Alpha Alternative School was a free school, which apparently was quite different for the time, but as a kid it felt normal to me. I took for granted that it was different from anywhere else or that there was anything unusual to be aware of. My understanding of what made it different was a perceived lack of formal structure. I don’t remember ever having to do anything. This may sound like complete chaos; certainly if you let the kids in a regular school plan their day, it would be chaos, but I think that because that was our normal, we created our own day. We, as students, took it upon ourselves to create the structure that wasn’t being imposed on us. We didn’t create chaos to rebel against the established structure; we created a structure where there wasn’t one. If the structure that was being established by one kid wasn’t one that interested you, you fit into someone else’s, or if no one was creating the day you wanted, you could create your own and let others join you. It wasn’t just kids running around screaming and breaking things, it was kids making the school into what they wanted it to be.
I remember playing a lot of tag and being a pretty fast runner. I remember being able to fit inside the giant tires in the playground. I remember acting out Grease after school. I remember going to the park across the street. I was there with someone and we found a patch of four-leaf-clovers. We picked a shopping bag full and brought them back to Alpha and someone older than me didn’t believe me and said, “I used to do that trick when I was a kid.” I remember waiting for the streetcar to go home and going to Bill’s Restaurant and ordering a glass of water and some crackers for free while we waited. I remember a giant airtight wooden box and taking turns locking each other in it and timing how long until we asked to come out. I remember we stopped after a kid passed out and couldn’t alert us that he was ready to exit—to my knowledge, no one ever died. I remember an election where everyone chose a political party. I ran as NDP, which was kind of a no-brainer. I made signs and thought my campaign slogan, “Fill-up, with better gas prices” was pretty clever, but it didn’t work on a poster: it was purely wordplay with my last name, Phillips. The fact that a school election was using gas prices in a campaign was lost on me. Given the democratic nature of the school, I doubt that any power was wielded by the winner, if there was a winner.
There were so many opportunities to organize things that interested you that it gave me a fundamental feeling that if I wanted something to happen, I should just make it happen. I definitely came away without a fear of authority figures.
I think my Dad grew tired of driving me across the city, and I switched to my local school for grade 4. I did well in the rest of elementary school. I tested above grade level in everything but math. I’m actually quite good in math now. I didn’t finish high school. I was a few credits short and didn’t want to continue after grade 13; it felt like enough schooling at the time. I went to York University as a mature student for one year to study languages and linguistics. After my first year, I thought it would be more fulfilling to continue the same line of study, but in French, so I transferred to Université du Québec à Trois Rivières. I didn’t speak French, but figured an immersion program would fix that pretty quick. I worked as an actor, drama teacher and director for many years until 1999 when I decided to become a paramedic and went back to college. I worked hard and was a good student. I had good grades in college. I’ve been a paramedic in Toronto ever since.
I’ve also written a book called The Emergency Monologues about my experiences as a paramedic. I have a one-person show with the same title. I remember that I used to tell jokes to the other kids at ALPHA in the morning. They weren’t my jokes—I used to stay up and watch Dave Allen at Large with my Dad, and I’d just repeat the same jokes the next day. It’s funny, because my dream was to be a stand-up comic and I basically started doing that in the last few years with my show.