More Than the Cards You're Dealt

My high school was built in the middle of a swamp close to that place called nowhere. Seriously. There was nothing around but bulrushes and bugs. A few kilometers up the Trans-Canada highway there was a tiny town with a gas station, a trucker style restaurant, a convenience store, and a church or two. But that was it. I think it was built there so isolation could be used as a means of keeping kids in school.


When you had a spare from classes there wasn’t much to do outside the school. You had to find things to do inside. You could tell who was who based on what they did during their spares. The jocks joined the intramural games and jumped and grunted throughout their spares. The nerdiest geeks hung out in the music room and played Risk or Dungeons and Dragons. The smokers and metal heads hung out in the smoking area and discussed the parties they passed out at last weekend. And the rest of us, those without a label, formed small groups in the main cafeteria playing cards or studying. We did anything to keep our eyes down and our heads low. Best to not make ourselves conspicuous targets. 

I don’t really know how it happened. Somehow in Grade 12 three friends and I started meeting with a teacher on our spare to learn how to play the card game bridge. This teacher was not gregarious so I seriously doubt he was the one who suggested it. But then again, maybe it was him in one of his bellowing bursts when his utterances surprised him as much as the rest of us. He was brilliant but not a conversationalist. Nonetheless, there we all were, four teenage girls sitting in an empty classroom shuffling a deck of cards with an eccentric teacher.

I think he scared us as much as he intrigued us. He wasn't well-dressed or attractive. We did not join him for cards because we had crushes on him. I think we met with him because he let us escape from the glares and stares of others.

Bidding conventions, winning tricks and trump, finesse and card counting - he taught us bridge thirty minutes at a time. We soaked it up as a welcome distraction from our teenage inadequacies and self-loathing. And it also stimulated our busy minds that wanted to race and reason through things but that were slowed by the pace of curriculum, standardized lessons, and angst.

He was not alone in having a passel of students around him. Most of the high school teachers had a crowd of kids that congregated around them during their breaks. I am sure there was a teacher’s lounge where they could have hid out from us but most teachers were found interacting with kids during their spare time too. Some organized the intramural sports, some ran laps on the track, and some joined in the board games in the music room. 

When I look back now I see that these teachers were filling a gap for so many kids. There was nowhere for us to go during our spares at a high school in a swamp. We were apt to get into trouble or ruminate too long on our teenage woes. These teachers provided a stabilizing force. In their presence, we found role models without anyone having to make it so clear.

Our card playing teacher in his awkward gruffness let us know that we could find our way. There was a place for everyone in adulthood and that you could fully be yourself there. But he didn’t have to tell us that. Instead he taught us what a “One Club” bid was, that "third should play high," and how to finesse a few more tricks with a queen. We learned that your life could be more than the cards you were dealt. You just had to know how to play them.