Kitsilano secondary school celebrates its 100th birthday

Vancouver Courier

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Left: Kitsilano secondary school circa 1956. Right: Kitsilano secondary school Class of 1946 grad Ruth Enns stands alongside Grade 12 student Ashlynne Koly

Craig Brumwell remembers a time in the not-too-distant past when Kitsilano was seen as the wrong side of the tracks, a part of town inhabited by ruffians, trouble makers and tough guys.

A Magee graduate in the early 1980s, Brumwell’s memories of Blue Demons basketball rivalries are far removed from today’s high-end shops and immaculate beach-front homes.

“Kits had a bit of a reputation for having some pretty tough dudes around that time — they used to call it the East Side school on the West Side,” Brumwell recalls. “Amongst people from my group from Magee, when our basketball games finished it was a case of, ‘Alright, just stare at the floor when you walk out of the building.’ It had a reputation of being a pretty hard-boiled place and you had to be careful.’”

The tony West Side neighbourhood has indeed been many things to many people over the last century: a stump-covered swamp, blue collared, blue and gold, and crowded with counter culture.

Saturday, May 12 marks the 100th anniversary of the neighbourhood’s heartbeat, as upwards of four generations will gather at Kitsilano secondary to usher in the school’s second century.

The Courier visited the home of the Blue Demons and spoke to teachers and students past and present ranging in age from their late teens to their late 80s. They spoke to cultural norms, communism, cool cars, big hair and cutting a rug to the sounds of Louis Armstrong.

But first, some essential facts:

* The school’s first iteration came to be in 1917, when it was used to house an influx of students from King Edward high school. The first temporary school was built in 1920 at Trafalgar and 12th Avenue. The bulk of the school structure that remains today opened in 1927.

* The school’s first Latin students selected “Fiat Lux” (Let there be light) as the official Kits motto. The school’s colours are royal blue and gold.

* Part rallying cry and part point of pride, the school’s official song “Hail Kitsilano” was penned in 1936 by then-band teacher Ivor Parfitt. The jingle is still sung at school events to this day.

* The school’s alumni list is chalked full of A-listers and athletes including Ryan Reynolds, Dawson’s Creek star Joshua Jackson and Olympians Donna Gilmore, Kathleen Heddle and George Athans.

Caroline Wittrin is a Kits lifer. She grew up in the area, went to Kits Secondary from 1981 to 1986, has taught at the school for 18 years and still lives nearby. She also netted a bronze medal in hammer throw at the 1998 Commonwealth Games.

What were the cool cars when you were in school?

There were no hot rods, everyone had junkers. The Trans Am was the cool car at the time. A lot of people had beaters. In those days, we didn’t get our cars purchased for us by our parents. We actually had to buy them ourselves.

How is your life different now compared to what you envisioned when you graduated?

I had visions of a different career for sure. My sports career changed and I went really far with it but it was later in life, after the age of 24 I got onto the national team and broke records. That was not anticipated. The confidence I gained from being an elite athlete, that was unexpected because I was shy. I gained a whole different level of confidence.

Having lived most of your life in Kits, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen?

I grew up in Kitsilano in a large house with five siblings and now my husband and two kids are squashed into a tiny rental apartment. It’s always kind of on the edge and it’s not the same as it was. The neighbourhood feeling now is changing dramatically.

Ashlynne Koly is a Grade 12 student on the cusp of signing a post-secondary soccer scholarship. She’s attended Kits secondary since Grade 8 and graduates in June.

What’s it like growing up in the cellphone, social media generation?

You rely on it, especially in school. There are pros and cons to it. When the teachers give you an assignment or you need to figure something out, the automatic thing to do is just look it up on your phone. The teachers let you most of the time. It’s just accepted that it plays a role in education, it plays a role in socializing.

What world event will you always associate with your time in high school?

Trump’s inauguration. There was a lot of talk about that. There’s a lot of cool, intellectual people at this school. And there’s a lot of political people at this school. It was the talk of the town at the time and it still is.

Craig Brumwell has taught at Kits since 1988 and is co-chair of the Kits 100 anniversary celebrations.

What do you remember about your first day teaching at Kits?

I was petrified. I remember going to Benny’s Bagels, which had just opened, to pick myself something up. It’s ironic because they’re now closing. Kits has a reputation of giving substitute teachers and visitors a bit of a rough time because they don’t know if you’re staying or if you’re just passing through. But the second they realize you are staying, they just love you.

What was the prominent world event you remember from the time you started teaching at Kits?

Communism was dissolving. All of a sudden there was no Soviet Union anymore. But I can remember being a History 12 student in high school in 1981 and our teacher telling us there was something like an 87 per cent chance that we were going to die in a thermonuclear war within four years. There wasn’t a lot of positivity around then.

What’s been the most profound neighbourhood change over the last 30 years?

Wealth. They used to coin the school as a school for everybody’s kid. If you were rich, if you were poor, if you were disabled, if you were First Nations, Asian, you name it, there was a place for you at this school. It wasn’t selective in any way. But you have to keep in mind that any morning at 8:30 there’s a line of Porches, Mercedes, Lexus and all these different cars, and then there’s kids walking up from their basement suites with no lunch. There’s a huge diversity. There’s still that diversity but the proportion is definitely in the direction of the more wealthy.

Erik Butterfield graduates in June and has his sights set on the University of Victoria, where he’ll study history. He wants to be a history teacher and has helped plan events around the 100th birthday.

What do you remember about your first day of school?

Coming into the old gym, there was a bunch of people yelling at us. It sounds bad but they were welcoming us to the school. It was very overwhelming. You come in, you meet a few people but there’s all these people you don’t know outside of a couple of friends.

What are the cliques at school?

There isn’t a lot of hatred between groups. We do a pretty good job of intermingling with one another. A lot of it is just separated by your interests, or if you’re loud or shy.

What will you miss most about your time in high school?

I’ll miss the friends and people I’ve met. Before being involved with the centennial, I was a shy, stick-to-myself person. But this has really opened me up, and I’ve gotten to know way more people, teachers, staff, kids who go to the school. I’ll miss having that interaction.

Ruth Enns is a graduate from the Class of 1946. Like Wittrin, she’s spent most of her life living near Kits secondary. Enns estimates about 25 of her classmates are still alive of the 174 graduates.

How is your life different now compared to what you envisioned when you graduated?

I always knew I wanted to be a teacher so that didn’t change. But life is different. All the rules are different. Some of the social graces are gone: saying please, thank you and politeness. A lot of the things acceptable now wouldn’t be acceptable back then.

What’s your favourite memory of your time in school?

When we came here in Grade 7, we saw all these other girls here and they were wearing lipstick so we decided we’d wear lipstick. We had a teacher who made us go to the washroom every time we wore it and made us take our lipstick off.

To what extent do you keep up with your former classmates?

We’re such a tight group, the Class of ’46. We still see each other. I’m coming to the anniversary event with my Grade 1 friend from Bayview elementary. We went to Bayview together, we went to Kits together, we went to normal school together. So it seems appropriate that we continue to waltz down this journey together.

Details for the anniversary celebration are online at www.kits100.org.

@JohnKurucz

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