Woog’s World: 12 years of learning, in and out of Westport classrooms
Updated 6:21 am, Saturday, August 29, 2015
A cartoon ricocheting around the interwebs shows two panels. On the left — labeled “First Day of School” — a young boy clings to his mother. On the right — “First Day of College” — the mother clings to her now-grown son.
That route — 12 years that take forever, yet roar by in an instant — is familiar to nearly everyone. The journey from kindergarten to high school graduation is perhaps the most intense, and important, of our entire lives. It marks us forever, for better or worse.
I was reminded of that journey several times this summer. A cross-section of Staples High School graduating classes — all ending in “0” or “5” — held reunions. Most concluded their weekend with a Sunday morning get-together at Compo Beach. As I stopped by each —feeling fortunate to know some of the reunion goers, thanks to many years coaching and working in schools — I realized that what drew them back “home” was more than just high school.
Elementary and junior high (or middle) school experiences were a constant thread in our conversations. Whether from the 1950s or ’80s; whether their schools were long gone (Burr Farms), reimagined (Bedford El, Hillspoint, Saugatuck), reconfigured (Long Lots), relocated (Bedford Middle School) or remain basically the same (the Coleytowns, Greens Farms, Kings Highway), memories of classmates, teachers and (most importantly) random moments flooded back.
We are the people we are, in large part, because of the people we met back in the day. And though we learn important lessons about writing, history, math, science, music and art in classrooms, the lessons we carry with us often have less to do with classwork than with simply being together for seven hours a day, five days a week, 10 months a year.
So what lessons did I learn, growing up in Westport?
In kindergarten at Burr Farms, I learned I was not as smart as I thought I was. When Mrs. Fuller asked who knew the days of the week, I blurted out without even raising my hand: “MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturdaySunday!” I was quite proud of myself. She shot me a withering look. “No, Danny,” she said sharply. “The week always starts on Sunday.” It took me a while — perhaps a week? — before I answered another question.
In third grade, I learned the power of books. We had no idea how rare a male African-American librarian was in a place like Westport. We just knew that Mr. Rudd was a cool guy, who made funny jokes and always knew the right book to suggest. I devoured biographies, and felt very secure in the tiny (though it sure seemed huge) classroom he made into a home.
In sixth grade I learned a lot. A few High Point Road buddies and I made a pact to walk to Burr Farms every day — rain, snow and shine. No bus for us! We did it too, trekking across the Staples High athletic fields and parking lot, down North Avenue and through Rippe’s farm every day from September through June. That was our “Stand By Me” time, and every morning I strolled into school feeling good about myself and my life.
Before class, we’d head to the gym. Though I disliked running the 600 for the “presidential test” (dodging the occasional ball tossed by the teacher), I was great at pull-ups. I learned that there are many ways to earn social status, and being strong outside the classroom was as important as being strong in it.
In seventh grade I learned that not everyone in Westport came from the same middle class background I was used to. Long Lots Junior High brought together Burr Farms, Hillspoint and Greens Farms elementary schools. The latter include the “trailer park” — a part of Westport I’d always passed by but never thought of. Now I shared classes and hallways with peers whose realities and world views were far different from mine. I’d like to say I quickly embraced those differences, but it took well beyond seventh grade to happen.
In eighth grade I learned what brilliant teaching is like. Russ Kerr (English), Dan Sullivan (math) and Carmen Delgado, the inimitable French teacher from Puerto Rico, had an enormous impact on me. As with all great instructors, I can’t recall much that I learned in their classrooms. Their lessons were more about the joys of expanding one’s mind and reaching one’s potential —in other words, the true value of education.
I learned plenty at Staples too, of course. Everything you’ve heard about the politically charged, socially conscious, music-filled, anything-goes open campus of those days is true. It was a wonderful (and frightening) time to be in high school, and I wouldn’t have traded what I learned there for anything.
But that’s next year’s back-to-school column.