Monday, August 15, 2011

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Turning Out the Lights on Wellesley High School

Adam Cluff writer
Peter Baker and Rachel Gibbs photographers

For some, the central Wellesley High School memory is of an athletic space: lining up outside trainer Patty Hickey’s cramped office for an ankle taping; the “broken in” smell of the “Upstairs” gym; the dead spot in the wood in the Larsson Gym where you knew not to dribble, just like the old Boston Garden. For others, the memory is artistic: the bicycle hanging from the ceiling in the Photography studio; the balcony sound and light booth from which to scan the whole auditorium; the view of students eating lunch in the courtyard from the second story windows. For so many members of the Wellesley High School community, the memory, and thus meaning, of their experience, whether as student, teacher, or a student who becomes a teacher, is linked with some idiosyncratic space—a nook, a cranny, a place where one found solace, inspiration, fellowship, ownership. As former English teacher Jeanie Goddard reflects: “…so many of us discovered how to be and how to teach and how to greet the world and one another” in this space, this Wellesley High School. In less than a year, the demolition of the 1938 building will begin, and students and staff will haul their materials into the new high school building next door. 

In order to pause, remember, and celebrate the formative role this building has had in the lives of generations of graduates and educators, plans are being made to celebrate the corridors, stage, gyms, and classrooms before new versions take their places in future student and faculty hearts. The series of events, called “Turn Out the Lights,” will take place this November over Thanksgiving week. Illustrious WHS alumnae are booked to present seminars to students and the community before school break; former football players and cheerleaders and band members will be introduced at the Thanksgiving football game against Needham, and a “Decades Dance” and Square Dance will all precede the main events: Saturday’s “Open House” and the “Theater, Dance, and Musical Gala.” The Open House will commemorate and immortalize all the sports and activities and academic experiences, as well as the many groups of people who have been central to the WHS experience, and the gala will showcase the talents of both WHS graduates and the current WHS students. The community is warmly invited to attend what will be a memorable send-off for Wellesley High School.

Of course, some features of the new building will be welcomed by students and staff— who had become resigned to sweltering Junes and shivering Januarys—but many will miss the charm of well-tread character lost. Class of 1997 three-sport athlete Catherine Zusky, currently a member of the faculty at the Brentwood school in Los Angeles, remembers the worn-in comfort of the gymnastics gym, with its “dark, sweaty smell, hectic closet, and wintertime light—it wasn’t perfect or new, but, like the high school itself, it was broken in.” Class of 2011 graduate Danae Metaxa-Kakavouli expresses a similar appreciation for the imperfections of the sound and light booth in the auditorium: “It’s not a proper booth; it’s not enclosed or soundproof, but I think that gives it more character.” The character of the booth, for Danae, is found in the “techie wall of fame”—signed by students who worked sound and light for theater productions—on the back wall of the balcony; these names date back to the 1980s. When Danae added her name to the wall, she realized: “No WHS student will read my name there in fifteen years.”

For many former students, their memories of WHS focused on a space in which they found the solitude to think, take a deep breath away from the rush, and feel safe. Danae reflects on the booth being a space where she “worked, napped, studied, wrote drafts of junior history thesis, and ate countless peach ring candies.” Fellow class of 2011 graduate Rachel Gibbs describes the photography room as functioning not only to provide respite, but also to stir creative passions: “I’ve spent many lunches and free periods there, by myself and hanging out with others who prefer a more intimate and relaxed environment than the cafeteria or mezz. Each year, students leave their mark by writing on the door of the dark room and on the tables. It is possible to discover a new piece of art or book or writing each time I am in there—the artistic and quirky decorations, including the bicycle hanging from the ceiling, make it a space for open-mindedness.” Open-mindedness has always been a hallmark of the atmosphere in room 206, first immortalized by leader of the English department Wilbury Crockett, for whom the current library is named, then Jeanie Goddard, and now David McCullough, Jr. (Yes, that David McCullough). For Mrs. Goddard’s students, open-mindedness was stimulated by her boundless energy and generous serving of tea. Class of 1997 graduate Kathryn Pollenz remembers the ritual of “pushing the creaky cart stacked with tea mugs across the hallway to the skinny closet with the sink” to wash the class set for the next day’s serving. The ritual that class of 1987 graduate and current social studies teacher Drew Kelton will miss, that connects his student and teaching experiences, centers on seeing the clocktower on his way into the building every day. “The clocktower symbolized coming home to a place where I have established a lifetime of professional and personal milestones.” (Kelton received the school’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2010.) “As a student of color in a predominantly white community, the clocktower also came to mean safety; it meant I had a group of friends from Wellesley who accepted me and made me feel welcome as soon as I walked in the building.”

As the clocktower defined the view of WHS from outside looking in, the school’s location integrated with natural beauty defined the view from inside WHS looking out. Social Studies teacher Britta Hiester describes this immersion with nature in her classroom: “Room 334 is nestled into the branches of two beautiful oak trees that shade us from the hot sun in September and June, rustle reassuringly when the wind blows, and show off coverings of snow and icicles in the winter. I will miss them, their green leaves, and the bright but filtered light that comes from being beneath, almost within, these two trees.”

My own classroom, on the ground level, looks out into a forest behind Seaver Street that annually inspires a spontaneous trek with my students during the first snow of the season to read Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as the flakes fall faintly upon us. Every beauty of New England is magnified—my windows are a canvas of autumnal splendor, winter wonderland, and bursting spring. It is the ideal backdrop for learning, growth, and community.

As we, the graduates and faculty past and present of Wellesley High School, anticipate moving into the new building, we pause to remember the places that might not be replaceable. The honor of traversing the same space as so many luminaries is not lost on current students. Class of 2011 graduate Mike McGuire remembers the feeling of “having my sophomore English class in Sylvia Plath’s classroom…that it will be no longer, saddens me.” Character develops over time, in people and in buildings, and it will take time to break in our new high school and for the new spontaneous and not officially sanctioned inscriptions of graduates to accumulate on as yet not established “walls of fame.” Students will explore and unearth new sacred spaces, nestled oases of calm, camaraderie, and creativity. Symbols of discovery, belonging, and feeling at home will emerge, and teachers will fill their classrooms with their own unique rituals. Students will wash out the tea mugs but, as Kathryn Pollenz points out, after February 2012, her bond with all WHS alumni, teachers, coaches, and rites of passage will be tempered with the question: “are you Old Building or New?” The bond we feel for this building is unique and lasting; it is worthy of communal remembrance. Please join us during Thanksgiving week to share and hear memories as we turn out the lights on our beloved Wellesley High School. bug

Adam Cluff is a Class of 1997 WHS graduate and a nine-year member of the WHS English Department.

 

 

© 2011 Elm Bank Media | Beth Furman, Publisher | Beth@ElmBankMedia.com