Ghosts of High School Past

Some curious news for those of us who graduated from Upper Arlington High School has been reported recently:  the existing school where we went to classes years ago is built on the grounds of a former family cemetery.  (As if going to high school weren’t scary enough already, just on its own!)

pioneer-green-flakeThe back story is really pretty interesting stuff.  In the years before and during the Civil War — long before Upper Arlington became the hoity-toity, McMansion-filled suburb it is now — the land was owned by a former slave named Pleasant Litchford.  He was an leading member of the Perry Township community, a master blacksmith, a founding member of a church, a large property owner, . . . and, notably, a participant in the Underground Railroad that moved escaped slaves from the slaveholding south, through the free states, and north to Canada and freedom.  Mr. Litchford established a school for African-American children on his property — and also a cemetery for his family and descendants.  Mr. Litchford died in 1867, just after the Civil War ended.

Years later, Upper Arlington was founded, and later still, in 1955, the school board was looking for a place to build the new high school.  They bought the Litchford property and discovered that it included the cemetery.  Rather than leave the cemetery be, they exhumed the buried bodies and moved them to Union Cemetery for reinterment, where most of them are listed as “unnamed adults.”  The school then was built on the property and, with the kind of collective amnesia that is all-too-common in American history, people in Upper Arlington promptly forgot about Pleasant Litchford and his family cemetery.  When I started to go to UAHS in the early ’70s, no one told me or my fellow students that we were walking over the ground of a former cemetery.

I don’t think I ever saw a ghost lurking in the halls of UAHS, and the only creepy feeling I got was around the flea-bitten remains of a gigantic standing stuffed bear that was kept in a glass cage near the entrance of the building.  Now the old building is going to be torn down and a new building erected, and the construction crews are going to be mindful, as they dig and build, to keep an eye out for remains that might have been missed in 1955.

And while they’re building a new school, here’s an idea for the school board to consider:  rather than renaming the new building Upper Arlington High School, which is pretty boring, how about celebrating a man whose life epitomized a strong, personal commitment to freedom, family, hard work, and education, and naming the new school Pleasant Litchford High School instead?

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UAHS Rock

There is a theory that every person, of every generation, ends up thinking the music they listened to in high school and college is the best music ever recorded.  And if, 40 years later, they hear the strains of a song that became a hit during the summer after their junior year it still brings a smile to their lips, injects little youthful exuberance into their soul, and makes them want to move their feet, just as it did during their acne-addled years.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, really.  For most of us, we’ve never listened to music as fully and intensely as we did during high school and college.  Records and bands were important in those days.  It was not uncommon to listen to records, or the radio, for hours, with or without friends, and then talk about new groups and music, or some great older pieces that you’d just discovered, when you encountered your friends at school.  (“Hey, have you listened to this new group called The Eagles?”)  I even subscribed to Rolling Stone, read its reviews of new albums, and sometimes made purchases on the basis of its recommendation alone if the review was a rave.

And, of course, when you listen to music so carefully you tend to associate it with specific memories from your callow youth — like the album that was playing when you and your buddies were playing pool in the basement (Deep Purple’s Machine Head, maybe?) or the song that your high school girlfriend said was her favorite one time when you were out on a date.  How many people who graduated from high school in my year of 1975 can still sing every song on Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run album because repeated listenings ingrained it forever onto their memory banks?

So, I’m guessing that everyone out there thinks that the music that they listened to during their high school and college years — whether those years occurred in the ’50s, ’60s, ’80s, ’90s, or in this new millennium — is unquestionably the greatest music ever.  Fortunately, in my case, involving the music that I listened to during the ’70s, that just happens to be accurate. I’ve made several playlists that capture those songs, and one of them, UAHS Rock, focuses on the harder stuff that I listened to back when I was walking the halls of Upper Arlington High School during the early ’70s, with an embarrassing haircut and ludicrous ’70s clothing.  The first 20 songs of the playlist still stand up pretty well:

I’m Eighteen  — Alice Cooper
Layla — Derek & The Dominos
Smoke On The Water — Deep Purple
Stairway To Heaven — Led Zeppelin
Walk This Way — Aerosmith
Sweet Home Alabama — Lynyrd Skynyrd
Hocus Pocus — Focus
Band On The Run — Paul McCartney & Wings
Superstition — Stevie Wonder
Come And Get Your Love — Redbone
All Right Now — Free
Rocky Mountain Way — Joe Walsh
Twist And Shout — The Beatles
Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress — The Hollies
Badge — Cream
Roll With The Changes — REO Speedwagon
Radar Love — Golden Earring
I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home — Grand Funk Railroad
Hold Your Head Up — Argent
Moby Dick/Bonzo’s Montreux — Led Zeppelin

Everyone A Valedictorian

In Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, there are three high schools — and this year those schools produced a total of 222 valedictorians.  That’s fully 20 percent of the graduates from Dublin high schools this year.  One of the three high schools, Dublin Coffman, had 96 students who achieved “valedictorian” status.

There were about 800 students in my 1975 Upper Arlington High School graduating class, and there were less than 20 valedictorians.  They all achieved a perfect 4.0 grade point average — the higest possible GPA — during high school.  I knew many of them, and one was my best friend, The Entrepreneur.  He was a smart and motivated guy who worked hard to keep that four-point average because he knew that one misstep would knock him out of the running, and he really wanted to attain valedictorian status.  His friends, me included, were proud of him.

