Tom Durrie: “Anybody with Any Brains Will Not Be Able to Stand School”

Tom Durrie (b. 1931) came to Canada in 1960 to run an alternative school, and he agreed to share his refreshingly honest thoughts on public education with us.



Tom Durrie: Vancouver was very quiet. All the cars were little, Austins and so on. I don’t know, it just appealed to me so much. So part of the plan was that we were going to come up on a kind of exploratory trip. This was in ’51-’52, somewhere around then.


I just loved it. It seemed so civilized compared to Los Angeles, for example, where I was spending time, or Santa Barbara—even though Santa Barbara is certainly beautiful. It was, I don’t know, politics and everything else… I just love this country.


I had read a good deal and when I went to the University of Southern California, there was a course in Canadian history which I took (I think probably the only one in the United States) and again, I was very impressed with the history of the country— the way it was formed, the non-violence, the whole idea of peace and good government— not like the United States.


When the whole thing in Santa Paula blew up, we planned an exploratory trip up here, because, I guess, we were sort of idealistic 30-year-olds and we had—in particular, I had—this idea of living in the country and of doing subsistence farming. That emerged big time in the ’60s, but I was way ahead of my time, I guess. So that was part of the idea, but then we just decided we’d pack up and come up here. In 1960, as soon as school was out in June, we packed up the Volkswagen van.


My whole idea of school and education was becoming more and more radical all the time. I was not happy with the school system and I knew I was not gonna be able to survive this very long. Fortunately, during the last two years in the US, I was teaching what was then known as ‘Educable Mentally Retarded’—they were just normal kids who didn’t like school, the way I’d been. But I was able to get away with anything. We didn’t do any school work, the kids played around all day, and the changes in those kids were so amazing! They grew up and became totally responsible, won the floor hockey match, did all kinds of things. Everybody thought they were just dumb kids. Well—hardly.


I had written a couple of things critical of the school system, and then I got a call from some people here, at the new school. And that was the school founded by UBC profs for their kids because they wanted something more liberal. Everyone had read Summerhill then and a lot of other books critical of the public education system. They eventually offered me the job of Headmaster or Director of that school. So we packed up and moved to Vancouver.

Summerhill School by A. S. Neill endorsed education based on freedom and equality
Image credit: Svoboda v práci , CC, Flickr

Bruce Macdonald: And where is that school located?


Tom Durrie: 15th and Commercial. There’s a building there… It’s not in that building where the school was—that one is long gone. Actually, there’s an alternative school right on that block there, somewhere, so it’s kind of a tradition now.
Anyway, that was quite a year, because, while I talked—I was brilliant in my talking about freedom in education and that kind of thing—but then, of course, when you actually see it in practice, the kids go nuts. Which is exactly right. Even A.S. Neill talks about that: you take all the rules away, and then everybody is like they’re two-year-olds again, they want to test every possible boundary.


B.M.: So the school at 15th and Commercial, by Clark Park, was that one of the very first alternative schools in Vancouver?


Tom Durrie: I think so. And it went on for quite a few years after that.


B.M.: At UBC, at that time, they had the ArtsONE program.


Tom Durrie: That’s right.


B.M.: So it was a similar idea.


Tom Durrie: Yeah. There was a lot of that kind of movement in those days, especially what with kids being so much… I don’t know, man, they were active! Politically active. I don’t know what’s happened to young people these days. That was a very exciting time to be in Vancouver. And I became a kind of education guru during that year, and I gave all kinds of speeches and so on; it was great.


B.M.: Then, in the early ’70s you had the Free University.


Tom Durrie: Oh, yes, I was involved in that. In 1971, the Free School was kind of falling apart too, the enrollment was dropping, because a lot of the public schools had co-opted a lot of our ideas, and there are still alternative programs in schools that didn’t exist before then. So, instead of getting rid of the pushouts, dropouts, bright kids who couldn’t handle it, they were creating programs within the school.


B.M.: So ’71 to ’77. And that’s when the Free University operated at the Van East Cultural Centre?


Tom Durrie: During that time, yes.


B.M.: What year did it start?


Tom Durrie: ’72-’73, around then. Then I was working on a LIP project.


B.M.: Which is what I was doing that very same year, ’73.


