Monday, April 17, 2017

Part 6: High School Twice

Not that the classroom failed to provide valuable lessons, but it was my extracurricular work that showed me the most about teenagers.

And about myself.

One teacher's bad apple was another's blue ribbon.

Not only did I direct plays, I had to get sets built and lights hung in the Commons because we had no theater.

Instincts told me which boys could be my assets: boys who were handy and spirited, however risky. Over six years, they were known as The Fly-By-Night Construction Company. They knew how to measure wood, swing a hammer, and wield a paintbrush. They fearlessly climbed into the rafters to hang lights. (Every now and then a girl helped, too, but those were different times, remember.)

Because modular scheduling provided free time each day, they worked between classes. Sometimes after evening rehearsals, they worked until midnight. A colleague once asked, "Aren't you afraid to be alone in the building with those boys?" That's how mislabeled they were. When I said they were often the highlight of my day, she was speechless. 

With no basement or warehouse, our platforms were stored at the lagoon, a fenced drainage area that housed goats to control the grass and weeds. Our stuff was stacked in the goats' shelter. In order to get what we needed, a few of the boys and I created a distraction at the far end of the pen by rattling soda cans filled with rocks. Goats came running. That commotion, accentuated by our jumping and yelling, gave the others enough time to jump the fence, grab the platforms, lift them over the fence, and stack them in the back of the maintenance truck.

This battered pick-up, a standard and not an automatic, had erratic brakes, at best. It was every boy's ultimate driving adventure on those campus gravel roads.

Because I gave the boys free reign, there were surprises.

At morning announcements, we were once asked if anyone had seen the missing ropes used as boundaries around the football field. Across the room from me, the crew caught my eye and surreptitiously pointed up. There they were--holding our theater lights in place. Because some of them were football players, they saw it as friendly borrowing. When the play was over, the ropes mysteriously reappeared around the field.

Another time when we ended up with a blank space on our set, two boys had an idea. They approached a local greenhouse about loaning us potted shrubs. The owner agreed but insisted they needed regular sunshine. Because that was impossible in the Commons, the boys had been faithfully carrying the plants outdoors after school, watering them, and loading them into the pick-up. I had no idea about this until I spotted them joyriding the plants in the Oklahoma sun. All smiles, they honked and waved as they passed me. These devoted boys had once been accused of stealing from the theater treasury.

Sometimes schools get it wrong.

One afternoon I was desperate to get lumber delivered for scheduled crew work. The pick-up was out of commission. I searched the Commons for help, and a boy stepped forward. Not any boy either. He'd been labeled the meanest boy any faculty member could remember.

I took a chance.

An unrealized gentleman, he raced around opening doors for me, and when we arrived at the lumberyard, he insisted on taking the receipt and overseeing the loading into his mother's station wagon. On our return, he stopped at a convenience store, emerging with an Icee for each of us. "It's really hot out here, Ms. Clark. This might help." He refused my money.

Teenagers make all kinds of mistakes. But a golden heart defies negative labels. He needed someone to look past the tarnish because he was desperate to shine.

By this point I understood how easy high school had been for me the first time through. No one had ever labeled me as a throwaway. This time, however, in my second high school experience, I was deemed a problem child.

I felt the sting of not being appreciated.  

I vowed to see the kids. And to hear them.

That's how I discovered the humiliation girls felt in their uniforms: box-pleated plaid skirt and middy. Boys wore regulated clothes from their own closets; girls wore turn-of-the-century outfits that had to be ordered. In public they received stares, jeers, laughter in get-ups making them look like identical dolls.

It's a complicated story, but I backed their decision to seek a uniform change. They were supported by boys, as well. Suffice it to say, all kinds of roadblocks were set in motion. They pushed through. A student opposition was instituted. I eavesdropped during play rehearsal while one side debated the other. In a forum with parent representatives, I explained that if we were genuinely supporting equality for male and female students, and if we felt the girl's uniform was appropriate, we should institute a similar code for boys: plaid knickers and middy.

Resistance began crumbling.

The day I wore a girl's uniform to school, the tide turned. I looked ridiculous.

For two years, the students battled against a 50-year tradition. One group of senior leaders passed the torch to the next.

Until they won.

More than achieving some semblance of clothing equality, I wanted them to learn their power. I wanted them to know city hall could be defeated.

After I invited my former students to catalog what had mattered about their time at the school, I didn't know I'd be changed. All over again. By them.

That shouldn't have surprised me.

They were always my saving grace.

In meaningful, disparate ways, it turns out I was theirs, too.

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  1. Karen, this series has been fascinating and moving, and I enjoyed Part 6 most of all. You bring everything full circle here. At the time, we took it for granted that putting on plays in the Commons would be labor intensive. Now, the notion that we had to create and maintain a new STAGE for each and every show, and then take it apart afterwards, is mind blowing. How very crazy that was, and what fun. And I have to add, your anecdote about the "mean" boy is lovely. --Charlie

    1. I've never lost by betting on a long shot. And, oh, the rewards! (That would include you, Charlie.)

  2. I've loved all of these pieces. Like a puzzle coming together, such a powerful overall picture you present, and triggering so many memories. I loved those night rehearsals. It felt like we were doing something special, and we were not just students but active participants in a special journey, that was greater even than the play itself. It was an adventure. I was jealous of those boys, by the way. And I remember you in the uniform! I certainly don't mean to ignore so much of the painful memories and those horrific battles you describe. I would say you won in the end! I would even say you were winning then, you (and we) just didn't know it, maybe even until now.

