Mom, Why Does Your High School Look Like A Castle?


This is part of Northern Notables, a collection of interviews with NSS Alumni who have made an impact in their personal and professional lives.

by Robyn Burnett

Two years ago, in pre-COVID times, I took my 11-year old daughter back to Toronto with me to visit my family. It’s an annual tradition for me now; each fall, I return home from Calgary with either my daughter or son in order to have that special one-on-one time together as I visit my parents and friends.
In 2019, my daughter Ally had just entered Junior High, and we got into conversations about what high school would look like. So I decided to go on a trip down memory lane and take her to NSS.

Her first reflection was to note how it looked like a castle. I hadn’t ever thought of Northern that way, perhaps because so many of our classic high schools take on that majestic historical form, but she wasn’t wrong. Given the modernity of where we currently live, it’s an honest observation.
Northern actually is like a castle.

It’s beautifully constructed in the Gothic Collegiate style, it has gargoyles, it's filled with history and hidden rooms, it's sprawling and, in some ways and like many historical buildings, is in need of many repairs but still holds to this day. It still is beautiful, despite its age and disrepair.
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Northern Secondary School Toronto
NSS gargoyles
NSS gargoyles
My great-grandfather was one of the stone masons to place the cornerstones of Northern Vocational School.
–  Robyn Burnett
After a tour of my high school “castle”, I told Ally a little bit more about its history, and how it was connected to our family specifically.

My great-grandfather was a respected stone mason in Toronto. After WWI, he returned to his work. He was one of the stone masons to not only place the cornerstones of Northern Vocational School (its name when it was originated) in 1930, he was also contracted to place a cornerstone of the former Maple Leaf Gardens the following year. This was a great honour, as it required incredible skill to do so.
My grandmother and great-aunt grew up just north of the school, with both of them attending NVS when they were of age. My grandmother went into the secretarial program. My great-aunt actually studied photography there – just as I would years later – thanks to the arts programs that were fostered thanks to the famous Canadian Group of Seven artist Lawren P. Harris leading the program at the school.
My grandfather also attended Northern for the mechanics program. He ended up owning his own mechanics shop in North Toronto, which my grandmother ran after he passed away, sadly at a younger age. She became the first woman to be part of the businessman’s association at the time. My grandparents didn’t meet at Northern, however. They met at Wasaga Beach. 
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... I had been so entranced that I was DEFINITELY going to go to Northern. The majority of people from my school were headed to North Toronto. Not me. I was going to Northern. My parents had no say.
–  Robyn Burnett about her first visit to NSS for a play performance 
My first experience of NSS was when I was in Junior High at Deer Park Public School. We had been invited to see a performance in the basement library. I cannot tell you what the subject matter of the performance was because, frankly, I don’t remember. What I do remember was how, afterwards, I had been so entranced that I was DEFINITELY going to go to Northern. The majority of people from my school were headed to North Toronto. Not me. I was going to Northern. My parents had no say. That’s how I felt. The gifted program being offered was a selling point for them (thankfully, I got in – thanks Mr. Way). I had no idea of my family’s history with the school at the time. It was only after I was enrolled that my Aunt Barb filled me in on the full story, and I knew it was meant to be.
My experience at NSS fundamentally changed me. It opened up my life in so many ways. It was crucial in making me who I am today.

I was honoured with the Duncan Green Award for Drama - Debbie Barton-Moore inspired me to write (even though my first play was beyond horrifically bad) she kept me motivated as a writer and actor which led to further success) and I ended up at UBC with a degree in Creative Writing. I was also honoured with the Ruth Green Arts Award upon graduation. Mr. Z, Mr. Bauer, and the multitude of amazing art teachers inspired me to continue with design and photography, which I have used in many ways including professional logo design, photographic work and more.
Those two NSS plaques remain in my office today. What do I do now? I work in a school as the Director of Communications / Marketing. The kids in the school all know me as the “camera lady.” I love that the most.

My younger brother also attended Northern and made his own historical mark: he became the first student to get accepted into the prestigious National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal. He passed away 10 years ago from a brain tumour, but I know he would agree with me about his connection with NSS. It changed his life as much as it did mine.

So yes, as I told my daughter, it is a castle. She left out one thing though – for many of us, it was a magic castle.

I hope it continues to be a magic castle for years to come.


Robyn Burnett is a freelance writer with a graphics, editorial and training background. She has had four non-fiction books published; has written screenplays and film treatments with her writing partner, Christopher Giardino; and has written numerous articles for FOODTV, HGTV, Slice.ca, WNetwork, SavvyMom and most recently Momtastic, the Calgary Herald subsidiaries and Avenue Magazine. Robyn has also been part of the editorial teams for the Disney Interactive Media Group, Kaboose.com and SavvyMom Media.