An “Un-Tribute” to My Alma Mater

WCHS
Wildwood Catholic High

It occurs to me that this subtle sense of vindication isn’t an entirely “appropriate” response to the news that my Alma Mater is closing.  Which makes this piece, part confessional/part research, as I ask, How can I hold animosity toward an institution I left 29 years ago?

Which then begs the question,  How can I be that old? No matter though, because all those years fade away when I think back on my days at Wildwood Catholic High.  And there I am, 17, in a pink Handi-Wipe uniform. I wasn’t even Catholic.

When it came to choosing my highschool, my parents disagreed. Neither wanted me to attend their respective Alma Maters. My father could not imagine sending his first daughter into the wilds of his own public high school experience (at Wildwood High), and my mother couldn’t imagine inflicting her experience at Catholic on anyone else.  (She had abandoned her childhood faith when the Church refused to marry her, pregnant, to a Protestant/Jew.)

But when it came to choosing my high school, my father–and the subject of French–prevailed.  Wildwood High didn’t offer French III and Catholic did.  (Of course, what they failed to mention upon my registration at Catholic was that although they offered it, I wouldn’t be able to take it as a sophomore which was the intention.)

Though it’s come up briefly in other places, I’ve never written directly about my highschool before–and I’m a little nervous about it.  Of course, it’s easier to bash something or someone upon death.  And personally, I think it’s healthy to do so.  A little Razor’s Edge makes the separation simpler.

And to be fair, lots of “good” took place within those walls for me: I met my first love and had my first kiss.  I summoned up the courage to try out for the school play.  (Thank you Peachy, FTT & the cast of Pippin.) I excelled in the small art classes.  I toyed with honors.  I recited the Canterbury Tales in Middle English (I still remember them!) And most importantly, I met some of my dearest friends–with whom I am STILL  friends. (Take that, Mrs. Coughlin!)

So what is it that leaves me strangely satisfied about the school’s closing?  Is it simply a case of Alice Cooper’s, “School’s Out for Summer” with a twisted emphasis on the line,  “Schools Out Forever!” And who can resist the lyrics, “School’s been blown to pieces! No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.”

Or does this sense of smugness smack of something hidden, some “slight” left unresolved?

Was it Sister Henrietta standing at the top of the stairwell after lunch, confiscating each of our illegal cardigan sweaters and stowing the whole pile of them in her office?

Was it Breslin throwing chalk at my head for falling asleep in English? Or  Sister Paul Mary for slapping me after I asked a “stupid question”? (She was my mom’s Biology teacher too.)

Was it that Sister Eileen singled me out instead of the boys when they nudged my desk ever so slowly out into the front of the room until I banged into hers? (Thanks Keith & Porto!)

Was it the detention I got for scratching my name into the wooden auditorium seats during the weekly Mass?  Or the “C ” I got in typing because I wasn’t a jock or a cheerleader? (I’ve only recently learned to type without looking.)

Was it that Father Hodges cleverly mocked my Protestant indignation over kneeling for the Rosary– by crowning me May Queen? Was it his hair shirt or the Irish Pub songs he made us sing? (“Oh it’s, no nay, never, no nay never, no more, Oh I’ll Sing the Wild Rover…”)  Or Sister Saint Jervase’s unusually strong affection for the bust of Shakespeare?

Maybe it is even deeper yet…  Something beneath the surface of institutionalized authority.  Something that extends beyond my singular experience…

I wasn’t one of the students being made fun of by the teachers after play practice.  But upon hearing them, I learned that not all adults had the integrity I expected of myself in coming of age.

It was also funny to be asked to release my boyfriend’s hand across the cafeteria table, “My dear couple, there will be no public display of affection,” while another girl was giving her boyfriend a hand job in the Library–or better yet, when the new teacher was screwing one of the students.

Admittedly, having my dress looked up with a shoe mirror by my classmates wasn’t nearly as bad as the humiliation endured by one of the smaller boys who was frequently stuffed in the trash can at lunch time or stowed behind the soda machine.  (Watch out boys. He’s a Marine now.)

Or what about our very own guidance counselor, who told some of our “lower tracked” friends that they weren’t “college” material and that they shouldn’t bother applying– even to a community school?  (Does anyone else feel creepy about the tracking system?)

What about how cruelly we treated one of our kinder, but odder teachers? I didn’t care to pay attention enough to understand Animal Farm, but I’ll never forget the way the teasing made me feel inside. (The term “passive colluder” comes to mind.)

When I look closely at my years at Wildwood Catholic, there’s nothing really terrible there.  It was more of a Purgatory, a suspension of living—a forced “playing” of someone else’s game, before I could live my own.  It’s probably true of most highschool experiences.

