Monday, September 7, 2009

Memories take centre stage

Phyllis Addison Pollack casts a dancer's pose on her return to the stage at Vic High 73 years after her last performance. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 7, 2009


The pending return to school creates foreboding in some, anticipation in others.

Phyllis Addison Pollack entered Victoria High School the other day with the eagerness of a keen freshman. She paused at the war memorial in the lobby — all those sad names — before admiring the magnificent aboriginal carving on the wooden door to the auditorium.

She climbed a few steps to the stage. She struck a dancer’s pose, moving with grace despite stiff sinews and aged bones. Mrs. Pollack last trod these boards 73 years ago, when she performed a recital during which she traded ballet slippers for tap shoes halfway through her routine.

The reminiscence left her emotional.

“I could cry,” she said. “And I’m not the crying type.”

Tomorrow, hordes of children and teenagers return to school for more books and teacher’s dirty looks. Among them will be apprehensive kindergardeners, rambunctious middle schoolers, and high school seniors only too ready to put an end to their 13th year of imposed education.

None will ever forget their time in school.

Those who enjoy the experience will learn they can never quite recreate the feeling; those who find it horrible will find they never quite escape the memory.
Mrs. Pollack places herself firmly in the former category.

“I just love Vic High,” she said.

“I was a prefect. I was on student council. All that jazz.”

She celebrated her 90th birthday a week ago, returning to her home town to celebrate a classmate’s nonagenarian ascension, which followed hers by a few days. Mrs. Pollack retains a dancer’s supple movements, her petite physique making her seem a zephyr as she saunters past.

She wears her white hair long past her shoulders, topped by a flat cap of Irish tweed. A compliment about her hair reminds her of the day she became the talk of the school when she arrived one morning with long locks shorn.

Vic High claims to be the oldest public school in Western Canada, having opened its doors in 1876, just five years after the colony of British Columbia joined Confederation. Mrs. Pollack attended classes at a time when the On-to-Ottawa Trek was current events and not yet history. The Depression left her father searching unsuccessfully for work, though the deprivations of the decade went unremarked by students.

“As kids, we didn’t suffer,” she said. “We didn’t know the difference. We had everything we needed.”

Mrs. Pollack, class of ’36, graduated a year later than her peers, stretching her senior classes so as to dedicate herself to the study of dance. She then joined the Taynton Ballet, a traveling troupe included as part of a 75-member barnstorming revue. The A.B. Marcus Show included balancing acts, comedy tap dancers, and “Chinese wonder dancers,” as well as boasting “one of the finest collections of beauties ever assembled in a musical show.” Another of the acts carried the memorable stage name of the Raucous Lovelies.

It was a grand adventure for an unmarried young woman, as the ballet enjoyed lengthy engagements at Mexico City and Havana. In the Cuban capital in 1941, she met a medical student from New York City who was studying tropical diseases at the university. They married in the United States soon after. The couple eventually settled in San Francisco. Dr. Robert Pollack’s pioneering treatments in cancer surgery led to invitations to teach and demonstrate surgical techniques in such exotic locales as New Guinea and Western Samoa, where he would be joined by his wife. He died six years ago.

On Friday, Mrs. Pollack was escorted to the school’s basement archives room by alumni executives Keith McCallion, a former principal, and Alan Perry, a broadcaster who graduated from the school in 1974. They found for her a copy of the 1936 Camosun yearbook in which old classmates — some no longer with us, all aged — appeared in photographs untouched by the passing decades.

Among others, she remembered Kangee Lee (“taught her tap dancing”), Tom Pepper (“he bicycled past my house”), and George (Porky) Andrews, a hunky basketball star and future professional athlete who “let me ride on the back of his motorbike.”

In a box labelled 1932, the year in which she first entered the school, a small index card was found on which had been signed in ink in flowing script “Addison, Phyllis.” She had signed the card on the first day of classes, undoubtedly receiving good grades for superb penmanship.

In the auditorium, Mrs. Pollack remembered the orchestra sitting on one side, while a Union Jack hung overhead. The room remains unchanged from her day, each succeeding generation of students respectfully avoiding the temptations of vandalism at times of tedium.

For having made a modest donation to the alumni association, she is to have a metal plaque placed on a seat in the second row, one in from the centre aisle.

As she sat, she banged her right elbow on the unforgiving wooden armrest.

“Just as hard as ever,” she noted.

For her, the unyielding seats are a rare unhappy memory.


Williams said...

Hi Tom:

Thanks for your article on our aunt, it made her feel very special, something she will never forget.
Thanks again....Ross & Norma

Unknown said...

You captured my Mother so beautifully-both on pen and in the photo-and I thank you for honoring this spunky woman who still lights up the stage at age 90!