I was back in my hometown, DeWitt, Iowa, over the weekend to receive a generous award from my high school alma mater. My daughter Monica surprised me from Washington, DC, and both of us sat Thursday afternoon in a sophomore English class. It was the same classroom where I took junior English 43 years ago with Mr. Raikes. I should be more precise: the classroom is in the same place, though it’s massively transformed, along with the school around it. For example, in the last century we performed musicals on the stage in the school gym, where backstage right was filled with a weight machine.
Above I’m standing with Ms. Julie Murphy, the teacher who kindly humored me. She’s dressed in school spirit for Farmer’s Day. (Homecoming, you know.) Julie was terrific–and about the same age as my youngest daughter, as if I needed reminder of the ancientness of high school. To indicate just how long ago, I’ll note that when our band performed the 1812 Overture, Mr. Raikes and Mr. Bielenberg stood in the back of the band and fired shotguns into 55-gallon barrels, for the cannon effect. Like that could happen these days.
The class started with students writing five minutes in their journals (“What would you do with a million dollars?”) and lots of students volunteered to read their writing aloud–no small thing for kids this age. The class then read several pages of Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street, picking out passages and discussing why sentences stood out. Julie put us in groups for a bit of this. We joined a girl with purple highlighted black hair (maybe for homecoming, maybe not), who had some smart insights, humored us outsiders, and confessed she’d rather be reading a graphic novel. Then the class divided into small groups for upcoming class presentations.
Of course, more than the classroom had changed: the reading, the writing, the discussion. The class was 90 minutes long, and several kids were reading an ebook version of the novel. A projector hung from the ceiling, amid with multi-colored paper lanterns. White boards, no chalk. Even on the most patriotic of homecomings 43 years ago, no teacher would have dared teach without a jacket and tie or a skirt and blouse. The tenth graders were simultaneously more worldly than and just as nerdy as I remember us being long ago.
But this was a fine young teacher working personably with a group of fine young students, in a school snugged against the cornfields and soybeans, fall in early Iowa when the town smells like wet maples and toilet paper streamers drape the park.
The school song, by the way, is still the Minnesota “Rouser:”
Central Sabers, loyal are we.
On we fight to vict’ry,
(Fight on you Sabers.)
To our colors, true we will be.
Central Sabers, fight tonight!
Fight, fight, fight with all your might.
Fight on, you Sabers, fight.
Seems to me, the lyrics might benefit from a little variety. I think the point about needing to fight is pretty clear after 3 or 4 fights. Eight are overkill. Maybe we Sabers could establish a motivation for fighting or delineate the benefits of this unfettered rancor. Just a thought.