Unless your formal education terminated with twelfth grade, you probably feel warmer and fuzzier about your college or university than your high school. I’m one of those fortunate enough to have spent time in “higher education,” but, after college and grad school, I returned to “high school,” teaching History at an independent school for almost four decades. Our students were able, and the parent body, comprised of some of the city’s “best and brightest,” supported the school and its mission but also had very high expectations for their children. Of those goals, the Holy Grail was that they would attend a “good college,” which over time came to mean admission to an Ivy League college; or to one of the so-called “public Ivies” (e.g., UVa, UNC, U of Texas–Austin); or to what I’ve seen referred to as the “Kudzu League” (private southern universities like Emory, Duke, Vanderbilt); or to the state’s flagship institutions, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.
To our seniors, their peers, and/or their parents, not to secure admission to such fine institutions could be seen as failure. To help our charges along this yellow-brick road of educational excellence, the school hired a high-powered faculty; made use of seemingly every standardized test; was a regional pioneer in the Advanced Placement (AP) Program; and eventually employed a veritable platoon of college counselors comfortably ensconced in their own wing. (And, for the tuition they paid, our parents had every right to expect such a “full-service” approach to ensuring their kids’ futures, or at least that was the “company line.”)
When I began teaching there, the school was so different from the high school I had attended that I felt I had landed on Mars. But I adjusted, and came to like my job, my students, and the school very much–its ways became my ways, at least most of the time. One of my favorite events each year was the annual “reunion weekend,” when alums were invited back to campus for a lavish celebration, of the school in general and their classes in particular, to reconnect with classmates and faculty, dispose them favorably towards the school’s Annual Fund, and, some day (if they stayed in Atlanta), towards the idea of enrolling their children.
During all that time, I seldom thought of my own high school, which I had not visited since graduation. (Though I attended a reunion in the 1980s, we did not set foot in the school.) Then, earlier this year, I learned that my class was planning a 50th reunion. Would I be interested in attending? Yes, but. . . . Newark (Delaware) High School was notwhere I had labored between 1973 and 2010, and I couldn’t help but wonder how that long work experience might color my memories of what “high school” had been, or was supposed to be, like.
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In 1962, Newark High School was the “only game in town,” educationally speaking. Because it was the senior high school, in the state’s third-largest city, NHS had to be all things to all people. We had college prep classes, but we also had business, typing, and shop classes, among others. The school NHS was “prepping” most of its college-bound students for was the University of Delaware, also located in Newark, a couple of miles from NHS. Our faculty was a good one, by the standards of the era, and, like the place I later worked, included quite a few teachers who had been at the school for decades, including a handfull who had taught my mother. I had some of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered while attending NHS, as well as a couple of the worst.
The Class of 1962 was, according to social scientists, one of the last to graduate before the “Baby Boomers” began leaving high school, to shape (or warp?) our nation and its culture. We didn’t have many standardized tests, at least in part because the expectations of our Depression-scarred parents were very different from later ones. One of my classmates told me that he remembered a talk by our principal, emphasizing how “exceptional” the Class of 1962 was, because a quarter (or a third–I don’t remember the exact figure, but it was low) of our 262 members planned to attend college. To help in that quest, we had one part-time “college counsellor,” whose primary job was to be the school’s “guidance counsellor.”
In the private high school where I spent my career, on the other hand, we had, in addition to the aforementioned gaggle of “college counselors,” two full-time “guidance counselors,” one “class advisor”for boys and one for girls in each high school grade, and “homeroom teachers,” all of whom were supposed to have their fingers on the pulse of a segment of the roughly 800-member student body, including about 200 seniors.
Following graduation, the members of the Class of 1962 went their separate ways: some to college (the U. of D. for most), where they graduated (eventually); others to college but without graduating, despite several attempts to do so; many, with no plans to attend college, got on with their lives, working in the “real world,” marrying, having children. But, whatever their future plans, the males in the Class of 1962 confronted the looming shadow of military service, and this was the era of the Vietnam War. Some entered the service upon graduation from high school, while others were able to postpone the (almost) inevitable (remember compulsory military service via the draft? anyone?) until after college, provided that they kept their GPAs high enough to maintain their deferments. This was “real life” in the America of the early 1960s.
