“I sing the Body Electric;
I celebrate the me yet to come!
I toast to my own reunion;
When I become one with the SUN!”
In 1973, a group of artists and educators got together and created something incredible – a public school for the arts and academic excellence. It started small, just a few high school kids from around town. As the budget and fame* grew, so did the student body.
When my brother went, the school was for kids from 4th through 12th grade. He got to go in 4th grade. I was, instead, expected to follow the academic route. I went from 6th grade to a college prep high school, full of students who passed an entrance exam that apparently only about 20% of the population could pass. I never understood that; seemed easy to me at the time. I’ve learned a bit of discretion and diplomacy since then. What’s easy to me may be near impossible for someone else, and vice versa.
I hated it.
Initially I hated it because change is frightening, and this was a big one. My elementary school had an old building and a new building; the new building was where the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders had most of their classes. It was air-conditioned and carpeted. The classrooms didn’t have doors, but the dividers tended to keep the sound in the room itself. The ceiling was a friendly ten feet at most, and there was a lot of exposed wood, and a common area with all sorts of raised areas to sit or stand on. It looked like those schools I saw on TV, the ones that were in the suburbs where no one had to worry about more than making sure they had the most fashionable clothes before anyone else did. Classes were around 20 kids, except for gym, and maybe art and music.
It wasn’t always a safe place – in fact, it wasn’t quite often – but it was smaller and it was familiar. This new school, though, was another story entirely. Students from all over the city were here. Students who were experienced at being the best of the best in their old schools, the big fish, the popular kids who also happened to be good students, the studious jocks and musicians, the kids who were quite often told just how proud everyone was of them. I was going to have to learn a few things if I wanted to survive there. The average class size seemed to be about 35, although some had more.
The building itself was glorious, with important-looking marble statues in a dark hallway, almost like a display in a museum. At the end of that hall was a much larger, much longer hallway, far brighter and busier than the entrance. There didn’t seem to be any space to move. I was already one of the smaller kids in my school, but I was finally taller than all the 1st-graders; here I was small yet again.
I sensed my own insignificance surrounded by all those giants, all those kids who were old enough to drive, boys who had to shave, girls who wore makeup and hairspray (it was the 80s – there was a lot of hairspray), books thicker than my arm, and those marble statues, probably intended to remind people of Greek or Roman universities, where great learning among the privileged took place.
My grades were abysmal. I’d never had to study before, so I had no idea how to do it. My mother couldn’t help because she had the same issue, which is why she didn’t finish college the first time. I was dealing with some other issues that wouldn’t come to light until well into my 20s. It helped when I went back for an MS in Accounting, but it was a bit late to help me when I was drowning in 7th grade.
Finally – FINALLY – I got my mother to listen to me. She could see I was miserable, and that things were getting worse, not better. I hated school, now. I didn’t hate school when I was younger. I got to audition for this other school, this place that looked like Fame, looked like fun, looked like something I would enjoy.
I still had to get in on my own merits.
I can remember my audition like it was yesterday. More the feeling than anything. I have no idea what I sang. I did a monologue from “Raisin in the Sun,” as a cold reading, ^and I wrote a rather descriptive story about a disgusting bathtub. That was fun. They told us when we could expect to hear. One evening, the phone rang. There was no call ID then, so you never really knew who was going to be on the other end until you picked it up. I was nervous. I don’t remember who answered, but I do remember holding the handset to my own ear, a voice telling me the best news I had ever heard – I had been accepted! I may have screamed. I know I cried. A big ol’ ugly cry, with weird noises and snot. My mother laughed. Not a cruel, taunting laugh, but the laugh of a person who got to witness a loved one be elated. Even with all her faults, she did want us to be happy.
My very first day I experienced something I never had before – excitement about a new beginning. Oh I was still nervous, still anxious about this gigantic change, but unlike the previous events, this one made me smile the whole time. I didn’t even get in the door before I was greeted by another student.
There is a new building for the students now, a beautiful technological marvel. They moved in the 2010-2011 school year, if memory serves. The one that I called home for 4 years was old and in desperate need of repair, something the school system could not afford. Fortunately, the building has been sold and will have new owners, owners who are interested in preserving the history even as they turn it into apartments or condos.
There were students who went on to do things in theater, art, music, writing. There are students who’ve been nominated for and even won Tonys, Emmys, Grammys, and yes, Oscars. And there are students who used the lessons learned here to succeed in professions not at all related to the arts. It wasn’t about working to be a professional artist; it was about being a professional person, about what it takes to be the best you can be, to take chances you might otherwise never take. Was it all sunshine and lollipops? No, of course not. There were some darker moments. Overall, though, it was phenomenal. Some alumni have said the school saved their lives. In at least some of those cases, I know that to be true. Not directly, like with CPR or something, but indirectly, giving those students a reason to care, a reason to try, a reason to excel. If I really think about it, I think I was one of those students.
Mr. Dickinson, Mr. Raible, Mr. Louiso, Mr. Stull, thank you. Ms. Hennigan, Mrs. Yonka, Mr. McCraken, and all the teachers and founders and supporters who weren’t able to come, you – all of you – have *no* idea how much you’ve done for me.
If you’re curious, a few of the local news stations came out to see what we were up to. There wasn’t just a reunion in the parking lot, but a photograph and a little dance. At least two of them are on autoplay, so check your sound.
*Sorry; couldn’t help myself.
^For the uninitiated, a cold reading just refers to performing something you may have had a whopping five minutes to review.