Those days are long gone in many schools, where educators consciously are trying to avoid competition for the “number one student” position.  And a 4.0 average is no longer the highest GPA you can get, either.  These days, many schools give additional GPA credit for “advanced” classes, to encourage students to take a more challenging curriculum.  At the Dublin schools, for example, you get “valedictorian” status if you achieve at least a 4.1 GPA.  The Dublin schools call students in that category “valedictorians” to allow them to qualify for college scholarships that are linked to valedictorian status.

(Apparently the Dublin schools don’t ask every one of their hundreds of valedictorians to make a speech at graduation — which means that the students really shouldn’t be called “valedictorians.”  A valedictory, after all, is a farewell address.  But, I digress.)

What does it mean when 20 percent of high school graduates obtain valedictorian status?  Call me old school — pun intended — but obviously being a valedictorian doesn’t mean what it once did.  You can’t help but wonder whether grade inflation has played a role and the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality hasn’t crept in to the academic honors process.

And, at a deeper level, it also reflects the diminished role of high schools.  For decades, high school was the end of the educational line for the vast majority of students.  Now high schools view themselves as just another step in the educational process, and their grading and honors policies are consciously designed to help their graduates get into the best colleges — where, perhaps, the real competition will begin.

Are we helping American students by designing high school to minimize real academic competition?  Because, at some point — whether in college, or in graduate school, or in the real world — true intellectual competition will in fact occur, and stress inevitably will come with it.  Maybe giving students a dose of competition and stress in high school would better prepare them for that oncoming reality.

Falstaff

Last night Kish and I enjoyed a terrific adaptation of Henry IV, Parts I and II by Shakespeare & Co., a performance troupe in Lenox, Massachusetts.  My lovely wife treated me to front row seats.  It was a fine way to celebrate the Bard of Avon’s 450th birthday and will be an evening I’ll always remember.

Henry IV will always be one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.  I first read it for Shakespeare Seminar, a class taught by Charles Will at Upper Arlington High School in the ’70s.  Mr. Will was a great teacher who brought joy and passion to teaching Shakespeare.  He loved Henry IV, and all of his students did, too.  The teenage boys in the class, in particular, relished the barbs traded between the carousing Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff, and relished calling each other “vile standing tucks” and whoreson rogues that semester.

Henry IV was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays during his lifetime, too.  It not only features witty insult dialogue, but also royal intrigue, roaring humor, rebellion, whoring, swordfights, drinking, death, and the human drama of a difficult relationship between royal father and rebellious, oat-sowing son.  

But the real attraction for me and for many is Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations and one of the most memorable characters ever devised in literature.  Falstaff, the fat, duplicitous, cowardly, sack-guzzling, honey- tongued, quick-witted rogue, is the true center of the play.  When Falstaff is on stage, all eyes are on him, whether he is cheerfully enduring the insults of his drinking companions, playing the king in a jest, coming up with another lie to cover his misbehavior, or making deft observations about the human condition.  Falstaff’s wry battlefield comments about the concept of honor as he stands over the dead body of Harry Hotspur is some of Shakespeare’s best writing.

It’s a crucial role and not an easy one to play.  Last night Malcolm Ingram was wonderful in his depiction of that iconic figure.  In a cast that was filled with talent, Mr. Ingram made a great night into an unforgettable one.  Mr. Will would have loved it.

Summer of ’74

I was thinking about the summer of 1974 as I drove home today, because I heard the song Rock Your Baby by George McCrae on the radio.  It was one of those songs that you seemed to hear everywhere, whether you were at the pool, or listening to the radio at home, or out on a date.  Upon reflection, the summer of ’74 was a pretty good summer.  I was working at Big Bear and therefore had some money in my pocket, all of which I gladly spent on dates with my girlfriend.  I was getting ready for my senior year at Upper Arlington High School, where I would assume the weighty responsibility of serving as co-editor of The Arlingtonian along with my friend JD.  We attended a summer journalism workshop at Ball State that summer, and they kept the TV tuned to the Watergate hearings the whole time we were there.

I seemed to spend a lot of time in my car that summer, listening to tunes.  There was some great album music on the airwaves, including Sweet Home Alabama and various selections from On The Border, Band On The Run, and Bad Company.  WCOL-FM was the classic “head” station, with extended play of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and various “album rock” artists.  On the Top 40 stations like WNCI and WCOL-AM there was lots of Elton John, Wings, and John Denver, as well as novelty songs like Blue Swede’s version of Hooked on a Feeling and arguably the worst song ever to become popular in America — Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks.

During the summer months, you didn’t watch TV because it was all reruns, but you did go to movies.  The venue of choice was the Loew’s Arlington, at the corner of Reed and Henderson, and the University City Cinema, both of which were big, standalone theatres with enormous screens and lots of seats.  That summer saw the release of first Death Wish, which was a great, chilling summer movie that raised an important, but as-yet unanswered, question — why in the world would Charles Bronson’s wife open the door to a giant bald guy in a leather jacket, and why would the producers cast the actor best known for his roles on Love American Style as the guy who gave Bronson the gun he eventually used to mow down lowlife scum when he returned to the city?  The Longest Yard also came out that summer, when Burt Reynolds was cool and Bernadette Peters made an impressive screen debut as warden Eddie Albert’s beehived, lipstick-smeared, nympho secretary.

It was a fine summer, indeed.