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Perhaps one-third of the surviving members of NHS’s Class of 1962 attended our 50th reunion. The day began with a tour of the school, followed by lunch in the same cafeteria where we had eaten “back in the day,” though it has been replaced as the primary lunch spot since we graduated. During the tour, I only vaguely remembered the cafeteria, and even the auditorium where graduation was held seemed unfamiliar. However, simply stepping into the “old” gym (like the 1962 cafeteria, retained, but superceded by a more modern facility) conjured up a series of unhappy memories, because, for me, P.E. class was a constant source of frustration and embarrassment.
In general, though, there have been so many changes since we left that the school I attended between 1958 and 1962 was almost unrecognizable. Yet, change was limited by the relatively small size of the lot on which the school is located. Expansion for Newark High meant construction of new rooms (large, medium, small) embedded within the existing structure, including a library that “floated” between two floors. And, when those alterations proved inadequate for the growing student body, the school district built new high schools.
Our banquet was held in the Newark Volunteer Fire Department’s social hall. The reunion committee had put up a display of teachers who have passed away, and there were few surprises there, because many had seemed ancient when we were at NHS. Another display revealed that about 10% of of our classmates have died. Their pictures were their yearbook photos–no matter when they died, they were preserved for us in black and white, as they looked at about age 18. Among the departed was my old P.E. wrestling buddy (because we each weighed in at 200 pounds or so, and matches were arranged by weight). He died at about 25, of a congenital heart defect that evidently buckled under the strain of working two jobs, the night shift at an auto plant and on a sanitation truck during the day. Another feature of the dinner was an illustrated presentation showing what Main Street in Newark had been like in 1962 (yes, we did have one, and, yes, it was the “main” street in the town).
I enjoyed seeing so many classmates again, including some I had not set eyes on for half a century. I ran across one who insisted that the cliques that had made the shoals of social life in our high school so difficult to navigate had finally disappeared, and I had to agree. I saw no evidence of cliques that night. Instead, we seemed to be a bunch of older folks enjoying each other’s company. I detected no feeling of, “look what I’ve done since 1962″; instead, the vibe was more like, “isn’t it great that we’ve all made it to 2012, in one piece, more or less?” There was life after high school, and most of us seemed to think that it had been worth living and that NHS had played a significant role in getting us ready for the post-high school world.
What made this event possible was the work and dedication of a cadre of classmates who remained in the “greater Newark” area (no snickering, now) after graduation. They organized the reunion and pelted us with e-mails lining up attendees. Without these dedicated members of the NHS Class of 1962, the reunion would not have occurred, and I thank them for their work.
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In a sense, looking at Newark High School in 1962 and the school where I spent my teaching career is like comparing apples and oranges. Fifty years ago, NHS was a decent public school at a time when parental and student expectations were limited. Its mission was to prepare all of us, regardless of our–or our parents’–aspirations, for the “real world.” For only a minority of our class did that world involve attending college, or even thinking about doing so. For most of my classmates, the “real world” started with getting a job, getting married, serving in the military.
The “prep school” where I worked has grown impressively over the sixty years of its existence, though without outlandishly increasing the size of the student body. Rather, it has constructed buildings–a new elementary school, junior high, gymnasium, arts center, science building, and so forth, because it had the space–and the money–to do so. The end result was not so much a “school” as a “campus,” one which blew the minds even of visitors who worked in colleges or universities. The school became one of the best day schools in the nation.
Especially early in my tenure, I remember thinking that our academic standards were so high, the curriculum so challenging, that I would not have done well there academically. Every member of a graduating class is expected to attend college, and virtually all of them do, even if they don’t always graduate from the “perfect college” at which they started. Thanks to events over which they had no control, graduates of my school no longer have to worry, as NHS’s Class of 1962 did, about military service–unless they choose to attend, say, West Point, the Naval Academy, or the Air Force Academy. Otherwise, in the brave new world of the all-volunteer military, it’s on to college and then the civilian “fast track” for most of our alums.
What the two high schools of my acquaintance have in common is that they did yeoman work preparing their graduates for the world beyond twelfth grade. What’s changed, of course, is what that post-high school world looks like and how schools now go about preparing for it. NHS readied me for college, laying a foundation that ultimately enabled me to teach at a very different high school, in a vastly changed “real world” from the one my classmates and I had entered back in 1962.
I am grateful to Newark High School for the education I received–for that series of elderly English teachers who taught me about language and how to write, lessons seldom improved upon in later years; for that History teacher who became a role model when I began developing my classroom persona; for that Chemistry teacher who actually made the subject fun. And I’ll be forever thankful for the opportunity afforded by that other, more recent “high school, ” which allowed me to help prepare several generations of the city’s young people for the world outside our gates.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: