Back to school

Friday afternoon. I am sitting in the backseat of my mother’s Plymouth Valiant, parked outside the local high school. Mom has come to collect my sister-in-law, a teacher at the school, and drive her to our house a few miles away. My brother and his wife have dinner with us every Friday.

I lean against the car door. The window is rolled down. I have on a green plaid dress, and my hair is a blizzard of curls and frizz. A sixth-grader, I am young and impressionable.

The school bell rings. Teenagers rush from the building. I watch out the car window as they board buses and gather in groups to chat. The girls wear skirts and nylon stockings, the boys have on button-down shirts. It is the pre-Woodstock era; there is a dress code. I am awestruck. Everyone seems so grown-up, while I’m just a little kid who doesn’t have a clue. I decide then and there that I want to be a part of this magical school.

It opened in 1949 as a junior-senior high school serving a mostly rural community. Two decades later, the senior high school had more than eighty faculty members.

The two-story red brick building boasted bright classrooms with tall windows and dark green chalkboards. There was an auditorium, a gymnasium, a new wing with a library, and a large cafeteria that served generous helpings of hot and cold meals.

But even with the new wing, the school was overcrowded. When I was in tenth grade, almost two hundred of my fellow sophomores attended high school classes held at a junior high. The following year, a brand-new high school opened in the next town, taking many of my classmates including my best friends. We drifted apart.

The opening bell chimed promptly at eight-fifteen. “Let me have your attention for the morning announcements,” said the vice principal over the school’s public address system.

The students were the sons and daughters of educators, office workers, and small business owners. They lived in middle-class suburbs with modest ranch and split-level homes.

The curriculum offered studies in foreign languages, arts, science, history, English, and math. I remember cooking beef stroganoff in home economics class and learning how to navigate highways in driver’s ed. In biology class, we incubated chicken eggs. The experiment produced no baby chicks, though it forced me to give up eating canned peaches and fruit salad. The albumen (egg white) smelled like the syrup used in canned fruit. To this day, I cannot eat canned fruit.

The month of September offered a fresh start, a chance to make things right. I couldn’t wait for school to begin. I loved the smell of new school supplies, I loved meeting my new teachers, I loved rushing between classes, my arms laden with books. I loved waking up early and dressing for the day and walking to the bus stop, leaves crunching underfoot, the scent of school wafting in the air. Anything and everything seemed possible, “Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you, Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you,” sang The Mamas & the Papas.*

During my time at the high school, Richard Nixon was elected president, Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died from drugs, and Apollo 11 landed astronauts on the moon.

When the school dress code was at last abolished, the yearbook declared that “individuality is preserved.”

On the final day of my senior year, I cleaned out my locker, and rode home in the same car that I had sat in a million Friday afternoons ago. Only this time, I was the driver.

Years later, I went back to the high school for a visit. To walk the hallowed halls. To remember. The kind folks in the guidance office let me browse through old yearbooks. I found Carol in 1952: “A left-hand third-finger girl…likes to read, being with Jerry…wedding bells lie in the near future.” It sounded so old-fashioned and yet so lovely.

My high school

*From the song “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” music by Fabian Andre and Wilbur Schwandt and lyrics by Gus Kahn, 1931. Recorded in 1968 by The Mamas & the Papas.