Studying in the US
The Personal Story Behind The Political Career, Part 4
I was already politically active by then. When I was 12 years old, my parents were helping Laurentides Liberal candidate Michelle Tisseyre in the 1993 federal election, and I was engaged to some degree in every federal and provincial election campaign I was near, more or less from then on.
In the summer of 1995, I asked for only one thing for my 14th birthday: my membership card for the Liberal Party of Canada, for which I would become eligible that day.
That fall, Quebec underwent the lobotomy of a referendum on the abundantly straightforward question:
Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?
I had begun attending NMH a few weeks before the referendum, which was undoubtedly part of my family’s motivation in finding a way for me to leave Quebec, and the vote and results took place when I was home for the first long weekend of the school year. When Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau made his famous drunken speech blaming money and the ethnic vote for ruining his dreams, my mother slipped off her shoe and nearly threw it at the television at the house of then-Liberal riding association president Alfred Belisle, an image permanently burned into my psyche.
NMH was a gorgeous 2-campus 6000-acre 1,100 student left-leaning boarding school in rural Massachusetts, right on the Vermont and New Hampshire borders, with students from around 75 countries. Founded by D.L. Moody, a Christian missionary, in the late 19th century, it was a rare beast: a private school designed to offer education to those who could not afford it.
For the first time in my life, I began to find real friends, and those friendships have in many cases become profound and life-long. The school offered significant financial support for me to be there without which there was no way I could have attended. It was a fascinating mix of very wealthy and very much not wealthy students, and it was structured so that it was virtually impossible to tell which students were which.
All students, regardless of status, were required to do 4.5 hours per week of “work job”; cleaning bathrooms, dorms, dishes, or classrooms, or cooking, working the campus sugar shack, apple orchard, or stables, or, mostly for students in later years, doing office and clerical work. Many boarding schools have a similar system, but often only for students receiving financial assistance.
At NMH, my work job my first year was in the West Hall dishroom. West Hall was the 410-seat cafeteria on the Mount Hermon campus, which, as the dining services director at the time pointed out to us, technically made it the largest restaurant in New England.
Before my arrival, my brother had established his bona fides as a technologist. I had moved to NMH with an 8086/XT with a 20MB MFM hard drive and 640KB of RAM and a dot-matrix printer using form feed paper. I was one of only four of the 45 students in my dorm to have any kind of computer at all, but the other three were vastly more powerful early Pentiums, so to say I was keeping up with the times would be overstating it. My parents still had their 1981 Osborne, starting its 14th year of service, after all.
Given my brother’s advanced computer knowledge and expertise that was known throughout the school, as I learned, there was an expectation that I would be a computer person, too. While I was familiar with computers insofar as I could already type, use a DOS command line, had a handful of computer games, and had used Windows 3 a bit the previous year at Stanstead, I was not by any stretch of the imagination the expert programmer that my brother had already become.
Just days into my freshman year, I received a call from one of the school’s Deans requesting I come to his office as quickly as possible. Wondering what trouble I could possibly already be in, I went to the administrative building where he quickly ushered me into his office with the question “You are Jonah’s brother, right?” Confirming this to be the case, he told me he had created a new folder in his email and could not figure out where it went. I looked at his screen, saw the problem right away, showed him how to use the scrollbar, and in so doing established that I must also be a computer expert.
A few days later I had a similar experience with the campus librarian asking me for help with a similar level of problem, which, despite my lack of any actual knowledge, I was also able to solve.
As it turned out, the Library was looking to create a computer lab. There was already a Mac-based computer lab in the science buildings on each campus, and the school was embracing technology in the hope of staying on the leading edge, funded, as noted elsewhere in my story, by the Jonas Reed Klein Memorial Fund. Having established my bona fides as a computer expert by explaining the function of a scroll bar, I was approached to be one of the first computer lab monitors in the Library, spending two nights a week during study hall (8-10pm every school night) supervising and assisting with the computers in the library instead of studying in my room, and it would serve as my work job for my sophomore year.
It was unusual for students to have administrative or clerical work jobs before their senior year, and generally no student could have the same work job two years in a row. So in junior year, I became a computer lab monitor in the Cutler Science Center’s rather larger (close to 20 machines) computer lab, and in senior year I moved to a dorm on the school’s other and since-closed Northfield campus, becoming a computer lab monitor in the Palmer Science Center, making each assignment a technically different work job. Thanks to my parents’ early adoption of technology and my brother’s embracing of it, I had the best work jobs possible for almost my entire time at NMH.
Being unabashedly Canadian in a school with few Canadians, I quickly gained the nickname “Canada”. Throughout my time in the school, I was involved with the campus computer science club known as GEECS, which recursively stood for “GEECS for Electrical Engineering and Computer Science”, and my first email address was in many ways a harbinger of things to come: firstname.lastname@example.org.
While my overall educational experience at NMH was exceptional, my academic performance was not. In spite of my SSAT score in mathematics way back in grade 7, I finished pre-calculus with a D- in grade 11 after getting a “conditional pass” at mid-terms and didn’t do calculus at all until my brief stint in university, where I outright failed the topic. As I have explained since then:
I also spent three of my four years on Academic Probation, only making the honour roll for the first time in my very last semester, when I was studying computer science, astronomy, and a course called Speech and Oral Interpretation with my favourite teacher through high school, the aptly named Mr Batty.
In Astronomy with another exceptional teacher named Hughes Pack, we spent a significant amount of time doing manual image comparisons to try and find near Earth asteroids. Three students in the other section of the class were the first non-professional astronomers ever to identify a Kuiper belt object, designated 1998 FS144.
In the highly classist American society, this was a school that demonstrated, that lived, racial and financial equality in the best way it could while still being a private boarding school. In spite of growing up less than 5 kilometers from an “Indian reserve” (a term I have come to hate for the tremendous history of genocide it represents — more on that in a later essay), I met aboriginal students for the first time. I made friends from all over the world, and began learning bits and pieces of numerous other languages.
Regardless of the academic merits of the institution, the mere experience of living in that environment was profoundly eye-opening and educational. The four years I spent at NMH were without a shadow of a doubt the most important period in my educational career and has in some way defined every aspect of my life since that time, as much if not more outside the classroom than in. It was a period rich in anecdotes and memorable experiences.
The accidental background in technology the school provided me also sent me into a career in high tech within a year.