On hobbies, economic disparity, and TDSB specialized program reform

“People who grew up with money will look you in the eyes and ask you something insane like ‘do you ski?’” — Michael Benjamin @mfbenji, Twitter

I went rock climbing for the first time in grade 12 after being pestered by my friend for months on end. The price tag was a bit daunting — $43 for a session including rental equipment — but I sucked it up because it seemed fun and I could afford it. It was great, even if I was not all that good.

Over winter break, I went climbing several times, getting my belay certification so I could hold the rope for my friends ($70). I also tried skating for the first time ($15), and started looking into getting vocal lessons ($50 per hour).

Skating was magical. I fell a dozen times, half of them intentional to learn how to fall safely. I started envisioning myself as a figure skater doing competitions in my laced-up figure skates ($200) and tight-fitting, gaudy skaters’ outfit ($150), gracefully leaping and spinning on the ice. Right now, though, I can barely glide. My second time out, I lost control of my fall and fell backwards into another skater. I was sore for days (curse this aging body).

I’ve been singing amateurly since the end of eighth grade, but I’ve never received private music lessons on any instrument. Voice is accessible right now, compared to buying ($1500) or renting ($300) my own saxophone, and regardless, I’m out of practice. After I heard the soloist at my choir’s end-of-semester concert sing Why do the nations so furiously rage together?, I was inspired to learn it as a repertoire piece for auditions and the like.

When I was younger, I couldn’t do very much at all. Music lessons were out of the question. Any sort of sport — especially winter sports — were well beyond my reach. I’ve never been to summer camp, and it was a choice between the publicly funded swimming lessons or skating lessons.

There are so many things I wish I could be an expert at. I wish I could sing at a professional level, or skate in competitions, or be an ARCT pianist. For the first time, I can afford to. Is it too late? People on the internet say “no,” and maybe they’re right. I do wish I had more of a head start, but I’ve given myself enough of one that I’m not locked out of it by age yet.

It always surprises me how much some of my friends do. What do you mean, you have old skates lying around, and take piano, and went abroad for the winter break, and ski? (Oh, why’s it always skiing? Is it that good? I’ll have to try eventually).

Granted, now that I have money to spend, it’s amazing how much there is to spend it on. The amount of hobbies and creative endeavours I’ve mentally committed myself to — saxophone lessons ($50 per hour), skiing ($300), canoeing ($30), piano lessons ($50 per hour) — could contest even the most thinly spread of my friends. And what is life about, if not doing one’s best to learn and do as much as there is to learn and do? There’s a life goal that you can always make progress on and never worry about completing.

This whole disparity reminds me of when the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) announced that they would base admission to specialized high school programs, like MaCS (the math, computers, and science program that I attended) or arts programs, on a lottery rather than on merit. The TDSB policy argued that this was a solution to issues of “inequity,” an argument that very few people seem to give the attention it deserves.

As soon as I say this, someone will prove me wrong, but I am pretty confident when I say I was the poorest student in my grade in MaCS, and that’s no coincidence. Extracurricular programs like Kumon or Spirit of Math, which provide regular supplemental lessons in math or other subjects, cost thousands of dollars and are inaccessible to most of the people living in my area. As surprising as it may be, a sizeable portion of my MaCS grade attended such a program before getting into MaCS, and continued to throughout.

Is a lottery the best solution? Maybe, maybe not. I’m no policy analyst. But allow me to offer a response to the most common concern I’ve heard from people, that by removing the entry requirements for MaCS, there will be a sudden influx of people who won’t be able to keep up, and the program will lose its edge to compensate. I think that MaCS’s high demand and prestige stem from its entry requirements; being in the program is desirable because it shows that you were good enough to get in. Take away that factor and you take away its prestige.

Who would willingly sign up for a challenging STEM program that carries no prestige? The people who are genuinely interested in STEM and seek out such a challenge, regardless of whether they had the opportunity to beforehand.

A few years down the line, we’ll see who was right. In the meanwhile, you can argue with me or share your thoughts by reaching out through any contact medium (and for those who don’t have me on anything, go ahead and find my proxy email using a domain lookup system like WHOIS). I’ve thought about commenting systems, and I may have one up soon. I might also put up some poetry before the next blog post, though I really don’t look forward to dealing with the navigational challenges that will pose. Until next time.