres of uptown prime real estate, so big that Avenue Road has to get out of its way. After all, U.C.C. was there first. In fact, the school’s five years older than the incorporated City of Toronto. The first class was taught at U.C.C. in 1829. Ever since it’s where the sons of old money have learned to tie their shoes. Princes all, at least those who academically qualify. For those who don’t clear the modest bar, there’s St Andrews or Ridley or other exiles for the family embarrassments.
Okay, I’m just a kid from the wrong side of town and I’ve never come off as anything but a rough diamond at best. Strangers and even friends find it hard to believe that I went to UCC. Seriously? You?
Now, it’s almost five decades ago. I was in the same grade as David Thomson. These days he owns the Bay and the Globe and Mail and he has a net worth is $30-billion. His grandfather was Roy Thomson—you might have seen a show in his hall. David Thomson’s father was Ken Thomson, a media magnate who owned 100 newspapers across Europe and North America. Ken was such a big wheel that the Queen gave him a life peerage. Thus did Ken Thomson become Lord Thomson of Fleet.
And here our lives intersect. My father was the Lord’s auto mechanic. Yeah, my father serviced Lord Thomson of Fleet’s fleet.
Suffice it to say, I was the only kid whose parents didn’t belong to the Granite Club or the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. We weren’t poor, just poor by comparison. I’m always asked how a decidedly working-class kid landed in the midst of the sons of the Canadian Establishment. A long story. I scored well enough on the entrance exam that financial aid was arranged. I also convinced the headmaster in an interview that I was a sterling little character. That is to say, I hoodwinked him.
Today I’m a stand-up adult, but at 14 I was an accomplished petty criminal, the class of all the little grifters in our neighbourhood, a shoplifter with a surgeon’s hands and a sniper’s confidence. I had stolen dozens of bicycles, basically on order. I broke into storage lockers and helped myself stereo equipment. The true testament to my talent and judgment: I never got pinched. And my parents had no idea.
Clad in his overalls, my father gave me a ride to school each day, often in customers’ cars which helped keep up appearances, however unconvincingly. My father started his workday at seven a.m., so I landed on the school grounds around 6:30 every morning.
I was alone in the vast history-rich building. I was there two hours before the kids from Forest Hill who walk a block or two to school, before the kids from Rosedale were dropped off by their parents’ drivers. The boarders weren’t up for breakfast yet. I checked in to school even before the janitors.
On those long, long, silent mornings, I could only do or not do homework so long. I killed time by exploring the building, walking the hallways, looking at the honour rolls lining the walls, looking at photographs of the decorated alumni whose sons and grandsons were in my classes, looking at portraits of the headmasters from the 1800s, stone-faced men hidden behind lush beards.
Little traffic flowed through the building’s east wing. The only thing over there was the nurse’s office and you went to Miss B for only one reason: to get out of military training with a nurse’s note. I was a shirker. I regularly complained of irregularity, indigestion I induced by woofing down six glazed doughnuts at lunch.
Now, if you go to any high school in Canada, you’ll find hallway walls decorated by prints of the Group of Seven. They’re iconic. They capture the Canadian wilderness in all its dreadful beauty. As equations are to math class, as To Kill a Mockingbird is to English class, so are Group of Seven lithographs to Canadian school décor.
At UCC a dozen Group of Sevens hung by the nurse’s office. On my lonely rounds down the hallways I stopped in front of one small piece that I presumed to be a Tom Thomson. Only when I took a closer look for a name signed along the frame did I see brushstrokes. Less delicately than I should have I checked out the back of the canvas. I shivered—this was an original Tom Thomson. And I went right down the line, all originals.
I was only in Grade Nine but I knew enough to know that, when it came to Canadian art, there was the Group of Seven and everything else was sled dogs playing poker. I knew a lot of money was hanging on those walls, not enough to make me a Baron like David Thomson, but enough to move our family out of a drab East York bungalow and into a more fashionable address.
What I did next might be described as casing the place. These, though, were different times. No security cameras. No security guards. The doors weren’t even locked. These treasures were protected by nothing more than generations of entitlement. UCC’s attitude was its elitism distilled: This just isn’t that type of neighbourhood. And it wasn’t, at least until I came along.
