VANCOUVER — The best high school nicknames have always carried an understated power.
In just a word or two, they offer not only an instant connection across the generations, but a way of paying homage to unique histories and traditions that each can so proudly call its own.
In fact at their very best, they are so deeply rooted in their time and their community, that in hands of teachers and historians, can themselves become the subjects of classroom study.
At least once a year, that’s precisely what happens in Room 315 at Vancouver’s Lord Byng Secondary School.
There, in what is one of the school’s original 95-year-old classrooms, social studies teacher/rugby coach Ian MacPhee gets to teach that very lesson.
First, just exactly who was the school’s namesake Julian Byng?
And secondly, how did Lord Byng Secondary’s teams come to be so uniquely known as the Grey Ghosts?
Well, as part of the Grade 10 curriculum he follows each year, MacPhee teaches his students all about Canada’s involvement in the two World Wars, including the 1917 victory in northern France at the famed Battle of Vimy Ridge where Byng commanded the Canadian troops.
“I teach about Canada’s role in the First World War and how Vimy Ridge was an important part of Canada’s identity, in the fact that they fought as a Canadian unit,” said MacPhee of an event which historians define as a pivotal moment in Canadian nationalism.
So much so that some eight years later, in the fall of 1925, Lord Byng High School was officially opened, its namesake was already some four years into his term as the 12th Governor General of Canada.
THE ORIGIN OF THE GREY GHOSTS
Sporting a hull over 1,000 feet in length and built at a cost of what today would be over $420 million Cdn, the RMS Queen Mary sailed on its maiden voyage back in May of 1936, representing the epitome of transatlantic luxury liner service.
What does any of this have to do with the nickname that would soon be adopted by a high school back in Vancouver?
(For a look at our entire list of 317 B.C. high school nicknames, click here. For a comical look at fantasy high school invitational tournaments based solely on nicknames and school names, click here)
In 1939, soon after the outbreak of World War II, the Queen Mary was converted into a troopship, ultimately ferrying some 800,000 Allied soldiers to major campaigns around the world over the duration of the conflict, including the D-Day invasion.
Yet before that transformation was complete, some alterations were made to her exterior.
“They painted the ship grey so that she would be better camouflaged on the seas,” said MacPhee. “This was during the time that so many of the transport ships were being torpedoed.
“I can’t remember how many trips it made back and forth, but it was never sunk,” added MacPhee of a ship that was also noted for its incredible speed. “That’s why it earned the nickname the Grey Ghost… because they couldn’t see it.”
These days, with it’s hull restored to its original black, the Queen Mary sits permanently docked in Long Beach. Cal., where since 1967 she has served as a maritime museum and hotel.
For MacPhee, the ability to integrate the school’s nickname into a Canadian history class is special.
“It was a commandeered passenger ship, not a battleship or a tank, or something else that would typically garner more attention,” explains MacPhee.
“It’s kind of subtle,” he adds, “maybe a bit of an underdog story in terms of not being front-and-centre but still a vital aspect… kind of like being a role player on a team, where you’re needed to be successful.”
A MOMENT CAPTURED IN TIME
Ian MacPhee delights in the conversation that so often ensues when students of his notice the subject of his laptop computer’s screen saver image.
“It’s a colourized photo of the original school,” he points out of a brand-new building whose vintage matches both the automobile parked out front and the Union Jack flying full-mast atop the building’s peak. “It must have been taken in the summer of 1925, right before we opened in the fall.”
“When the kids see that picture, they all ask questions,” continues MacPhee, who is able to bring a sense of realism to the conversations since his classes are conducted in one of the school’s original rooms.
“Byng went through some seismic upgrading, so the interior is different, but when I go to the exterior walls, where the windows are,” he continues of Room 315, which sits right in the middle of the backside of the building, “it’s still the original plaster that is cracked, and the windows themselves are single-pane glass with the old-fashioned sashes and the rest of it.”
This past November, as Remembrance Day arrived, MacPhee was once again able to bring a sense of realism to his Socials 10 class.
In the hallways of the school, poppies were appropriately placed within the photographic collages and memorials to those students lost in battle.
“And as a part of my class, I do a power point where I have some close ups of those photos,” continued MacPhee. “Some of them could have been sitting in this very classroom 80 years ago, and had the same dreams that kids do today. But through no fault of their own they were called into service and never came back.
“So I make those connections with kids… not to make them upset, but to say how lucky we are that the sacrifices of kids just like you sitting in this very room maybe 80 years ago allows you the privileges you have today in 2021 in Vancouver.”
And it’s a story, with the help of a special nickname, just waiting to be told over and over again.
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