Thursday, August 14, 2014

Back to School

The back-to-school sales in local stores hint that the eerie absence of kids on which I commented last month (Not Seen and Not Heard) is about to end. They soon will reappear at school bus stops and in passing soccer vans. The sales also bring to mind an anniversary, the ordinal number of which seems altogether improbable to me.

I had been an indifferent student at the public elementary school. This did not go unnoticed by my mom, so 50 years ago (yikes!) this month she asked me if I wanted to attend the nearby St. Bernard’s School instead – at that time a grade 7-12 secondary school. (It is now called Gill/St. Bernard’s and has expanded to K-12.) I said yes, though not for any academic reason: I was aware that horseback riding was offered in the sports program, and that was reason enough. In the pic below, I’m the kid in the hat on a black mare named Anthracite.

I took and passed the entrance exam, though I’m pretty sure my parents’ ability to pay the tuition was a bigger qualification than any exam results. A few weeks later classes began. As it happened, I was the youngest student in my class and therefore on my first day was the youngest on the entire campus. I wasn’t youngest by much – I was no prodigy – but at age 11 even a few months have significance. This was in the days before the popularity of redshirting. [Redshirting: enrolling a child in kindergarten a year later than the minimum entry age in order to give him or her a developmental advantage throughout school.] The difference between me and the others generally ranged from a few months to more than a year. I'm back row, last on the right.

Was age in fact a disadvantage? Not academically, but maybe a little here and there otherwise. Purely for reasons of physical size, it might have extended by a few months the sort of bullying by upperclassmen we considered normal back then: stuffed in a locker, sprayed with a fire extinguisher, hung over a porch rail by my feet, and the like. I didn’t think much about it since it wasn’t really personal: I was just handy. On balance, though, I liked being youngest. To this day I haven’t quite adjusted to being the oldest in most crowds. During an all-class reunion in 2010 I was (at least for the hour I was there) the oldest alumnus present on the entire campus. It was not an altogether welcome reversal.

I liked my 6 years there. That’s not simply nostalgia speaking: at the time I enjoyed returning to school in September. Nor is this purely an idiosyncratic response. Out of the blue the other day, upperclassman (I still think of him that way) George Coulthard gave me a call for the first time in about 20 years. He said his years at SBS were the best of his life. I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve had many much better years since then, but those 6 were pretty good. During that time period, the alma mater apparently was doing something right. (Whether it still does, I couldn’t say.) Was it superior academically to the local public high school? No, not really. They were comparable, but there is something to be said for not making students miserable while achieving comparable results. Somehow, the curious mix of formality and informality that prevailed at the time, along with the small student population that allowed you to know everyone by name, did that – for most of us anyway. Thanks, mom.

Aside from former sports heroes and prom queens, most people tell me they hated their high schools. Peter Grey, professor at Boston College, advocate of unschooling, and author of Free to Learn, describes why vividly:

“Imagine a job in which your work every day is micromanaged by your boss. You are told exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. You are required to stay in your seat until your boss says you can move.  Each piece of your work is evaluated and compared, every day, with the work done by your fellow employees.  You are rarely trusted to make your own decisions… School, too often, is exactly like the kind of nightmare job that I just described; and, worse, it is a job that kids are not allowed to quit.”

That does sound pretty awful. It gives me new sympathy for the current crop of students starting high school. The good news for them: before they know it, the experience will be 5 decades in the past. I suspect, though, they won’t consider that good news if I pass it along.



  1. I can't say I hated high school as much as I was just indifferent to it. When I was starting my junior year in high school we moved, and I really didn't regret it. I guess I was ready to do something different. What's weird is there really wasn't that much bullying at that school compared to the former school. Oh you'd get jeering, wedgies, and such in PE class and I thought the couches were assholes, but everyone there pretty much did their own thing and left everyone else alone. It was an odd environment.

    My only wish is that I had taken better advantage of those years, but I was (still am) introverted, so didn't care to be popular, but wish I had taken other things in some of the courses offered in school, and studied harder. That said though, when we moved I landed a paper route in our neighborhood, and I loved that. It afforded me a bit of spending money, and I loved growing up in that time. It's not all good, but I'm good with it. :)

    1. Assuming one avoided an Uncle Sam financed tour of Southeast Asia the 60s and 70s were a marvelous time to be young in the US. Despite political turmoil, in everyday life the era was far more laid back and free-wheeling (to mix metaphors) than today. I felt more free than I ever have since. Yet, high school was still high school, and the only real advantage the bulk of them had over the bulk of them today is that they were easier to leave. The local public high school, like many, had an open campus which students were free to leave between classes – part of the trend back then toward lower ages for adult privileges. Now the trend is all the other way with raised drinking ages, staged drivers licenses and schools under lockdown.

      Yes, we never fully appreciate our opportunities until they pass. I sure didn’t. But then at 16, I suppose it would be unusual if we did.

  2. Yeah, I would say high school is not high on my list of years. In fact I vividly remember sitting in Health class my freshman year, being bored out of my mind. The girl sitting behind me was a pal from Junior high. She leaned forward when the teacher's back was turned and whispered "And remember this Roman, these are supposed to be the BEST years of our lives." I just lost it, and got an annoyed look from the teacher. :)

    The best year of high school for me was Senior year. I came out of my shell a bit, made new friends, met my wife and actually took some classes I was interested in. But aside from that high school was pretty much a drudgery of boredom and just staying under the radar. My mother, who was very popular in high school, still doesn't get why I don't look back fondly on those years. For me, college was a much better experience. The fact that I got to think for myself was a revelation, and really made me appreciate what education could really be.

    1. Married your high school sweetheart… Wow, that’s so retro it is radical. Even by my age cohort that had become rare. Good job.

      Yes, Senior year is definitely the best – even if it’s lousy it is better than the others. Seniors are the aristocracy on campus. The aristocracy was ritually overthrown at my school with seizures of the Senior Porch. I recounted one such event at my “un-blog” site: The Final Conquest