The school was begging to be robbed and never in the school’s history had a student possessed the tools and character to accommodate.
Thereafter I took a keen interest in art. I read about art forgery and determined I was facing a steep learning curve before I could replace an original Emily Carr with a knock-off. I read up on the Group of Seven, focused not on the artists’ history but rather prices at auction.
I imagined the scenario. Had to go down in winter when it was still dark at 7 a.m. Leave gloves on. Lift the canvases off the wall and stuff them into my hockey bag. Change out of my school uniform into something appropriately scruffy. Pull a toque down low. Cover my face with a scarf. Going out the little-used exit on the east side of the grounds. Board my getaway ride, the bus to Eglinton Station. Drop an adult ticket in the fare box and avoid having the driver ask to see my student card.
At 7:30 janitors notice the empty spaces on the wall. The cops are called. They ask about signs of a break-in. “We don’t lock the doors,” the headmaster says. The cops scratch their heads: a break-and-enter without the break.
By then I would be homebound and …And there the plan ran out. So did my nerve.
The front end of the heist was doable, tempting even. Getting the prizes to market, though, was impossible. Holding them for ransom was too complicated, too risky. There’s a quantum difference between moving a hot Schwinn and a purloined A.Y. Jackson.
Maybe if I had lasted more than one year in the Upper School I could have done it. Predictably, I left after Grade Nine. I didn’t like U.C.C., not one thing about it. And the feeling was entirely mutual.
I haven’t spent much time thinking about UCC over the years. I’ve always just wanted to put the whole ordeal behind me.
I did think about UCC 20 years ago. A news story set off a cascade of memories.
UCC had announced plans to put in a new pool, a full Olympic-sized facility of course. I supposed UCC students needed a pool that big for sailing practice.
Back in our day, swim classes were conducted in an 18-yard pool in the basement of the main hall, a dreary dungeon that reeked of chlorine. We were required swimming in the nude. Thankfully there was no water polo. A few teachers took an intense interest in our pool sessions, serving as unofficial lifeguards from the gallery.
I don’t know how I ended up on U.C.C.’s mailing list. Only by the broadest definition was I an alumnus. Still, I was asked if I wanted to give to the fund for the pool? They should have known enough to take my silence as a No.
Then, a few years later, I read that two teachers had been charged with sexual assaulting UCC students, stuff that reportedly had gone on for years. A check of my unsigned yearbook revealed what I suspected: One of the accused taught back in my brief days at UCC, a nattily dressed guy who stood by the pool. Yeah, this was the stuff they cut out of The Dead Poets’ Society.
Okay, I wasn’t disappointed nor surprised that none of these pedophiles ever hit on me. Obviously, the pervs’ taste ran to much better-bred cuts of veal. They were deviants but weren’t about to sacrifice their snobbery.
Seriously, though, my heart went out to the kids who were the teacher’s victims. One was living in a mental-health institution. Others struggled with depression, alcohol and drugs—nobody I would have called a friend, but, then again, at UCC there was nobody I would have called a friend.
I cheered them on when I heard they had filed a class-action suit against UCC. The school was clearly liable. The headmaster in my day knew. A victim’s father had told the headmaster how this teacher had got his son drunk and sexually assaulted him. Some details were lost in the fog of time and memory—the headmaster had been long retired and was by then terminally ill. Still, damage control was pointless.
Of such things are tragedies made. And of such things are massive out-of-court settlements made. The details weren’t disclosed but the damages paid out to the victims ran deep into seven figures. You knew that when the news broke: U.C.C. was putting its Group of Seven collection on the auction block to cover the costs.
I didn’t have the wherewithal to bid on these art treasures. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have. I had already done my part for my never-missed alma mater. When I didn’t steal those paintings, I did the school a greater financial service than those famous alumni, donating six-figures annually. The millions those canvases fetched went to kids who came out of their UCC experience terribly damaged. I didn’t like U.C.C. but I’ve never thought of myself at all damaged by my time there.With this, my story, what I did and didn’t do, is a matter of the public record. I have come relatively clean. And if there’s ever a Tom Thomson stolen and recovered, even if I have an alibi, don’t be surprised if detectives dust it and find my prints.