If you do not know anything about history, then you have something in common with Beckett Jamieson. And if you do not like school, then you have two things in common with Beckett Jamieson.
If you wanted a demonstration of the high quality of the Canadian education system, and specifically of Sir Wilfred Laurier Elementary School, you had best stay away from Beckett Jamieson of the sixth grade. But please do not get the wrong idea. Like most young boys, it's not that Beckett wasn't intelligent. It’s just that you would not know it by looking at his last report card.
Like many boys his age, Beckett struggled to sit down and study. And really, how could he? With the excitement provided by the Internet and video games, who could expect Beckett to sit down and do such dull things like solve math equations, know what chlorophyll is, or study the names of places he had no inkling to visit? Why would he study when he could sit on the floor of his room and kill space aliens, rescue hostages, and win grand prix races with a few (thousand) clicks of the controller button?
If you wanted a demonstration of Beckett’s knowledge (as defined by the Canadian education system), you could ask him to point at the map in front of him and name as many countries as he could, and were he willing to do so, of course, he could show you only four. Being from Burnaby in British Columbia, Canada, Beckett would know where Canada is, obviously. He would then point out Canada’s neighbors the USA and Mexico. It's not that he didn't know of any other countries; he did. And he had a rough idea of where they were, but he couldn't point them out with much confidence. The fourth country Beckett could point out was Italy. One of the few things Beckett had remembered from geography class was that Italy was shaped like a boot and looked as though it were kicking the island of Sicily. And in what turned out to be one of life’s little coincidences, Beckett would soon become well acquainted with the history of this boot-shaped country, and it would change his life. Sadly, however, this new acquaintance of Beckett’s would begin in this unhappiest of places: in the principal’s office.
Beckett Jamieson sat quietly in the school's office. A few weeks shy of his 13th birthday, he found that he disliked the 6th grade almost as much as he'd disliked the 5th. It's not that he wanted to dislike it. He enjoyed spending time with his classmates; he had enjoyed school up until part way through the 5th grade. Sadly, as that year went on, Beckett had found he was enjoying himself less, and receiving stern talking-tos from his teachers and even the principal more. Now, he was sitting by himself waiting for the principal, Mr Hashmi, to arrive. Beckett had sat in the same place at the end of the last school year before the principal had told him that the school was going to let him pass the courses that he had failed. It was made clear that he would have to work harder and pass on his own work the next year. Mr Hashmi lamented that schools would not hold poorly performing students behind anymore.
The sixth grade was off to a horrible start. After just one month, Beckett had a big assignment. In social studies class, they had to write a one page biography on a historical figure. Beckett had not yet chosen who he would write about. He really hadn't thought about it. He wasn't inclined to either. Social studies had been one of the classes Beckett had nearly failed.
When the day's class ended, Ms Johnstone, the social studies teacher, told Beckett he needed to see the principal. Nuts, Beckett had thought to himself. It was Friday afternoon, and this was definitely going to take away from his video game time.
Friday afternoon was usually Beckett's favourite part of the week. This was when he would go over to Annie's house and play video games. Annie Kim had become Beckett's best friend over the course of the year and a half Beckett had been living in Burnaby. Like Beckett, she had come to Sir Wilfred Laurier Elementary School 2 years previously. She moved to Burnaby to from the East, so that when her father visited from Seoul, South Korea, where he worked, that he wouldn't have to spend an extra 5 hours either in an airplane, or making the connection in Vancouver's airport. Annie had grown up in Canada, but spent parts of her summer in Korea. However, this year, Beckett saw her far less after she returned in August. She would often hurry home after class, to get a quick start on her homework no doubt. Annie was a straight A student.
"Principal Hashmi will be with you in a few moments." The secretary said, hanging up the phone.
Beckett thought it all over. It had only been two weeks. He wasn't sure what exactly he had done to get summoned to the office. There had been no fights, no arguments with the teacher, and no incidents with a cell-phone or video-game console. Beckett could only think of the stern look he had received from Ms Johnstone when she pointed out that he had not done any of his homework assignments in those first few weeks.
"Oh." Beckett said out loud.
"Mr. Jamieson. Good to see you. Come into my office." Mr Hashmi said as he sped through the room.
"Coming." Beckett muttered, as he slowly followed. He came up to the door, looked down at the part of the floor where the linoleum of the school's admin office became the carpet of Mr Hashmi's office. Beckett sighed, and stepped across.
"Have a seat." Mr Hashmi said, taking his own seat behind the desk. He towards the plastic and metal chair in front of Beckett. Beckett sullenly took his seat.
"Do you know why you're here?" The principal asked.
Beckett looked at Mr Hashmi. The principal looked young and strong, but his eyes made him look old. He was clearly younger than many of the teachers at Laurier, but despite his upright posture and broad shoulders, he often looked tired by the end of the week. The previous year, Beckett remembered that something had gone on with a number of parents of some of the older students. When it came time to deal with Beckett's problems, Mr Hashmi seemed too tired and frustrated to really care.
