“Some people see a homosexual in every pear tree,” our English teacher growled. We were studying The Great Gatsby and a classmate had read a suggestion that the obsessive Jay Gatsby was a “repressed homosexual.” Discussion was nipped in the bud; after all, what possible relevance could “homosexuality” have for a classroom of 18-year-olds in a 1970s small Ontario town?
Funny, then, later in the drama section with another teacher, a number of the boys chose for their presentation assignment the gay prison hit Fortune and Men’s Eyes. In a comfortable third-floor classroom in that lovely old chunk of Romanesque revival architecture, the students were able to decide what required further discussion. That school was Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School (PCVS).
I loved PCVS – it was one of the best years of my life.
I’m certainly not alone. The recent decision to close the school has met with fierce opposition. Most lawns on Peterborough’s downtown streets host a sign that says, “Save PCVS.” There have been tons of media coverage, demonstrations, fundraisers, YouTube videos, Facebook organizing, even a ghost walk.
I hear the same reasons for keeping PCVS open again and again: the school’s historic significance (it was founded in 1827); its renowned integrated arts program; its rafts of drama awards; annual near-capacity enrollment; low operating costs; 70 percent of its students walk to school; it has been a vibrant part of the downtown community.
People don’t question other school closures when they have declining enrollments. Why PCVS? Because it is a much-loved school that works.
I have also heard the voices of mental-health workers praising the school’s supportive culture for at-risk and gay teens – the school has long been a refuge with a diverse population that welcomes gay students who are harassed at other schools.
Vulnerable youth. That was once me. By the time I was 12, both my parents were dead. At the beginning of the summer I turned 18, I walked out of a fourth unsuccessful family stay.
I’d known I was gay since I was 12 – though gay wouldn’t become au courant until later. I had looked up the word homosexual in the dictionary. “Well, that’s me,” I said, never doubting it or that there was a world for me out there, somewhere.
It was the early 1970s and there were no gay youth groups then. I saw only one option, what I’d seen others do: head to Toronto and sit at the corner of Yonge and Wellesley. And wait.
I waited a long time. Not that there wasn’t great interest in a curly haired country boy. But I was fussy, a romantic. I wanted someone young and good-looking.
I managed to go out with a 30-year-old Australian that summer. His apartment was at 100 Wellesley – the romance of a 22nd-floor lake view. But by the end of summer the Australian lost interest. If I’d returned to sit on the streets, I don’t know what might have happened: no money, winter looming. The thought still scares me. I managed to retreat back to Peterborough.
I enrolled at PCVS and immediately felt at home. It was a friendly, relaxed, supportive space. I was pretty marginal, but I made friends. Kids from comfortable middle-class homes invited me to parties at their Kawartha Lakes cottages.
“And what did you do last summer?” I didn’t share my stories. The oppression of those days was the invisibility of gay identity. If the subject came up it was relegated to books, exotic locales and prisons, not our own backyard.
I’m not at all surprised that today PCVS is one of the most queer-friendly schools in the country. In 2008 Grade 9 students wrote and performed a play about homophobia, Coming Out Proud. Now these kids are to be shipped over to a bunker on the Otonabee River? Back to where they might have been bullied?
PCVS is unique. Its gay teens are unique. Other schools could be inspired if it remained open. The PCVS building will be preserved in some capacity. Heritage property. Fancy administrative offices? It’s the students who seem to be the last concern in all this. The process has been flawed.