I began to find structure in Gillespie in an attempt to claim my own happy place. My parents had given me for the first time the freedom to decide how I wanted to decorate my room, either with posters, pictures and anything else I wanted as long as it was deemed appropriate by our local government. I had grown out of my toys which were donated in Chile. Now I had more space to organize my clothes, shoes, and a special place for my GI Joes. These were not toys. They were recreational action figures for pre-teens. Nothing to be embarrassed about there. I had some space for my radio - music always has been an important element in my life - that I often tuned to follow KOOL FM 93.9. At this point, I started to experience some of the popular music hitting the waves and followed new music on a regular base. Home was feeling like home oddly enough, but a new challenge was coming and I had to face it head on: a new school.
|The timeless structure of the Lycée Claudel, Old Riverside Drive|
The school where my brother and I had been enrolled was once more a French school following a strict curriculum, called Lycée Claudel. The mission on my first day was front and foremost to survive the experience. I was not interested in calling attention to myself or trying to rule the school from day one. The first day was brutal. Those knots and butterflies I had when I started in Santiago were back with a vengeance. I was instructed to head to an assembly room of sorts, which, at the time, seemed dark and lifeless. There were several pillars, if memory serves me right and on each of these were different class lists where students had to find their names and line-up in front of them. Once I found my group, I had an urge to stay away from the rest of the classmates until someone would come get us and walk us to our classroom. I had never been so shy in my life. What happened to the William who was a people person and had no problems hanging out with anyone, regardless of their click. All I could notice were a bunch of kids my age chatting up the storm and feeling an overwhelming powerlessness to introduce myself. I stood back trying to not call attention to myself, thinking all my new colleagues had probably gone through many years of schooling together. I was an outsider now.
The first few weeks were lonely in school. I thought about the friends I had left behind and wished I could close my eyes and open them up again and magically be back in my familiar days in Santiago. Regardless, no matter how bad luck can be, it tends to turn into good luck at some point. In the lycée system, we would move from one classroom to the other as a group. As we changed ambience, so did the subjects. Thanks to these circumstances, I began to timidly open up to kids sitting around me, and as is the case in many middle schools, once you know one kid you eventually end up meeting the rest. It took time but it happened. My friends who ended up being my group for everything were Adriano Damnjanovic, Cédric Cocaud, Jean-Philippe Cormier, Marc-André La Haye, Olivier Kacou, Philippe Boyce-Lyon and Philippe-André Bonneau. Aside from class time together, which was compulsory, we had lunch together in the cafeteria in the basement of the school where we talked our hot topics: the teachers, parties and sports, a world far too unfamiliar to me. Football (or soccer as known in Canada and the USA) did not seem to play a major role in their lives. I was out of touch with my peers, so I realized I would have some after school homework in the social department. I was going to have to know at least something about hockey (beyond the beloved Hockey Sweater story) and the NBA. Other sports were considered interesting but not worthy of extensive commentary.
Aside from our eating and chatting, our lunch hour had a great stress-relief element. Before the first snowfall, we would replicate the grid iron giants with some full contact football (the one that requires little kicking, making the name of the sport a real enigma). As long as someone had a ball, it was game time for anyone in our grade willing to participate. I had never played the game before and was not familiar with the rules, something my friends thought was odd. Even one of my buddies, Adriano, who was actually half Serb and half Italian could not believe I did not understand the rules. I was excellent at the kicking part of the game, which is extremely limited. The other tackling part and running game turned into common knowledge the more I played. There was something very rewarding about running in the cool breeze, feeling your lungs working hard and struggling to beat the opponent physically to win that important touchdown. In the winter, we played a high stakes game of king of the hill in the parking lot where the ploughs would pile up the snow. These generally included epic battles between kids of different ages and grades. I think lunch time had more intensity than our physical education courses.
|Me and my classmates during our class picture|
As time went by, these guys became part of my new home and their friendship helped me finally become an average Canadian. I quickly noticed that I had been Canadian in my mind, yet had little experience to relate to one who had not been an expat. Some of them were, for example Olivier was the son of a Ivorian diplomat and Adriano's mother was an Italian foreign service officer. Many of the others, at their age, perhaps could not grasp the concept that a Canadian can live for an extended amount of time abroad and still be Canadian. However, they gave me much more than they could ever imagine through their friendship. Thanks to this tremendous camaraderie, I always have fond memories of Ottawa and whenever I pass Claudel on Old Riverside Drive, I cannot help but smile. These great friends gave me a real sense of belonging, especially when this mattered most upon my return home. I often think that these special memories perhaps weight heavier on my past than theirs. My three years in this school were only a mere fraction in their lives especially when time holds such a difference currency when you are growing up. Anyway, in the early going in Ottawa, I was first received as The Chilean, but then became one more member of the schoolyard gang.