Beckett eventually looked up. "Is it about my homework?" He replied as he sat down in the cold plastic seat.
"That's part of it, Beckett. But it's not as simple as that. We're not worried about the actual homework. But the fact that you aren't doing your homework tells us something important."
Beckett looked at the principal for a few seconds.
"It tells us," Mr Hasmi began, "about your attitude, and that you're not starting the year the way we wanted you to."
Beckett looked down at the principal's desk.
"We talked last year about how you would have to work harder this year. We let you pass those classes so you wouldn't have to stay behind. That's what used to happen when I was in elementary school."
"I know." Beckett replied.
Mr Hashmi watched Beckett for a few seconds before continuing. "I feel like I'm repeating myself. We know that you are smart; we know that you have it in you to do well. A few of your teachers have told me about how enthusiastic and animated you become when they overhear you talking about movies, comic books, and games. They wish you had the same kind of zeal for your school work."
Beckett shuffled his feet under the chair.
"Madame Durand says you're one of the more talkative students in French class. That's impressive, Beckett. Most of your classmates hate talking in French class."
Beckett nodded his head. He appreciated the compliment, but it didn't make him happy.
"Why do you like French class so much?"
"I don't." Beckett responded. "It's just because my father taught me Latin until I was in the 5th grade. You know that. It makes French easier."
"It's still impressive, Beckett. Just because you have an advantage, it doesn't make it any less impressive."
"I guess." Beckett was starting to wonder when this would be over.
Beckett thought about how ridiculous it all was. His father had indeed taught him Latin when he was younger. That was when Beckett lived in Ottawa where his father had worked as a constitutional lawyer. When his father was a university student, he'd studied Latin for his language requirement. It was an odd choice as most people took French. But things changed very quickly for Beckett before the start of 4th grade. His mother passed away. His father quit his job and took a new position teaching at a small college in Vancouver. It was all very sudden. French classes became easier for Beckett. In Ottawa most of the kids in his class knew a good amount of French, and a lot of the teachers were native speaking Quebecers. Kids on the West Coast knew very little, and some of the teachers even less. Beckett had been a mediocre student in French class when he lived in Ottawa. In Burnaby, he had effortlessly floated to the top of the class.
But his success in French was dulled by his failures in other activities. Beckett arrived in Burnaby, the city next to Vancouver, at the start of the 4th grade. He didn't take to his new swimming centre or coach, so he stopped. He didn't take to his new karate instructor and his new dojo, so he stopped. His performance in school, which had been OK before, dropped out from under him. Last year, he had arrived home to find out that his father had been sent offical report-letters by the school. These were letters the school sent when students performed poorly. Math, social studies, English: Beckett got report-letters for all three. He promised his father a better effort in grade 6. He said there would be no more letters.
"Your social studies assignment: who have you chosen for your biography?" Mr Hashmi asked, referring to Ms Johnstone's biography project. Most 6th graders knew about it before the year began. They had seen the previous year's class stress over it. They would try to explain what it entailed to the next year's class, but the younger cohort always thought it seemed easy. They had to pick a famous historical figure and write a one page biography explaining who person was, what he or she had done, and then explain why that historical figure was important today.
That last part was the hardest part. It was easy enough to look online and find out about who the person was, but trying to suggest why they were important in today's society, that was hard. The bad students would write something like, "without (name), (something) would never have happened." The better students wrote, "(name) has taught us (a valuable life lesson)." The really good students could describe how their historical figure really changed the world, or how he or she was the first person to accomplish something that had a lasting impact on even today's society. "It was the first time (something) had ever been accomplished, and it can be seen today in (another thing)."
Beckett was always suspicious when he thought about those students' answers. He suspected that they got help from parents or older siblings.
As of yet, Beckett hadn't thought about who he'd write about.
"I haven't thought about it yet."
"Then I'll choose for you. You know Latin. Your father is something of an expert on ancient history. You'll do Julius Caesar. Do you know anything about him?"
Beckett knew the name. Whoever designed Beckett's favourite video game, Crisis Shock, seemed to enjoy incorporating parts of old history into the game's characters. I'll finish what Caesar started... the games antagonist Commander Bison said before mudering a room full of his subordinates. Beckett had never taken the time to understand what that meant, in a historical context anyway.
"Only from video games and movies." Beckett replied. "He was a Roman leader, or something. He got killed."
"That's a start, Beckett." The principal laughed, shaking his head. "You've got the weekend to begin."
And just like that, Beckett's life was set on a new course. He had no say in the matter. He had no opportunity to say no. It was chosen for him.
One more thing I won't get done, Beckett thought to himself.
"Beckett, do you have any questions?" Mr Hashmi asked.
"Can I go?" Beckett asked.
"Yes. Go. Get started tonight!" Mr Hashmi replied as Beckett turned towards the door. "Oh, and we sent an official report-letter to your house about your start to the year. It should arrive today." Beckett went wide-eyed. Oh no!