Before she died, my mother confessed to me that one day, when she was five years old, she kidnapped her entire class. Inadvertently.

It was 1939 because she was five years old. She was in senior kindergarten, she knew that. And she knew that she was going to see Wendell Willkie. She’d heard her grand-father talk about him and she knew that Wendell Willkie was going to make a speech at City Hall. And she was going to go and see him. She wasn’t quite sure who Wendell Willkie was but she knew one thing.

“I was going to see Wendell Willkie”, she said. “And no one was going to stop me.”

Why the obsession with Wendell Willkie? I asked her. “I liked his name”, she said.

Unfortunately, she had to go to school that day. But she wasn’t about to let that stop her. She was going to cut school and walk to City Hall and see Wendell Willkie. Because she’d heard her grand-father speak about him. And she liked his name.

She said she must have confessed her intentions to another classmate, who wanted to join her. And then another classmate got wind of the plan. And then another. Soon, her whole class was begging to join her.

Wendell Willkie’s Wikipedia entry states that he ran against Roosevelt in 1940 and lost. Why he was speaking in Toronto is a fact lost to history (or, at least, not recorded by Wikipedia).

My mother adored her grand-father and he must have mentioned Wendell Willkie and how it might be interesting to hear what Wendell Willkie had to say. Plus, to a five-year old, the name “Wendell Willkie” probably conjured up an image of a playful character and not a corporate lawyer. My mother was an intellectually precocious child but I sincerely doubt she wanted to hear criticism of the New Deal or the broad strokes of the Republican platform. So she was off to see Wendell Willkie and neither Hell nor high water (nor the nuns at school) were going to stop her.

And to cover up her crime, she enlisted her entire class as accomplices. I can only assume that upon hearing the name “Wendell Willkie”, most of the children thought they were going to the circus, not a political rally. My mother hinted that there might be refreshments and no doubt that swayed more than one timid opinion. Regardless, she lined them up, the way the teachers did and marched them out of the school-yard of St. Joseph’s at Bay and Wellesley and headed off towards City Hall at Bay and Queen.

Class sizes haven’t changed much. There were about twenty five kids in her class. And when the nuns realized that an entire kindergarten class was missing, they naturally became quite alarmed. Police were notified and were present when my mother, and her entire class, returned to school a couple of hours later, tired, hot and somewhat disappointed at the lack of refreshments.

The nuns asked her “Why did you do it, Mary-Helen?”

She said “I wanted to see Wendell Willkie. They wanted to come with me.”

“I got in a lot of trouble for that.” she said. And even more than 70 years later, she still sounded slightly bitter but still proud. “I brought them all back. I didn`t see what the problem was and why everybody was so upset.”

”I wanted to see Wendell Willkie. And I did.”

The past wasn’t a simpler time, not by a long shot. It was every bit as crazy and every bit as complex as today. No one in their right mind would allow an unescorted group of five-year olds to walk several city blocks (and back!) so it’s a good thing that she didn’t ask for permission. Nowadays, if an entire kindergarten class “went missing” for a few hours, the entire city would be in lock-down. People of my generation like to imagine that our childhood was idyllic and peaceful, a paradise of long summer days spent playing outside instead of mesmerized by a screen or a smart-phone. But I grew up in the shadow of Watergate and the War in Vietnam and Jonestown. I remember the Emergency Broadcast System test every day, during cartoons. My mother remembered the Blitz and the Blitzkrieg and the Second World War.

Her grand-father had fought in the First World War and had warned of a second one. During the war, they’d listen to the radio and chart any progress on a map, with pins. A lot of people used to do this. She adored her grand-father. She said he was the one who picked her up at school that day and was appropriately stern in front of the nuns (and the police) but later took her out for ice cream. To make up for the lack of refreshments.

I have no reason to doubt the veracity of her story and she had no reason to lie. I`ve checked around a bit in newspaper morgues and can find no mention of an entire kindergarten class going missing in 1939 and then being found. But then again, maybe the nuns didn’t report it (as the children were found, in front the assembled police) and an explanation was made (such as it was).  This was “how they rolled” back then. No harm done.

And no, there were no refreshments.


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