At one time in Ontario there used to be something called “Grade 13”, the last year of high-school before one went on to University.  My online reading tells me that, while there were a few other places where one had grade 13, most places only go up to Grade 12.  I don’t claim to know the history of such distinctions, only that educators noticed that we were different, and sought to harmonize our educational system with other nearby places such as the rest of Canada & the USA.

And so it came to pass that Grade 13 was abolished, Grade 12 becoming the last year of high-school.

Imagine the year of the change.  Those in Grade 13 would go on to university, and so too, those who were in Grade 12.  As a result, two different sets of graduates would emerge from high-school, some having matriculated from the old 5 year high-school curriculum, others emerging from a new 4 year program.  That year –when twice as many kids descended upon the universities of Canada—a phrase came into common usage in the educational sector, namely “the double cohort”, describing twice as many freshmen, then (the next year) twice as many in second year, and awhile later, a larger than usual contingent of graduate school applicants (not necessarily double, but likely bigger than normal).

It may be that some academics always called the students a cohort, but the first year I caught wind of it was in the lead-up to the year(s) that our population would be doubled.

The word “cohort” has a militaristic echo, but the metaphor is useful.  It sounded as though a huge contingent of soldiers would descend upon the unsuspecting populace, perhaps bringing up unconscious echoes of the shore-leaves seen in such films as On the Town.  After all, university students can be just like soldiers (not just in age, but in their desire for enjoyment of a drink).

It all came back to me recently as I attended a memorial celebration at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto.

In the room people did what people usually do at parties: gather with their friends & colleagues.  This means that in different parts of the room, people would be organized by their sense of affiliation.  In an educational environment this can often mean something just like cohorts.  On one side of the room were the older grads, who had left decades ago.  In another one bunch were those who had been in the school roughly twenty years ago.  In another group in the room were the current students talking amongst themselves.

Hermann Geiger-Torel (photo from Susan Weiss)

On the wall if one cares to look, there are pictures of former mentors (both educational & professional), particularly Hermann Geiger-Torel, the one-time General Director of the Canadian Opera Company.

It struck me as I noticed the way people were socializing, that cohorts are a kind of subtext for our lives.  I’m getting older.  We all are.  Those who are my age –the ones of course that I know and who know me—represent my own cohort, and we’re aging together.

I can’t get this impression out of my head.  When I attended the COC ensemble studio auditions I was aware that the current group will eventually leave, to be replaced by a new cohort, year by year.  Watching young singers perform in groups such as Opera Five –in their recent program of one act works—I was touched by their youth even as I took in their position on the threshold of mastery and eventual greatness.  And as I tried to remember all the new names of singers  in European productions the same construct stayed with me, as if the new singers were recently students (as they surely were), and were soon to be retired (as eventually they would be).

I am listening to Barack Obama, as he addresses the congregation in the prayer meeting Sunday December 16th, saying “we know our time on this Earth is fleeting”.  I was contemplating my own fragile voice, roughed up by a bit too much fun on an exhausting Saturday night of partying, glad to be alive.  We are all flowers with a brief span, even if we’re not plucked like those whose names Obama listed in the service, not yet “called home” by God.

The talents we see onstage are fragile, mortal.  We shouldn’t need violence to notice our vulnerability, to appreciate the brevity of our time on Earth & the flowering of talent.  I am grateful for the blessing of friends & ability around me, the opportunities to enjoy our frailty in live performance.  If we were like machines –if no one ever fluffed a note or missed an entry—we’d be immortal.  Young or old, whichever cohort you might belong to, our humanity argues for our gratitude.

We are not machines.  Hallelujah.

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