    1. I forgot to explain another teaching lesson I learned, so I'll add it here. I don't think I have the will to tackle a Part 7. If you teach as if you're a hammer, teenagers will always look like nails. I saw far too much pounding going on there to truly great, high-spirited kids. Truth be told, I mostly laugh about those crazy days with all of you. I cherish them. I just had to learn how to bypass fools. HH was the inevitable life lesson I needed. I'm not sure I realized it until now.

  3. Karen, this is from Laurel. She had trouble posting this: As a friend who went through high school with you, I have loved and hated to read about your experiences as a new teacher at HH. You were brave not to quit. Your students were the beneficiaries of your 'never give up' character. On a lighter side, the anecdotes about the goats and the football filed rope are hilarious!

    1. Because you've been with me since we were 10, you understand how it infuriated me to be seen as incompetent. I'm plenty of things but not that. And there were colleagues who pitched in from time to time to help build sets. Even Cliff got to experience the goats. The stories with those boys go on forever. The time they didn't clamp the platforms together. The time they blew the building fuses. The time they wired the Commons for their headsets. The time they borrowed lumber from a nearby new construction. Some really great memories of clever teenagers just trying to figure things out.

  4. Oh Karen, it does hurt my heart to hear of the unfair treatment and labeling and nastiness. I tell my kids to learn from those experiences and become the coworker, the mentor, the boss, the leader that does the right action when given the chance. And, of course, I tell myself that also. I have a strong feeling that Maggie has intuively learned from your experiences in that magical way that life happens.

    Ooooooo I remember those mean stares I got at those parent meetings about the uniform change. They left me coated with shame that didn't make sense to me as a 17 yo. Why would these wrinkled old ladies even have an opinion? And why so mean? I just knew my Mom had better things to think about. (Thank you Mom!).
    But when I saw you in that sailor uniform I was blown away. Another magic life moment. And the shame just floated away. All was well. And we kept at it.

    My son Oskar studies big data in his research. He looks for unsuspecting parameters that affect outcomes. I look at your stories as examples of how we can all be that unsuspecting parameter, for a boy that has been labeled "trouble" or for a new teacher at HH that just needed to hear from one outside voice of reason that she was ahead of her time.

    (Oskar would be frustrated again that I philosophized his Math. I can't help it.)

    Thank you KHC for sprinkling a little pixie dust over us Holland Hall students. Despite your own hard earned lessons.

    1. Please know how deeply I appreciate your comment, Kelley. Students like you made me reach beyond my self-assumed limits. Ultimately I was better for it, not that I understood it at the time. I, too, was very young. I appreciate your reference to Oskar's studies and love being labeled as an unsuspecting parameter. (Having lunch with him in Seattle was a joy. I could feel the hand of fine parenting at work.)

    2. Thank you for explaining your perspective on the uniform. A former male classmate emailed to say he now has a better understanding of how sexist it was. It played into that old-school belief that the female form had to be hidden to save the boys from being distracted. You were courageous to stand up to what you knew was unjust.

  5. Dearest Karen--We needed champions, that is for sure. Personal champions and those who helped the group know that nothing worthwhile is effortless.

    You are not done yet. I know, people are saying full circle in the comments, but there's a piece missing. I feel it.


    1. One of the "helpers" who spent time advising me said that I had 3 options: quit and find something better, stay and find my passion elsewhere, or stay and become bitter. I was witnessing those last 2 options in my colleagues. I believed the students deserved more than a C effort from a teacher. Quitting was the best option finally. Still, I've carried the lessons I learned from all of you in my heart. Not only did they make me a stronger teacher elsewhere, they made me a better parent.

  6. Replies
    1. As much as I hate to admit it, I think I see what you mean about Part 7. I left the school, but the best part of it, the students, left a golden mark on my heart.

  7. I have loved reading all of these comments, as well as your pieces! It's like a mini-reunion. How lucky we all were to have you in our corner. So many memories and revelations, and I think hearing about your experiences, as frustrating and nightmarish as they were, has been enlightening. Especially working now as an administrator in a school very much in certain ways like HH.( traditional prep program, small classes, uniform, chapel) But so different in other ways. For example, the uniform dress code is traditional - chapel wear is coat and tie, button down oxford shirts, khaki pants and blue skirts (sound familiar?), however we have removed any gender specifics. Girls are welcome to wear slacks and a tie, and boys are welcome to wear a skirt. I think too, we go out of our way to honor our students' search for their identity and self-expression in many ways. Your stories make me realize how lucky I am to have found this school for my son and to be a part of some place so supportive of students.

    Keep writing. Please.

    1. They are fortunate to have someone as enlightened and experienced as you are. I hope HH has come a long way since our years there. We were the first wave of change, demonstrating that antiquated traditions should surrender to new ones. Better ones. Additionally, I hope your school understands the value of empowering teachers, helping them view engaging classroom methods, sending them to conferences, rewarding them for innovations. Nothing is gained from maintaining provincial attitudes.