Facing life with the bases loaded…
When I graduated from West Hill High School in 1962, my plans were not the same as those of my bright fellow classmates. The thing to do in those days, if you had The Marks, was to go to McGill. Never mind for what, that came later; if you had The Marks you went and that was that.
With me it was different. For years I had been busily drawing little sketches in the margins of my school notebooks, depicting various fashion outfits, jewellery, and hairdos. Even as a ‘tween’ I had always preferred my own paper-doll wardrobes to store-bought versions.
So I was going to art school. Not ‘artsy’ school – I wasn’t interested in fine arts – but commercial art school, specifically the only one in the city at the time: the three-year course offered at Sir George Williams College. My aim was to become a fashion illustrator; my idol was the artist for Ogilvy’s.
The course at Sir George would be perfect: it would offer all the basics of commercial art as well as a choice of ‘concentrations’; naturally, I would choose fashion illustration. By the end of the course I’d be ready to present my polished talents to the appropriate agencies in the city.
In that summer of ’62 I relaxed in the sun, secure in the knowledge that my future was well planned. I revelled in science fiction, took a typing course (“You never know” – Wise Mom), sketched bathing suit designs, and above all read and reread the art-school brochure.
Even now, decades later, three details from that brochure are etched in my brain:
- Registration Day was to be September 7th.
- Beginners were accepted.
- Five samples of artwork were to be presented at registration.
The first dictum was simple and resulted in a jaunty red circle on my calendar. The second was purely reassuring. The third was particularly pleasing, as it led me to spend an afternoon doing what I enjoyed most. I pencilled five sketches on five sheets of my best 8 ½” by 11″ art paper. Four were dashing fashion drawings, rivalling, I thought, if not the Ogilvy’s artist, then at least that of Eaton’s. My fifth sketch was in a more natural style: I drew my sleeping dog, Perri.
Finally the long summer of heady anticipation was about to end; September 7th had arrived. I found my way up to the registration room at Sir George on Drummond Street. I was tense, but thrilled to be there at last. My impatience led me to arrive early. I entered the room and found myself third in line.
Soon the line began to grow behind me, out the door until who knew where. We were waiting for an official person, a registrar of some sort to come and sign us up. My nervousness mounted as I noticed the other applicants holding enormous black portfolios under their arms, with white paper edges peeking out the ends. Oh God, I thought, here I am with 8 ½ by 11 pencil sketches, and they have big fancy paintings! Well… what the heck, they said they take beginners.
After an eternity, in walked the registrar, white-shirted and grey-bearded. He did not smile, did not introduce himself, hardly acknowledged us, just strode up to the front of the line and began to talk to the first applicant. What’s that? You didn’t bring any samples at all? Well, I’m sorry, but… The young man turned and faded out of the room. Well, I thought, so much for him. It said clearly in the brochure to bring samples. Really, some people just can’t read! Now it was almost my turn and I was getting more anxious by the second.
The next applicant showed off her giant portfolio as the registrar, slit-eyed, pored over her lavish paintings one by one. Okay – he actually manufactured some semblance of a smile as he handed her a form to complete – you can just sit at that table and fill this out. Well, good for her, she’s in, I thought. Now me. I was positively petrified by this time – freezing hands, booming heartbeat, the works. My breezy confidence from when I first arrived had all but evaporated. It seemed that my whole future lay in this man’s hands.
After some murmured words of introduction came the Moment of Truth. He opened my folder and spread out the pitiful pencil sketches. He looked at them as though he were watching a mother mouse mangling her naked baby. Yeess… hmmm… well, have you tried the Museum, he asked. I said No, I don’t want to go to the Museum school. I want this school. (I felt like I wanted to die. But I wasn’t dead yet!) I said This school is for commercial art, and that’s what I want. He said Yes, but you see, we can take only thirty-five people…
What?! I had thought they would take about a hundred students, I mean, it’s a school for Pete’s sake. Whoever heard of thirty-five people constituting a school! Did it say that in the brochure, I asked myself frantically. Perhaps I wouldn’t have even considered applying to get in, had I known I’d be competing for a spot in such a small group. I said Listen (in a last-ditch attempt), the brochure said you take beginners! I’d meant to sound indignant but my voice – was that my voice?! – came out in a squeaky whine. Tears were dangerously close and my throat was constricted. He replied, with all the arrogance he could muster, Yes, but… and the odious man gave a Gallic shrug that foreshadowed Trudeau at his worst.
Well, that was it, my life flushed away by this unfeeling prig. I turned blindly and had to slink past all the others waiting in line. Unbelievable humiliation: they all knew that I had been rejected – because had I been accepted, I’d be sitting at the table filling out the magic form, instead of trudging back out with defeat on my face. Out I went, out in the hall where the line snaked and down the stairs. Crying all the way down, and all the way home too, on the bus, behind my sunglasses.
Talk about a setback! Not only was my neat plan for the next three years of my life demolished, but my confidence in my alleged talent was shaken to the core. I couldn’t even salvage the year, since it was already September and too late to get into university. Strike One!
So I got a job. Prudential Assurance hired me as a clerk in spite of my young age, since I scored 100% on their grammar test. (This helps explain my eventual avocation as a Grammar Cop!)
Meanwhile I developed a daring Plan B. Calling in sick one day, I gathered my best fashion sketches and all my nerve and went to Ogilvy’s. I had pre-arranged an appointment with my artist-idol, who had agreed to at least look over my work and advise me. Well, she advised me, alright. She advised me to take an anatomy course! Strike Two!
To make a long story short, I eventually experienced a succession of different careers, including motherhood. Those early disappointments eased of course… but I don’t draw much any more. Strike Three!
Three strikes, but I’m not ‘out’… I just draw letters instead of pictures. Y’see, I write instead. Did I mention, I have this blog…