When Will They Ever Learn?

My tenure in elementary school is not so recent and most of my time as a child alludes my memory. But they say that repetition breeds memorization and it is for this reason that some parts of my time at Highland Public School in beautiful Galt, Ontario remain burned into my psyche. One such memory was the Remembrance Day assembly which happened every year on November 11 (or on the Friday prior if the 11th fell on a weekend). Looking back now I see how this was just one of the propagandistic methods used by the State to make sure that my young influenceable mind was ready to warmly embrace Canada’s role in horrific wars.

The assembly had many parts but there were a few that I will never forget. The first is that we could not clap. After any songs or performances it was forbidden. I remember other six-year-olds “shushing” one another who had been so accustomed to clapping after each performance and had forgotten that this assembly was “special” in this way. I also remember that we had to memorize two pieces. The first was the poem “In Flanders Fields”. It’s a lovely poem by the Canadian poet, John McCrae which laments the death of so many young men in the First World War. I have only this year learned that it was a poem that only Canadians knew. I assumed that all students living in what were once allied powers were forced to memorize it like I was but given that it is a Canadian poem, we were perhaps most happy to embrace it as a cultural staple.

The other piece that we were to memorize was the folk song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”. It was written by Pete Seeger in 1955 but the the popular version by the Kingston Trio from 1961 was the one that I remember being played for us. Where have the flowers gone? Well they’ve been picked by young women who take them to the graves of their husbands who had died in war. At the end of each verse we are asked, “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”. A lovely song, no doubt.

I was a young man of four years when I began attending Highland Public. I was in Junior Kindergarten in Ms. Cipolla’s class. That was in 2001. The Remembrance Day assembly took place, as always, in November of that year, after I had been attending classes for only two months. It was likely then that I heard the song for the first time. Though I didn’t think too much about it, the message of the song was clear for the seven years that I attended that school: Those bastard Germans need to learn their lesson and stop doing this war business. It’s a damn fine thing that we fought them all those years ago but it’s a shame that we lost so many Canadians in the process. “When will they ever learn?” I thought, “When will they ever learn?” Germany was the only ‘bad guy’ I knew about at the time and they were certainly guilty of war-making at least once.

The Right Honourable Jean Chrétien ready for battle

It is only now that I should look back upon this ritual with such disgust. This first time that I was in that assembly was only one month before Canada’s Joint Task Force 2 would land in Afghanistan. Our Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (pictured) was just beginning to lead a war which would last over a decade halfway across the world. And during that decade or so of war, I sat in assemblies at Highland Public School and eventually St. Andrew’s Public School and then Galt Collegiate Institute singing that same song asking, “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”

But who were we asking? Who was the they that was to learn? Each year they would ring from the stage the number of Canadians who had fallen in Afghanistan. Did we not ask that we might learn? That we might learn that these deaths are needless? That we might learn that the horrors of war are perhaps to much to bear and that we ought not bear them when we can avoid it? It was Canada that needed to learn. But every year we would hang our heads and mourn the deaths of these young men and women who passed. All for a great cause, no doubt. That could never be questioned. “When will they ever learn?” couldn’t mean us. It couldn’t mean that we were needlessly sending men and women to die. No, no. It was someone else. Not the Germans this time, but someone else needed to learn.

Here in 2021 it is only so obvious that we did not learn. That those men and women did not need to die and that our precious scarce resources did not need to be wasted on a war which did nothing. Which war will be next? Which hopeless, needless, and seemingly endless war will we next plunge ourselves into? And to whom will the four-year-olds ask “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”

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