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Ken Dryden Goes Back to High School in ‘The Class’

The famous Habs goalie, politician and lawyer tracks down his baby boomer classmates to find out how 'the Brain Class' fared in life / BY Ian Coutts / November 23rd, 2023


It’s a common impulse to look back on our past – to high school, say – and wonder whatever happened to the girl you had the hots for in Grade 10 or the guy who stuffed you into a locker. We’ll probably never know and, in fact, we’ll probably never attempt to find out.

That, among a score of other accomplishments, is what separates us from Ken Dryden, the one-time Montreal Canadiens goalkeeper, former member of Parliament, lawyer and bestselling author. In his new book, The Class, Dryden tracked down 21 girls and 14 boys in his Grade 9 class at Etobicoke Collegiate Institute in Toronto’s west end. They were no ordinary group of students. On May 11, 1960, every incoming student at ECI (more than 300 in all) wrote an exam. “For whatever reason,” he writes, “we did well enough and made it into the Selected Class,” which was less formally, and perhaps slightly derisively, known as the “Brain Class.” They were “the chosen ones, ahead of us five years of peer pressure of the most constructive kind,” and included “three Marilyns, three Joans, three Margarets, two of whom were called Peggy, two Judys, and two Kathys. Among the boys, there were two Kens. Otherwise, our names were Cheryl, Penni, Wayne, Gord, Murray, Lisa, Diana, Daryl, Bruce, and lots of others common to the time.” They all got diplomas in an era when more than half their Grade 9 cohort wouldn’t graduate from high school, and they all went to university at a time when few did. Then they drifted apart, to different schools and careers, in different parts of Canada and the world. Dryden himself would go to Cornell University, an American Ivy league school in Ithaca, N.Y., for his bachelor of arts degree, and go on to juggle law school at McGill University with playing goalie for the Canadiens in the ‘70s, when they won six Stanley Cups.

 

Ken Dryden

 

Dryden, 76, had the idea to track down his classmates and write a book for about 30 years, but didn’t get started on it until January 2020. He knew where three of four of them were, but “there was one woman who, I thought, if anybody would have a list – even a partial list of classmates – it might be her,” he says in a telephone interview from his home in Toronto. “She had a list of addresses and phone numbers for about 14 people.” One contact led to another, and then another. Most were still alive and, having been born in 1946 and 1947, most were retired, which gave them time to talk – especially after the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March and they were confined to their homes.

“I think part of why it worked is that the conversations just kind of naturally went on,” he says. “I had in mind that we might maybe talk as much as two to three, maybe, in some instances, four hours … In the end, I think it was probably on average of 12 to 14 hours for each person, gathered over the course of a couple of years.” He failed to find just one – a girl who had been part of the class for just two years. “Of the six who had passed away” – including one during COVID – “I found family members of five and had good long conversations with them.”

In The Class, Dryden gives the reader more than just the bare bones of his classmates’ lives – he wants us to know their world as the first of the baby boomers. “We lived through the explosion of everything new,” he writes. New roads leading to new suburbs, served by new shopping malls, and to educate all those kids, new schools (incredibly Etobicoke opened 11 new high schools between 1953 and 1964). Very few of their parents had been to university; many had experienced the brunt of the Depression, lived through the Second World War and were relatively recent arrivals to the middle class.

“My father was a salesman,” he says. “Looking around our class, there were a few other fathers that were salesmen. And it was the absolute perfect time to be a salesman. I mean, you had all these things that you might sell to all these people who might buy.” Dryden worked through old issues of Maclean’s magazine to understand the world he and his friends grew up in, even before they got to high school. The Canada of the early fifties, he writes, was a time of nation building, of what we’d now call megaprojects. The late fifties were increasingly concerned with the “why” of the changes that new affluence was bringing about. “Why are all of these things being written about this particular subject at this particular moment?” he says. “And what’s the attitude and the tone of voice?”

What makes The Class succeed is that Dryden understands something fundamental: People are fascinated with people, whether it’s Lisa Sweeting, and her Bohemian mother Adèle, or Wayne Yetman, who made it to the 1976 Montreal Olympics, placed 36th in the marathon, and went on to have a happy, useful life before returning to long-distance running in the 1990s. Or Steve Whistance-Smith, who was deeply involved in the birth of the Toronto independent theatre scene in the early ’70s. Or Gord Homer, who had a successful career in finance and then, in the early 2000s, began creating programs to encourage high school kids to get interested in robotics. In The Class, Dryden takes some fairly mundane lives – the ones that unfolded in more or less unspectacular fashion – and makes them interesting. We are invested in the people he tracks over 70 years and 474 pages.

Early on in the book, Dryden asks, “how did we get from there to here?” noting “almost none of us have lived the lives we imagined.” That seems to be true for him more than any of his classmates, but when asked if he sees a connection between his varied careers as a hockey player, lawyer and politician, he says it took him a while to tease that out.  “I’ve always loved trying to figure stuff out. Why is it the way it is? How did that happen?”

It’s also part of what a goalie does. “You’re the only person on the ice who is in the middle of the action and also separate from the action. You have to be immersed in it. But then you have the moments between the action to sort stuff out.” It’s also what he does as a writer, and what he’s done in The Class. “You’re so immersed in it, you can kind of sense and feel it, but don’t have a lot of time to think about it. You separate yourself from that action and, as you’re starting to write, try to figure it out.”

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