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Commemorating the Mundane: The Local Public School

Posted by Katherine Joyce
5 December 2012 - 7:28pm

The commemoration of historical events, places, or people often focuses on those which are easily recognized as playing an important role in generally accepted national narratives. Although it is important to recognize these events, places, and people and their role in the ‘building the nation,’ most people do not live lives that easily connect to this kind of history. However, everyone does live a life connected to history, and so it is worthwhile when considering the role of commemoration in the building of historical consciousness to also explore how the more mundane events, places, and people of history are memorialized across the country with your students.

One of my first assignments as a graduate student was to explore a physical commemoration. I choose to look into a monument that I passed almost daily: the monument that commemorated Oakridge Public School in Scarborough, Ontario. Oakridge Public School was built on Danforth Avenue between Victoria Park Avenue and Danforth Road in 1913. It was the first multi-room schoolhouse to be built in the Township of Scarborough, and it was built to replace the one-room schoolhouse which had burnt down the previous year. Additions were constructed in 1916 and 1925, and an additional building was added in 1925. The datestone of this second building is the one which appears in the monument.  The population of the area boomed in the years following World War II, and a new school was constructed on a parcel of land just north of the original school site, and opened in 1967. The original buildings were used as administrative offices for about a decade following the opening of the new school, and then were torn down to make way for a park. 
But why a monument? In 1989 the City of Scarborough’s Recreation, Parks and Culture department decided to replace the rusting fence separating Oakridge Park from Danforth Avenue. As part of the process, they contacted the local historical society, in this case the Scarborough Historical Society. The Society’s archivist, Rick Schofield, let the Parks department know that he was in possession of the school’s datestone. In this case, the impetus for the project came from the city’s parks department.
What does this monument actually commemorate? The plaque in this case offers little interpretation, just listing the dates when the school and its various additions were constructed, and erroneously listing the date of demolition. It offers insight that someone in the community felt that the school should be commemorated for commemoration’s sake, to remind people of a community building that was once located at the site. 
In your class, consider asking your students to pick an everyday event, place, or person that they would like future generations to know about. What form would the commemoration take? Would it be a plaque? A statue? A website?  And what information would the commemoration hold? What story would they like to tell about this event, place, or person? By doing this, can they better understand the choices that go into what (and who) does and does not get publicly commemorated? 
Or, consider looking at a nearby monument or commemorative plaque. If you are in Toronto or Ontario, take a look at Toronto’s Historical Plaques or Ontario’s Historical Plaques. Ask your class: why was this event, person, or place was commemorated? Who decided to commemorate this person, place, or event? What story does this particular act of commemoration tell about this person, place, or event? Consider using resources such as your local historical society to answer these questions.