23 May 2017

Grand Tour


A
t some point in late May—not necessarily 23 May 1963—we sixth-graders took a tour of Lewis Junior High School. Let’s just say that at the end of the tour I was not looking forward to going.
Actually, although I don’t have the exact date of either event, both my mother and I got (separate) advance notices of the horrors of Lewis Junior High. Mine was a tour of the school undertaken by all sixth graders; Ruth’s was a “meeting for prospective parents of students at Lewis Junior High.” (“I am not a prospective parent, but I went anyway, because my son is in the sixth grade, and because he brought me an invitation; I thought they probably meant parents of prospective students. Now, of course, I realize that they did not know what they meant and that none of them would have been capable of making the distinction, so it doesn’t matter.”) My memories are faded and colored by actual experience in this institution; Ruth’s were fresh, but don’t always match what I remember as significant. Between them, however, I can sort of triangulate my impressions, both first and second hand.
The place seemed bewilderingly large at first, especially compared to John Rogers, but really came down to only three buildings—the original school building, with a design similar to our own school, the massive main building with the office, library, and cafeteria, which had two wings, shop on the one side and home economics on the other, and the small but modern-looking science building. I noted that there were two gyms, a crappy old building for the girls and a shiny new one for the boys. The band and choir rooms (in the home economics wing) were terraced, so to speak, for the convenience of the singers or player, depending.
What they couldn’t wait to show off, as I remember it, was the equipment. And my mother observed that “What they were chiefly peddling … and what they seemed to feel made all else right, was gadgets.” Her immediate notes match my half-century old recollections.
To start with they had a decent science wing, equipped with microscopes, test tubes, Bunsen burners, a van de Graf generator, a Tesla coil, an orrery, and I don’t  know what all. I will note that in practice these things were for the teachers’ use in demonstrations, and not for the students, but still—a big improvement over John Rogers, which had absolutely nothing in the way of lab equipment.
The audio-visual lab was actually fairly impressive, though I don’t think they did anything more than point it out to us on my visit. In my view it was definitely under-utilized; its main use was in language classes where tapes of (say) Spanish phrases would be played for students to repeat into a microphone, while the teacher randomly listened in on various students, possibly occasionally interjecting a correction or suggestion. Ruth says that her guide during her visit said that only he and another teacher used it as the rest of them were scared of it. That matches my later experience—only the German and Spanish teachers put it to any use.
The industrial arts wing was (as far as I can recall) very well equipped with tools, but I never took shop as such, so my experience was limited. The tools we students were allowed to touch, however, were pieces of absolute crap, unfit for any serious work, dull and broken. But the machines were lovely to look at—planes and lathes and saws and drills and I don’t know what all—and maybe advanced students got to use them or something.
From here it’s downhill. There was a fairly decent P.A. system as part of the stage that sat between the gym and the cafeteria. They used it for assemblies and to play horrible music at us during lunch. Ruth wrote about them promoting the “divider wall[s] that can be folded up to make two classroom size rooms into one lecture-auditorium sized room” in the science wing but in my experience they were seldom if ever used. Ruth also wrote about the overhead projectors that many of the teachers used instead of a blackboard. It does seem like maybe they showed them off, but without Ruth’s contemporary note I wouldn’t remember them as anything special.
One thing that was emphasized repeatedly is that we would not be seeing the same people in our classes that we’d been seeing in grade school; because of the size of the institution it was very unlikely that we would be in the same class with any of our old friends. (It was still all right for us to associate with them outside of school they assured us graciously and condescendingly.) No, we would find our new friends at Lewis among the classmates the authorities had assigned to us, and everything would be just peachy. (My mother doesn’t really say anything about this, though I suppose it could have been covered in the part she alludes to about “peer-group identification”.) And there would be many activities for us to perform, hoops to jump through as it were, that would let us get to know each other much much better.
There were, we were told, many activities we could take part in. There were inter-scholastic sports like football, baseball, basketball or track, as well as intramural sports like volleyball and softball. There were organizations like the Girls’ League, the Boys’ League, the Activity Council and so on, that performed various unnamed but important functions, and by taking part in them we could earn points towards a Citizenship Letter (parallel to the Letter given for taking part in the various sports). On a scale of one to ten my interest in this concept was less than zero, so I never really did get the hang of it, but it seemed to be important to the people showing us around.
Each grade had its own conslur, an official who would be there to help and guide us throughout our time at Lewis. That is, the seventh grade conslur this year would be the eighth grade conslur next year, and so on. According to the handbook he “is prepared to support teachers in their primary role of aiding individuals to learn efficiently and effectively. He is also prepared to help the students themselves discover and develop their learning potential and capacity for self-direction through the various levels of the educational program.” From the pronunciation—which was universal at Lewis—I thought it had to have something to do with the old Roman consuls, but no—the word was spelt counselor. To jump ahead a bit I will note that conslurs did not, regardless of the spelling, actually offer counsel or the like; you got sent to one when you got in trouble of some kind, and detention, suspension, or expulsion was in the offing. I think I once had a conversation with mine, possibly over the intramural thing. At least various authorities were constantly pressuring me to drop piano lessons in favor of intramurals, since I shouldn’t let “outside activities” interfere with school—but I’m not sure if my conslur was one of them. And to skip a bit further ahead, the position was abolished at the end of my seventh grade year, due to budget cutbacks.
One thing that was emphasized repeatedly to us was that we would have a great deal more freedom in junior high than we did in elementary school, and we would have to learn to use it wisely. As it turned out, this was true only in the Orwellian sense, but I had no idea what to expect on that front.
There are two things I remember my mother saying about her visit, both of which are confirmed in the letter she wrote just after. One was that somebody had said that he had “lots and lots of busy-work for those quick kids.” From the letter I gather that he meant that he had puzzles and games for kids to do that finished up quickly, maybe as a sort of incentive or something. I pictured it as still more assignments of the same goddamn crap if you finished up quickly—a sort of disincentive. The other was the story of the would-be Latin students who ended up taking shop and home economics because there weren’t enough people to fill a class. That exactly matches my experience, except that there was no “counseling” involved; you signed up for Latin and ended up in shop. And yes—I did want to take Latin, very much.
As a final stage in our orientation we were assembled in the cafeteria and given ice cream. I can’t stand the stuff, so I refused it, but they served it anyway. I thought glumly about this dystopian future, and consoled myself with the thought that if I did end up going to this hellhole at least Bruce and Wyn and Steve would be along for the ride. I watched the ice cream melt in front of me and listened to idiots babble about my future.

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