UCC Blues (Part One)

Tomorrow I jet to Toronto for my 20th anniversary high school reunion. Like any such reunion, it will be interesting to see just how far the hairlines have receded and bellies expanded. But I cannot help feeling that my reunion will be different.

See, I went to Upper Canada College, our country’s most elite private school. I was an outsider back then, and expect to still be so today. Unlike my peers, I was raised in a single-parent household, lived far from the school, and went on scholarship. I had an imperial Chinese mother who came from a wealthy family in Singapore, attended boarding school in England, and who strongly believed in getting the best education for her son. By the time I was in the picture, any financial inheritance was long gone, but the social inheritance of aspiring to money and higher social class was not. So UCC it was, blue blazers and all.

There was always a huge gap between those aspirations to wealth and the reality of life in my household. In fact, I attribute my interest in economics in the first place to the tension between my home life and UCC’s world of complacent privilege. That path was not really clear until later in life – back then I wanted to be an investment banker or corporate lawyer, six-figure-plus occupations that were all too common when I was at my 10th anniversary (plus “working for the family firm”). I hope to see a more diverse list of accomplishments this time around, but am prepared to be disappointed.

Interestingly, when I get my regular fundraising packages – and there are many – there are always appeals to classical liberal education, and that the objective is to produce graduates who go out into the world and do great things (boys who “do well and do good” as one glossy pitch put it). That is a very different thing than going out and making a lot of money. That said, I learned more about how unions worked in my grade 12 economics class than I ever did in university – perhaps it is OK for the elite to know about such subversive things.

The fundraising does get outrageous at times. When I was at UCC we prided ourselves on being the only school with an indoor hockey arena. The current capital campaign is now seeking to build a double indoor arena, one NHL-sized rink and the other Olympic-sized. Such are the trials and tribulations of UCC. And this is on top of the double gymnasium, learning centre and a few other installations that have come into being since I was there.

A double-hockey rink, I suppose, is fitting status symbol for the school. The parents who send their kids to UCC are those who aspire to “the best of everything”, and UCC is a marker of achieving that status – for parents and kids alike. UCC is all about being better than you, a thing some might call snobbery. And not only is UCC, in our self-image, better than a public school, it is better than all of the other private schools as well.

The snobbery does not end at the gates of the school’s luxurious grounds (Avenue Road has to wind its way around the school, and Forest Hill grew up around the presence of the school). Like the world of its parents, UCC kids have their own elaborate clique structures. Overexposure to that incessant undercutting in proving who’s best, so common among the wealthy, is a prime reason why I have no aspirations to be part of that world. Better to be middle class and enjoy the simple things life has to offer.

Of course, UCC got dragged through the mud a few years ago when a series of sex scandals surfaced. I’m thankful that nothing like that ever happened to me because I was a pretty vulnerable teenager. I did get cuffed in the head once, though. It was in computer science class (yes, we had a computer lab in the mid-1980s) and I went monkeying into the central program based on what I learned in a summer school program. It was a number sorting program, and as it was doing its thing the screen read “sorting …”. I changed this to “masturbating …”, which I admit was pretty bad, but my teacher hit me hard in the head from behind, knocking me to the floor.

In all, I did get an excellent education at UCC. What was pernicious were the social mores that I absorbed. It took me most of my undergrad degree to shake it, and it was finally put to bed during a spell of unemployment I had in 1991 upon graduating Western, my head full of great ideas about how wonderful markets were. And yet, contradictions being what they are, it was a UCC mom who spotted the school on my resume who got my toe in the door for a great job that ended that spell of unemployment.

I have this memory of UCC being like a country club, a place of idle privilege and entitlement. Lots of kids who went there have never had to really fend for themselves. Some, like my classmate Ed Rogers, heir apparent to the Rogers family empire, had his path laid out for him from childhood. As a contrast, I have a friend in Ottawa who is a CEO of a software company and he struggled for a few years before attaining his six-figure salary – but I have respect for that. It’s that privilege that I rail against as a progressive economist.

More rants to come as the weekend progresses …

One comment

  • Marc:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. You’re not just a great economist; you’re also a very powerful writer.

    It would have made a provocative Globe and Mail op-ed.

    I look forward to the next one.

    Cheers,

    Nick

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