Saturday, October 27, 2012

Junior High Blues

I’ve been reminiscing a lot because a Facebook friend has recently been posting pictures from our days in junior high—except I didn’t go to her junior high (but I wish I had). Because of a quirk in how our county’s attendance districts were set up in the early ‘70s, I was part of a small group of students who were sent to Hamilton for 7th through 9th grades rather than staying with my 6th grade cohorts who went on to attend Washington Junior High.

I had attended Murphytown Elementary, located on a dirt road along Stillwell Creek in the rural eastern part of the county. It was a 1950s era single-story concrete block building painted battleship gray. It didn’t have a gymnasium—just an “all-purpose room” that served as the cafeteria when the tables were folded down. The library was simply the bookshelves lining the hallway walls. Every student arrived on one of the yellow school buses. It was an ideal setting for youngsters, with a huge playground surrounded by woods with no other houses in view. I loved that place!

However, Murphytown only went up to 5th grade. For our 6th grade year, we were bused to Park School, along a busy thoroughfare in the city. As I recall, there was no grass on the playground—just gravel and dirt. It was a big change for those of us from the country!

I can remember that the first time an ambulance or fire engine went by with its siren blaring, those of us from Murphytown jerked our heads and rose up from our desks to gawk out the second-story windows. We had never experienced an emergency vehicle passing by our school, so this was a major event! However, the more sophisticated city students acted like we were crazy, and the teacher admonished us to turn around in our seats and pay attention. It took many more sirens going by over the months before I could avoid the “sirens’ song” and resist the temptation to see what emergency might be happening outside.

Park School didn’t have just one classroom for each grade as Murphytown did—there were three different classrooms full of 6th graders. There was a big library in the center of the top floor. Unlike Murphytown’s all-purpose room, Park had a gymnasium where one could actually play basketball indoors! That same year, I also enjoyed playing football with many of the Park School boys, and earned a starting position for the City Park Falcons. Although it was a big adjustment, I thoroughly enjoyed my year at Park School, and made many new friends. All was going well for me.

My transition to 7th grade did not go as smoothly. Football preseason practice began before school started, and in junior high at that time, the 7th and 8th grades were combined into one team. I was the only City Park Falcon on a team made up of mostly former Hamilton Green Dragons. It seemed like all the other kids knew each other before I got there. I felt out of place from the very start, and had a hard time getting used to it. Plus, I never earned a starting position during my three years of junior high football (leading me to join the crew team in high school, which turned out pretty well for me). Junior high is a difficult time for most adolescents, and it certainly was for me. High school wasn’t all that much better. Actually, I didn’t really find my “place” until I went away to college.

When things don’t always go as we had hoped, we frequently dream about what might have been. I often thought that my life might have been so different if I had only gone to Washington Junior High School. I could have built on the personal friendships I had established at Park School. I might have had a more successful football career with my former Falcon teammates, which surely would have led to a higher rung on the student societal ladder. I also would have been exposed to more “diversity” which I have found to be a good thing in life.

Most people would rate Hamilton over Washington as the more desirable school during that time period. The general socio-economic status of Washington’s student body was lower than Hamilton’s, so the test scores were likely lower overall as well. However, in my mind, Washington would have been a better option for me. I tried to make the best of my situation at Hamilton, even if I never felt totally comfortable there. None of this is meant to belittle any of my fellow Hamilton Wildcat alums—it is indeed a decent school where one could get a good education.

That is probably still true today in its current rendition as Hamilton Middle School (9th graders now attend the high schools). Unfortunately, Washington Junior High no longer exists as a junior high or middle school. Just before my election to the county school board in 1992, Washington was closed and then remodeled as Jefferson Elementary Center. A connecting corridor was built to the adjacent Jefferson School, and this new larger elementary center became the consolidated home for a few former small rural elementary schools which were closed (including my dear Murphytown Elementary) as well as a couple of urban elementary schools (including Park School, which was quickly leveled and whose prime location on a busy street is now the site of a Wendy’s restaurant and a CVS drugstore). Since the number of students in the county had diminished since the baby-boom era, it simply wasn’t possible to efficiently keep all these schools operating.

One never really knows how an alternate reality might actually have turned out. Who knows how I might have fared as a Washington Panther? For all I know, it could have turned out far worse than it did at Hamilton. Thus, in subsequent years, I hadn’t thought much about it—until these Facebook pictures my friend posted recently made me think back to my junior high blues, and what might have been.

More importantly, looking at this friend’s periodic postings of her early ‘70s photographs of life at Washington Junior High makes me yearn for my calf-length striped tube socks and other fashion necessities from that era. They make this gray haired guy want to be young again!

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