Goodbye, Germantown

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Germantown residents question the necessity of closing the community's high school, especially in light of recent improvement in student test scores and rebranding as a "promise academy."
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Germantown residents question the necessity of closing the community's high school, especially in light of recent improvement in student test scores and rebranding as a "promise academy."
Posted: June 20, 2013

I WENT TO MY alma mater recently to say goodbye.

The neighborhood around Germantown High School looks the same as it did in the early 1960s, with perhaps one or two more boarded-up houses. It seems precariously balanced between stability and decline, as if one more push would tilt it toward ruin - perhaps the closing of the school that's anchored it for nearly 100 years?

Germantown High School is closing this week, along with 23 other schools in the city. Their empty hulks will join other empty buildings - the abandoned factories that inexplicably remain standing, the vacant rowhouses - a testament to other historical dislocations of countless people, in this case, our children.

As I approached the school, I noticed the grounds in disrepair, helter-skelter hedges in need of a trim, weeds everywhere.

I had become a student at Germantown after attending a virtually all-white junior high school in West Oak Lane, which was then a virtually all-white neighborhood.

It was eye-opening to attend a fully integrated school, and I immediately developed a crush on the African-American student-body president, Tyrone Connor. My experience at Germantown was a permanent inoculation against the racism I'd unfortunately been exposed to at home, and would encounter everywhere in the wider world.

Germantown was everything a school could be for me: a joyful sanctuary of exploration and enrichment, a warm place filled with enthusiastic and engaged teachers.

We didn't have to fight for our right to a basic education or amenities such as music, art and athletics. We didn't have to confront a world of unequal resources and indifference. When I entered those doors, I was in a cocoon of safety and protection, and I could focus on the only thing that mattered: being popular.

What, you thought I'd say getting an education? Seriously?

JFK was president. Youth was supreme. Vietnam was a distant drumbeat. No drugs. No sex. Only rock 'n' roll. Life had endless possibilities.

I was taken aback when I walked in the imposing front door recently and was greeted by a metal detector and a police desk. The possibility of violence was something we never had to face back then. The most frightening thing at school was a narrow winding basement corridor that led to our lunchroom. There were stories about lurking assailants that were titillating if certainly untrue.

It was finals week and classes were not in session on my visit. I was escorted to the office of the principal, who informed me I couldn't meander through the school by myself as I'd planned. He didn't explain. So he and a few others accompanied me as I walked those familiar halls, besieged by memories.

Some memories are indelible: 19-22-48. My locker combination, which I recalled, 49 years later, as soon as I saw the walls of slim vertical boxes lining the walls.

Some memories still make me laugh: The infamous day when, after an eternity studying vectors, Mrs. Miller asked if we had any questions before the final exam. We were all thinking the same thing, but only Bonnie Goldberg had the nerve to raise her hand. "What's a vector?" she asked, as the rest of us collapsed in laughter. She got thrown out of class. (What is a vector?)

Some of the memories highlight the dramatic change of culture: My science teacher, Mr. Schlick, threw me out of school more than once because I wore a verboten article of clothing: a split skirt, called a culotte. Imagine being thrown out of school for that. And I'm fairly certain that my math teacher, who used to walk me to class, occasionally drive me home and permit me to openly flirt with him, would be eligible for criminal prosecution these days.

Some memories formed my first painful life's lessons: My best friend and I were performing next to one another during cheerleader tryouts. Cheerleaders were the queens of campus, and I was desperate to wear that white uniform with green trim. It was a crowded, tight line of contestants. Part of the routine required that we spread our arms wide, and I realized with horror that I'd have to put my arms right in front of Ellen. I made a spontaneous choice on behalf of our friendship: I put my arms behind her instead. She made the squad. I didn't.

I went into the old gym, now a library, and remembered climbing the ropes with all the grace of a rhinoceros.

I walked through the lunchroom, which has the feel of a large, high-ceilinged bomb shelter, and remembered my favorite lunch: two Thick Mints and a pretzel. There were no lectures on nutrition that I can remember. The school was so overcrowded that we had five lunch periods - there were seven periods in a school day - and second-period lunch started about 9 in the morning. One of my friends, Robert F. Colesberry Jr., who later became a prominent movie producer, attended most of the lunch periods in lieu of class. Or so the legend goes.

The school has aged. Paint is peeling. Stairways are encrusted with dirt. Ceiling tiles are askew. It sags with neglect. What was once a magnificent monument to public education is moldered and sad.

But hope remains. The walls are plastered with inspirational messages and photos of successful African-Americans. It seems poignantly out of place in a school that's about to be shut down.

I don't blame Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. for closing my beloved alma mater. My senior class alone had nearly 600 students. Today, there are fewer than 700 in the entire school. Academic performance is dreadful.

But the closings seem more than a reaction to a budget crisis. They're a commentary on the warped priorities of a society and a city that could allow this to happen. I'll leave it to others to explain this tragic abandonment of public education. I can only mourn what used to be.

I wondered, though, as I walked the halls: Was Germantown really the nirvana I remember? Were there labor struggles with the school district that preoccupied the teachers? Was there racial hostility that I overlooked?

I thought about calling my favorite teacher and an African-American classmate who became a school principal as a reality check. But I changed my mind. I'd rather keep my memories as untainted by facts as my reality may have been back then.

At the end of the day, finally alone, I sat in the empty auditorium, where I walked down the aisle in a cap and gown in 1964. Somehow, it didn't seem so long ago. Who could have known that so many years later, I'd still have more questions about life than answers? Tears came to my eyes.

Then I left the grand, old building for the last time. A groundskeeper was trimming the hedges.

Today on View a photo slideshow looking back at the history of Germantown High.

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