In the previous two newsletters I prevailed upon friends who grew up in Greenfield Park and Longueuil to provide their perspective on what it was like to live outside St. Lambert, but attend Chambly County High School in St. Lambert. This was to set the stage for the piece I am submitting this month – an account how St. Lambert High School changed when it became Chambly County High School, in the 1949-50 academic year. It was big news in the community. The high school was no longer the preserve of children with parents who lived in St. Lambert, it was a county school and Protestant kids from the regions outside St. Lambert were welcomed. I was familiar with a couple of these towns – we'd played hockey against teams from Greenfield Park and Longueuil, but new names surfaced – Ville LeMoyne, Montreal South, MacKayville, St. Hubert. For the first time, school buses began arriving on Green Street, depositing new students. There was an excitement in the air that fall as we returned to school - to classrooms we would be soon sharing with strangers. I remember wondering if we would have to learn a new chant to urge our athletic teams on. The old chant was so ingrained in my mind that I can still recall it to this day – the pre-Chambly County High School cheer.
Who are we?
High School, High School, Sis-boom-bah,
St. Lambert High School, Rah—rah-rah!
We students were excited. Parents had different concerns. I overhead anxious discussions about what the change would mean. Pupils being bussed in from “all over” meant kids from poorer families would be coming in, kids from the “sticks”. I heard the words “riff-raff” and “shanties” for the first time. My mother, ever the idealist, thought this was a good thing and that every kid should have an equal chance at an education, no matter how poor the family. My father, as usual, agreed with her. He was sure, he said, that his son could handle the challenge. By this he meant I could stand up to the “rougher” kids that he thought the change would bring into the mix. I didn't have the same degree of confidence, but was content to bide my time. Until then the only distinction I'd been aware of among my peers was the Catholic/Protestant divide. Catholics usually went to a different school. But there were exceptions and some parents of Catholic children did send their kids to the St. Lambert High, the Protestant school. I'm not quite sure how they managed this, but a good number of my school friends were Catholics. To me, this simply meant they went to something called Mass on Sunday while I went to Sunday School. Looking back on the change, I can see how important it was in preparing me for the world outside St. Lambert. In Chambly County High I encountered black students for the first time, students with names that were hard to pronounce and students who were still learning English. There were sons and daughters of “DPs” – people displaced in the aftermath of the Second World War. I was aware from the way they dressed that some weren't as well off as we were and I was thankful for what we had. But the novelty of these differences quickly disappeared as these outsiders proved to be welcome additions to our hockey, basketball and track and field teams. And of course, there were new girls to date. For most of my high school years my girlfriend lived in Longueuil. As time passed, there were a higher number of drop-outs among the outsiders, but there were also a dedicated group of first-class students added to the mix. The cross section in the new school population was a lot closer to the cross section of people I would meet after I graduated and moved away from St. Lambert. Names like Kazmerchuck, Symonenko, Neverdauskis, Chicoine, Gagnon, Szabo, Ibrus, Simatos, Kozlin, Misiaszek, Murata, and Kalnins were introduced and soon took their place alongside the Browns, Greens, Smiths, Jones, Carmichaels, Grants, Frasers, Bennetts, the Longs and, yes, the Littles, as students in Chambly County High.
As for holding my own against the so-called rougher kids, this wasn't a problem. The newcomers weren't troublemakers, they were just like the rest of us, capable of occasional mischief, but no serious threat to the status quo. There was one guy that first year – I think he was from Ville LeMoyne - who terrified me, terrified most of us. But he only turned up occasionally and eventually was expelled for striking a teacher. When I look back on this, I realize now he had the unmistakable features of a child stricken with fetal alcohol syndrome. In those days I don't think the condition even had a name. I often wonder what happened to him.
So the conversion of St. Lambert High to Chambly County High was seamless, from my perspective. It is a tribute to the principal and the staff of teachers that it appeared this way to us, the students. I am sure those first few years meant more work for them, but these teachers were clearly up to the task.
The only lingering doubt I have about the change is the nature of the chant that replaced the familiar Boom-a-lacka, Boom-a-lacka at our high school games. I can't for the life of me remember the Chambly County cheer. But Chambly County High School it certainly became and I, for one, wouldn't have had it any other way. That change, in itself, was something to cheer about.
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