A Different Kind of High School

At least to The Curmudgeon.

The Curmudgeon went to a pretty decent public high school.  Back in the day Philadelphia had about 20 public high schools.  Two were head and shoulders above the rest and on a second tier, right below them, were two more.  The Curmudgeon’s school was right below that second pair, and after two other half-decent schools the rest were pretty awful.  The Curmudgeon’s school, though, was good, and he’s always felt he got a first-rate education (except for that English teacher who told him he had a juvenile vocabulary and couldn’t write.  This boy holds a grudge).

The Curmudgeon’s stepson attends what is considered one of the better public high schools in all of New Jersey.  Attempting an academic comparison is unfair:  sometime between when The Curmudgeon and people his age attended school and today the experts decided that kids could handle much more challenging studies.  In high school The Curmudgeon never got anywhere near some of the things stepson J studies today, and sometimes he wonders how he would have fared if such demands had been made of him.  Usually the fear that he wouldn’t have been able to cut it goes away, but sometimes…

Shortly before the school year ended J, who plays the clarinet, participated in a band performance for family and friends in the school auditorium.  The Curmudgeon and his most uncurmudgeonly missus (and mother of the clarinet player) arrived early and wandered around the building a little, and it was a revelation.

The building is much smaller than the school The Curmudgeon attended.  The New Jersey school has about 900 students – which, coincidentally, was the size of The Curmudgeon’s graduating class in a five-grade high school of 4300.  The New Jersey building was constructed in 1926, which means it’ll be 100 years old in a few years, contrasting with The Curmudgeon’s school, which was built in 1950 and was razed a few years ago after being considered beyond salvage.  That, to be fair, is largely a function of resources:  the Philadelphia school district is perpetually on the verge of dead broke and chronically underinvests in the maintenance and upkeep of its physical plant while J’s school district is very generously funded by property taxes that are so high that every time The Curmudgeon thinks about them he risks hyperventilating.

But there are aspects of the interior of the school that have nothing to do with the age of the building or the capacity of the school’s staff to keep things neat and clean.

In the hallways The Curmudgeon found – bulletin boards!  The only bulletin boards in The Curmudgeon’s high school were behind glass; nothing else would have survived even a single day without being vandalized.

At J’s school The Curmudgeon and Mrs. Curmudgeon stepped into a few classrooms and found quite a contrast.  They rarely encountered a desktop with so much as a mark or a scratch on it.  Of course, some of this was because the desks were newer because the school district could afford them, but still…

Also inside those classrooms:  still more bulletin boards!  Teachers put up displays – charts, graphs, maps, photos, more – of the subjects they were teaching.  No teacher at The Curmudgeon’s high school would have been so foolish as to put up a bulletin board:  it would have been destroyed in no time.

Okay, now, the real test:  the boys room.  The Curmudgeon remembers the boys rooms at his high school only too well:  when you stepped into one the only thing that softened the stench was the overwhelming amount of lingering tobacco smoke.  The urinals worked, but that was it:  there was no running water in the sinks, which was just as well because there were neither soap nor paper towels; the stalls with toilets had no toilet paper, many had no toilet seats, and many of the toilets didn’t flush anyway.  Worse, the stalls did not have doors.

Think about that for a minute:  the stalls in a public restroom had no doors.

Can you imagine?

To the best of The Curmudgeon’s recollection there were seven or eight boys rooms and seven or eight girls rooms in his school – physically, the school was enormous, so sprawling and so over-crowded that there were times when you couldn’t make it from one class to the next in the four allotted minutes between classes – but by his junior year all but two boys rooms were locked (he can’t speak for the girls rooms) and one of those was located in such an isolated part of the school that there was no point in even trying to use it.

The boys room at J’s school:  spotless.  Running water, soap, and paper towels at the sinks.  TP and toilet seats in the stalls.  And – doors on those stalls.  Doors!  Of course The Curmudgeon realizes that in anticipation of guests the school’s custodial staff no doubt made a point of making sure the bathrooms were clean, but surely they didn’t install toilet seats and turn on plumbing that otherwise didn’t work or didn’t exist.  And they certainly didn’t hang doors where previously there were none.

It was an epiphany:  that not all high schools were like the one The Curmudgeon attended.  There are any number of ways you can try to explain, or explain away, the disparities between the schools.  As wealthy as J’s school district is and as poor as The Curmudgeon’s school district was, wealth alone probably has little, if anything, to do with the conditions at the respective schools.  No, it’s almost certainly about the parents:  some kids vandalize when their parents don’t teach them not to do such things and don’t discipline them appropriately when they do in contrast to parents who teach their kids how to act appropriately and refuse to tolerate such behavior if it they do it anyway.  Life and limb would have been in jeopardy if a teacher or principal had called The Curmudgeon’s home to report that one of the children had vandalized a bathroom or been caught writing on a desk; dad was a hitter.  Clearly, though, not all families operated that way, such behavior was tolerated in enough families to affect everyone, to affect entire schools, and a lot of kids lived down to the expectations their families, and ultimately their schools, had for them.  In J’s school district it just seems that kids are raised differently, raised…The Curmudgeon hates to say it, but raised…better – and kids grow up learning both how to conduct themselves and how not to conduct themselves.  The Curmudgeon has experienced this in his own interactions with people in his new town – the town is so damn nice it makes him uncomfortable, a strange combination of Mayberry and some of the one percent – but he didn’t need to interact with anyone, just to walk in the school’s corridors, to see and experience this startling difference.The Curmudgeon has fond memories of high school and thinks the education he received there has served him pretty well but now finds himself wondering what he may have missed by not attending a “better” school.  When he was in high school one of those two top-tier schools, Girls High, hosted the high school debate program and The Curmudgeon was on the debate team (surprised?).  Girls High had bulletin boards in the classrooms and the hallways, the desks were much, much better (better than The Curmudgeon’s school but not quite at the level of the New Jersey school), but you couldn’t make an apples-to-apples comparison of bathrooms because there were no boys rooms at Girls High and male debaters used – the faculty bathroom!

As he took in the concert that night The Curmudgeon was able to take small comfort in one area where his Philadelphia high school had this New Jersey school beaten by a mile:  Lincoln High had an excellent orchestra and a totally kick-ass big band that played swing.  Even the kids who thought a school band was totally square or nerdy or whatever term we used for that idea back in the mid-1970s realized how good they were – especially the swing band, known as the Lincolnnaires; the marching bad was pretty spectacular, too.  The New Jersey school band, by comparison, was pretty sad, hampered, no doubt, at least in part by the much smaller student body and the correspondingly smaller pool of musicians.

But academics are more important than extra-curriculars, whether you’re talking about football or band or debate, and for someone who hasn’t spent much time in schools since graduating in 1975, the evening was both an eye-opening and an enlightening experience.





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