Tom Durrie: It was great. It was a scam, in a way, because I don’t think we ever really did anything. $400 a month—you could live very nicely on that.


B.M.: It’s funny, because in 1975, after I had graduated from Simon Fraser in ’74 with a teaching certificate, I ran the alternative school in West Vancouver. It was called S.W.A.P.—the Sentinel Work Activity Project.


Tom Durrie: Because there is that school over there that’s still going and was started around that time.


B.M.: That was a boys’ program, and they also had a girls’ program. Some really interesting kids.


Tom Durrie: All the interesting kids end up in programs like that.


B.M.: So true. I actually ran the one from New Westminster Secondary as well. I was a teacher. It’s the second biggest high school in Canada. They had 800 grade eights, and I had the 10 worst grade eights out of 800. And they were great kids.


Tom Durrie: Absolutely.


B.M.: And then I ran the program in Delta, at Delta Secondary School.


Tom Durrie: Anybody with any brains will not be able to stand school.


B.M.: Including the teachers.


Tom Durrie: Including the teachers, yeah. That’s why all the good teachers drop out. A friend of mine and I formed a Dropout Teachers Society. It was actually quite funny. Our motto was: ‘We help people out.’ We actually got quite a bit of publicity in just a few months we did that.


B.M.: When was that?


Tom Durrie: It was when I was first in Burnaby, so ’71-’72, somewhere around then.


B.M.: During the Free University days.


Tom Durrie: I think I was working down here at the time, and my friends were at a… we had a free education section where we were giving information about schools and stuff like that. I honestly don’t remember the years.


B.M.: How pioneering was the Free University? Was there anything like it around Vancouver?


Tom Durrie: Not that I know of.


B.M.: And how would you describe it? What was it? What was the idea behind it?


Tom Durrie: I really don’t know. People were offering courses, I guess, or more like a seminar kind of thing.


B.M.: More or less unpaid?


Tom Durrie: Oh, it was totally free. I didn’t have a lot to do with it. It was my friend Judy and some other people I knew who really were there and ran it.
So after that… God, when did I do that? I would think 1972, but I couldn’t have done everything in 1972. But I worked at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.


B.M.: You were freed up by your LIP grant to do things.


Tom Durrie: This was an LIP grant. I worked for a year on an LIP at The Cultch. And that was in the early days when it was Chris Wootten, Murray Skikas and Wendy Newman. The place was still a mess, and they were fixing things up, but they had already started doing shows and stuff there. It was very exciting.


B.M.: And it had been an empty church before that?


Tom Durrie: Yeah. After the Free University folded, I guess they kinda moved in, I think on something like an ‘opportunities for youth” grant or something like that. So that’s how The Cultch was started. And, you know, always by one person. It’s like the York Theatre, the Vogue… It’s not the ‘Cultural Services’ or any of those highly-paid people. It’s always somebody with a mission who makes those things happen.

The Van East Cultural Centre/The Cultch
Image credit: Kelly Constabaris, CC, Flickr



B.M.: What was your involvement in saving the York Theatre?

Tom Durrie: Oh boy. That was around 1980. I moved here in 1977, to East Vancouver, and I lived on Rhodes Street. I had a house there. But how did I get involved in the York Theatre? I had been to a number of shows there and plays. I remember seeing Janet Wright in Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf—good, good stuff. And then— I don’t know how— I heard that the Patel brothers were running it as kind of a Bollywood theatre and they were showing various movies. This was in 1980-something.


The Little Theatre bailed out in 1977, so I guess it was right after that that the Patel brothers started showing films there. And, anyway, the rumour was the that owner, whose name was Kajmir Sidhu—I met him; he probably owned half of the city—was gonna tear it down. So we formed the Save The York Theatre Society in ’81.


B.M.: It took a while to save it.


Tom Durrie: It took a while. It was a 25-year project. I never gave up, that’s it. So, anyway, Mr. Sidhu was ‘Oh, yeah, I don’t care’. So we put together a proposal for restoration and redevelopment of the theatre, but that didn’t fly. That was the same year that The Firehall got the money from Heritage Canada, or The Department of Canadian Heritage, as it was probably know, in the good old days when we weren’t afraid of using more than two words.

The York Theatre was reopened in 2013
Image credit: Dave O, CC, Flickr

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