“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, … back home to places in the country, … back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time…” – Thomas Wolfe
You Can’t Go Home Again is a novel written by Thomas Wolfe and published (posthumously) in 1940. The main character in the novel is George Webber, who has written a book about his home town. His book is a general success but is rejected by many of the townspeople because they feel Webber slanted who and what they were. Sounds a little like The Graduate, but I will reserve that for another time.
I agree with Wolfe in many ways: Once you leave home, providing you do, home is never the same. Visiting your family farm, years gone by – everything changes. Swinging on old swing sets in the park, ones you triumphantly parachuted from when younger, now, logic replaces fearlessness. And you just glide safely. Nonetheless, I do disagree with him on one point: You can go back to your old high school and experience many of the same feelings and visualize several of the events which helped shape you into the person you are today – for better or worse. And, that is exactly what I did earlier this month. I went back to high school.
I was invited by Librarian Pat Joyce to speak with some classes at Washington Irving Middle School, formerly the high school I graduated from in 1967. Although I had a reunion tour two decades ago, I remembered little of what “was.” Hence, I was excited about talking with students interested in writing, but I was also excited about a tour of the school I remembered. But, I was not prepared for how it “is.”
First and foremost, this was a fun story to write because I thoroughly enjoyed high school. Walk with me, as I talk about my high school and share some personal feelings and experiences. When we are finished, perhaps, you might be encouraged to “go back to high school.” You can, you know.
My school was built in 1914 and over the decades, thousands of students have climbed these stairs (left), traditionally reserved for Seniors. Today, middle schoolers use this entrance (right) which also leads to a new expansive gym and cafeteria, amenities we did not have.
Much of what I am about to say is nostalgia for my generation and those before, but my thoughts are also directed to the current students. To understand the present, we must examine the past. Let’s enter this portal together.
In 1967, there was no large gym. The boys had a gym in the basement. The girls, a smaller one which overlooked the boys. We never had Physical Education together. That’s just the way it was – 1967. No cafeteria. You could walk downtown and grab a ‘coke and (hot) dog.’ However, many of us brought our lunches from home. The boys ate in the gym and the girls in selected classrooms on the first floor. We never ate together. We never questioned the separation. Although, now, I am sure it reduced many ‘social’ conflicts.
The locker halls are still there but no longer separated (boys and girls). The freshman had their own locker room (right), now a storage room. No one can say when all the separation ended, but it did end. When we walked the halls, we could hear the ‘creak’ of the oiled wood floors, now shiny tile.
The steps to the second and third floor are still there, but no longer “Boys & Girls.” Yes, we had separate steps. Only the very brave (boys) would adopt a James Dean persona and attempt to run down (or up) the girl’s steps. Caught had consequences.
The commons area between the girl’s and boy’s steps on the first floor was where everyone congregated after lunch. My-oh-my, this common area saw the beginning and the end of many relationships. We were learning. But not always in the best of ways.
The boys and girls study halls on the third floor have been transformed into classrooms. Yes, we had separate study halls. For the younger generations, these halls would hold around 200 each. There was direct access to the library. The access is still there, but the look has changed. However, the library has not changed much, other than technology upgrades. Still one of the most beautiful libraries in the county, if not beyond. The gyms have been converted. The boys gym into the ISS (In School Suspension) room and the girls gym into an Industrial Arts (shop) room.
In some ways, Washington Irving High School was way ahead of its time. We had a swimming pool, which was still in use until (around) 1963. It was connected to the boy’s locker room parallel to the gym. Today, it has been covered and a band room built over top. When I was a senior, the pool would have frightened the most seasoned EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) agent. It had not been in operation for a few years and was like a cesspool. A wonderful place to ‘initiate’ freshmen. Disgusting, but fun at the time, unless you were a freshman.
Teacher and student dress codes seem to be very different today, so let’s look back at 1967. No jeans allowed. No shorts. Shirts for either sex had to be tucked. Girls were required to wear dresses or skirts – no pants. Boys hair styles were becoming longer, but not in my school. The principal applied the “ruler rule” – literally.
Girl’s Physical Education was like boot camp. Here’s my wife’s (Sandra) memories: “We had to wear white sneakers. Clean white socks. Our gym suits, one piece, had to have our initials stitched on the upper right side below the shoulder. We had to take them home every Friday for laundering and pressing, making sure there was a crisp crease on the arms and pants legs! Fingernails short. No jewelry except small post earrings. And, long hair pulled back in a ponytail. First thing Monday, we stood in a straight line for inspection.” And that’s the way it was.
Strange as it may seem to young readers, we never challenged authority, and seldom grumbled to one another. Thinking back, not realizing it then, we were learning respect, compliance, and discipline. For the most part, we benefited from these experiences.
When I had the opportunity to go back to high school for my literary talk, I saw many changes. Some dramatic. Others subtle. And some things looked as they did in 1967. Today, the halls are bright and cheery. Classrooms decorated (left). They have actually installed an elevator (right). There is now a large beautiful gym and cafeteria. Beats eating on the gym floor.
The auditorium looks basically the same as when I marched across the stage, although the technological upgrades are obvious. The balcony (freshman section) is still there, but seldom used. Floor level still has three sections. In my time, the center was for the seniors. Sophomores and juniors occupied the wings. It was quite a rite of passage to move from one section to the other.
Before leaving, I stopped and paid my respects to something that is exactly the same as it was over 90 years ago – the two memorials listing the names of our war dead. I still remember the Memorial Day Assembly: Veterans on stage. Names read. Taps being played. So many recognizable names.
My day at Washington Irving was special. For a brief time, I did go home. Thank you, Pat Joyce. The memories were real. The feelings strong. So special. And yet, so different. Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was right, “You can never go back home, because it will never be the same.” No, it wasn’t the same. But, I am thankful for the memories. As I walked the halls, I could hear and see the way it “was” … and I also saw the way it “is.” I looked back at today.
I hope you have enjoyed our journey together and maybe, just maybe, it has given you something to think about – if not high school, then perhaps a time or place that made you smile. It just might be worth a trip home.
And finally, for those who walk, or have walked the halls of Washington Irving, or simply the curious, there is a musical slide show available at michaelslambiotte.com (WI Then & Now). Two and a half minutes of my world and their world set to music some may remember – from 1967. Click on the school picture on the upper right of the website.
Until next time,