“At ALPHA the students asked just as many questions as the teachers.”
Given that so many of my developmental years were spent at Alpha Alternative School, there are many aspects of my experience that formed who I am and how I look at the world. The sense of personal responsibility and freedom to explore what interested you—with direction of course—was both a terrific strength and (rarely) a bit of a weakness. At ALPHA the students asked just as many questions as the teachers. The teachers usually sat at tables with the students, and took far more of a personal interest in every student than in a mainstream school. I suspect the nature of the school itself drew teachers who wanted that interaction. We were guided, occasionally led, but often just let to run.
I remember a science project—it was one of those lightbulb moments where you are working through things and all of a sudden a little piece of the universe clicks into place. An education that makes you responsible for your own learning process teaches you something very valuable: how to keep learning, how to explore things that catch your interest, and how to look at the world as something of a mystery to be explored.
You didn’t fall into the trap of conventionality in your thinking, and didn’t develop the fear of trying new things. Woodcarving comes to mind; it isn’t something I would have sought out, but I did try it and enjoyed the experience. Making wire frame plaster bandage sculptures. Building a knight’s suit of armor out of tape and found objects. Developing my own photos and photography. I mean, how many kids those days would have had access to a darkroom? Just being around parents and students who were ferociously creative was a good experience.
I remember spending a week on an animated claymation film. I had a newscaster having a bad day, hairpiece falling off his head, papers getting blown away, falling over his desk, followed by people being chased by a dinosaur—because a flying toupée just naturally leads to thinking about dinosaurs of course.
I’ve always had an interest in computers, which started at ALPHA with the exciting world of the Commodore PET. Amazing how a wavering green screen with 80 characters in a row was filled with so much imagination. [Now] I work in IT/server support for a company that makes sensors for steel mills, in a range of buildings from oil soaked machine shops to clean room labs with signs right out of a Bond movie—BEWARE OF LASER being one example.
I keep a hand in with writing for the Canadian Motorcycle Guide (CMGonline.com). My main vehicle is a Russian sidecar motorcycle that was originally designed in the 1930s.
ALPHA has influenced my life greatly to this day. At least that’s the only explanation I can think of for the odd situations I keep finding myself in. I’ve driven a moped 800 km while dressed in a silly costume, been mistaken for a WWI re-enactor when I wasn’t re-enacting anything at all, driven across the country in a sidecar bike to honour a man who rode large wheeled bicycles, and had dinner in a baron’s château while listening to a group of men describe how they blew up various church steeples. Somehow I don’t think life would be quite as much of an unpredictable adventure if I hadn’t had ALPHA to teach me to be open to new things. Why often I even order the soup of the day without asking what it is. That’s the kind of nonconformist rebel that ALPHA made of me. That and often wearing mismatched socks.
I would say going to ALPHA definitely made you more aware of authority figures as human beings. You didn’t end up with that certain awe of teachers as semi-mythical figures, handing down decisions and commandments. While they weren’t precisely peers, you did have a relationship that made them much more approachable than the regular student/teacher dynamic, to the benefit of both. You were more involved in your own education, which often led in directions that were surprising for both teacher and pupil.
— Jamie Leonard
Colour photo by Michael Barker
Black and white photo by F. Robert Openshaw
Text and Interview by Ariel Fielding
- ALPHA late 1970s to 1980s
- ages 4–13
- Studied Journalism at Ryerson University.
- Works in Information Technology/Server Support.
- Rides, collects, and writes about motorcycles.