Martti Lahtinen’s Bucket List - 100 Days in Finland, Part 5
Martti never quite forgave his family for ripping him away from his homeland just before he would have started school there. He faced tough times starting school in a new country and in a foreign language but redeemed himself a couple of years later with the help of a dedicated teacher. Still, he always regretted that he didn’t get a chance to start school in Finland. You would think it would be too late to rectify this sad state of affairs, but not necessarily...
Un-Finnished business: Getting my Grade One
by Martti Lahtinen
After hitting a communications wall, struggling with a case of dormant Finnish that surfaced in face of hockey reporters' post-game questions at the oldtimers 2002 World Cup at Helsinki, it struck me how ill-equipped I was to discuss matters other than hockey were I to revisit. The realization kindled a language reawakening: I vowed to augment the indigenous sounds base – I'm talking umlauts here – with a more voluminous vocabulary. One way to do that is to speak Finnish at every opportunity, no matter how gratingly fractured and/or dialectical – how unsound – it might bumble forth. Sure, mistakes happen, but you can't be cowed by embarrassment, which dissuades many from learning foreign languages beyond “Where is the railway station?” On the contrary, I invite the unhappenstance, as do others.
Face-to-face meetings with identified countrymen usually begin with the acknowledged universal password to a very exclusive club which numbers but about seven million-plus worldwide: “Puhutko Suomea?” (Do you speak Finnish?) Some do, some don't, but the ethnic membership bond trumps all. I was lucky with my familial approach, given that I made it a point to call Mom every Sunday night, using each mother-son telephone exchange to speak Finnish. She died December 2014 at age 97. My grieving includes the missing informal language training I enjoyed year-round. It was difficult to avoid lapsing into Fingliskaa (my spelling) – the evolutionary bastardization of English to suit Finnish immmigrants – to make oneself understood. Examples abound. The Finnish patois for car is “kaara.” And what makes the kaara go? “Käsliini.” My favourite, you ask? That's easy: the oxymoronic “Rap Music” transitions to “Räppishitti.” That pretty well sums it up.
There were other measures taken to upgrade Finnish. I skated the Internet to follow the Finnish hockey elite league; I prowled tourist destination sites and clicked the language preference site to “Suomen kieli.” Moreover, I've been to Finland six times, taking advantage of the gene pool connection. I have five living cousins whose welcome mats still spell “tervetuloa.” Many hockey buddies send fixed invitations.
However, the basic problem remains: I left Finland in 1950, the year I was supposed to begin school in the fall term. I missed Grade One, and all the subsequent educational development building blocks thereafter. I pieced together the sad story into an article which had a happy ending. It made the front page of Kanadan Sanomat, a Toronto-based Finnish-Canadian publication, four years ago under the heading: “It's Never Too Late To Go Back To School.” It took 62 years, but I went back to school and finally got my Grade One. I passed the scholastic benchmark during a visit to Finland, from where my family emigrated to Canada in 1950.
The bad news in my story: I had turned seven before the splashdown in Winnipeg, and had to enter a school system where children begin attending school at age six. It was a case of betwixt and between – age-related systemic limbo, one might say – and I was a language-challenged overager swimming among anglophone first-graders for a month. The good news: the national shoe of Finland is the rubber boot, which I wore to school. Given the flood conditions after the Red River spilled over its banks that spring, I was the only kid in the class allowed outside during recess. That suited me just fine. Nobody spoke Finnish, so I remained oblivious to the trash-talking in the schoolyard, which can be a cruel place at times.
Our stay in Winnipeg was short-lived. My father, a printer, found work at a newspaper in Sudbury, Ont., home to 7,000 Finns. We moved just weeks before school let out for the summer holiday. I really began school in Grade 2 at MacLeod Public, catching up to the seven-year-olds beginning the Fall term. Miss Price taught me well, fast-tracking my English language skills at a front desk. Grade 3 proved to be a breeze. I still have the book Mrs. Barr awarded me for being the top student in the class. Let the record show that including skipping Grade 7, I hurdled eight grades in six years.
No scholastic endeavour beyond the elementary has come close to matching my early personal bests. In high school and university, cars, girls, hockey and alcohol saw to that. An A-plus in alcoholic denial once served as the lame excuse that my education was undermined by the missing entry-level building block. Those in the know, of course, disagree.
But now, I have finally collected the critical missing piece. During the September 2012 visit to Finland, a school in the tiny Finnish village of Metsämaa awarded me a symbolic first-grade pass – albeit posthumorously. The 150-year-old school was my mother’s and grandmother’s alma mater. I'm a Kallio on the maternal side, and the school was once named Kallion Koulu. My grandmother is buried in the village church graveyard there. During my 2012 visit, after I kneeled at her headstone for a picture taken by my Finnish hockey friend Pekka Saloranta, I spotted the school just across the street and responded to a whim: let’s visit the place.
Metsämaa Elementary School opened its doors in 1879. This is the Grade One and Two Building.
It’s a wonder the police were not summoned when two adults wandered into the schoolyard carrying equipment in a bag for a photo shoot. A hasty explanation to the woman peeking out the main door preceded the director’s inviting the big kid from far away to sit in the Grade 1 classroom to recount in Finnish his 62-year wayward journey to a dozen bewildered seven-year-olds who spoke no English. (See photo below. Martti is the big kid sitting in the back row. Standing to his left is his hockey buddy Pekka Saloranta.) Braving going back to school at my age was simply awesome. If there was one drawback, it was that there was no graduation ceremony. They couldn’t find a cap and gown big enough to fit. Meanwhile, the message from all of this rings out like the school bell: it’s not where you start, it’s where you Finnish.