I appreciated the sense of “belonging” at WCHS.  Like when the entire first track resorted to hiring the same math tutor (her condo was revolving door of seniors.)  Or when we all chipped into the “Chem Pot” so that the poor soul who scored the lowest grade on the tests (which we had all repeatedly failed) would take home some cash.  Or the ditties we prepared on our free period to make some abysmal teaching tolerable. I still sing, “B to the negative N, B to the negative N,” (to the tune from the Wizard of Oz.)  That bright spot of a dull morning in the basement of the school was worth the pink slip that read, “Kelly is a constant source of disruption in class.”

One of the greatest covert acts of my lifetime was arriving late to school to discover an empty office with a pile of detention slips on the counter.  Holding my breath, I shuffled through the pink pile, finding mine and stuffing it into the pocket of my dress.

Many more things happened at Wildwood Catholic that I never knew about.  Like I didn’t know that I shared the cafeteria with a track 4 underclassman who would a decade later become my lover and then my husband and then the father to our sons, one of whom is in public high school now (and hopefully not reading this.)

Unlike my husband, I never experienced the infamous Senor Platt as a teacher, though he lost his life outside the restaurant I managed during the summers–which is now also gone.

I never understood why Mademoiselle Hodge distributed cookies during the SATs by serving one side of the aisle and not the other so that she was forced to make two round trips–just with the napkins.  But I loved it about her– even more than her thoughtfulness.

And then there was the all time favorite, Mr. Stubbs, who was cool enough to manage the class and treat us like equals.  Much to my initial discomfort, his wife insisted I call him “Sam” when we became teaching colleagues at Margaret Mace Elementary years later.  We spent Friday afternoons together in the P.O.E.T.S. club (Piss On Education Tomorrow’s Saturday) and during our precious years together, he lost Sharon to cancer, and married a friend, and moved away, like me.

Maybe it’s the building that bothers me.  The cross shape. I’ll never forget the look on my mother’s face the day my parents brought me there to register.  “This place still gives me the heebie jeebies,” she said, with a shudder, as we waited in the cold marble lobby for Sister to see us.

It was the first time that my mother had let down the mask of “adult,” and I saw her just like me…  as a person. She learned to smoke there at Wildwood Catholic High, across the street, hiding from the Nuns.  Maybe in some twisted way I blame them for that.

I guess despite my extensive probing, I haven’t figured out this animosity toward my dying Alma Mater.  And so I’ll end with love.

Love for all those who have had their highschool belonging years cut short by this closing.   Love for those who never did belong, though they may have ached to.   Love for teachers, past and present, who gave of their time and patience to be there, and for those who now face an ending that rocks their world.  May you find higher ground.

While I don’t share their walk, I have long admired the living Catholic faith among my old highschool and college classmates, and I can only imagine what a loss this type of ending is for them–and for their children.  For that, I offer my deep condolence.

“Hail Alma Mater, Wildwood Catholic High!”

PS.  Sister Patricia was wrong.  That track 4 guy (that I married) DID eventually go to college, graduate with honors and become a highschool history teacher himself:  Vermont’s own version of Mr. Stubbs :)

Kelly Salasin, WCHS ’81 is a lifelong educator and “recovering classroom teacher” who now shines the light of learning through writing, yogadance & life coaching.

Scroll down below to the comment section to join the “conversation.”  Add the name of your highschool and year of graduation to your name if  you’d like.

of related interest:

Part II of An Un-Tribute to WCHS

Never Grow Up!

Catholic Schools–How to Fix the Parochial School Decline;

WCHS Alumni, Ann Delaney blog post on “Closing Schools”

Facebook, The Mean Girls and Me (At 34 years old, I finally feel like a popular seventh-grader. How sad is that?)

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32 thoughts on “An “Un-Tribute” to My Alma Mater

  1. Kelly: Just felt like I had to respond. . . High School is not always a fun-filled experience for everyone but much of that is due to our own situation at the time. I wasn’t always aware of that until I had children of my own. I graduated w/you in 1981. As I read your “blog”, I realized that I never really knew you at all.

    I attended WCHS after having my parents take me out of my Catholic grade school in the middle of my 8th grade year (due to my father’s job problems). They decided moving to Cape May County was the answer to their problems. My younger sister and I had no input into the decision. After attending St. Raymond’s for 1/2 a year, I started WCHS not really knowing anyone. I met some of my good friends to this day there.

    Now . . . 29 years later . . . I happen to be married to the vice-principal at WCHS. I met him in 1985 while my younger sister attended the school. I have weathered the storm with him during his dedication to catholic education. I have had a career of my own and we have managed to make things work. We raised 2 children — a son who is a junior in college and a daughter about to graduate from WCHS and start college in the fall.

    I have had losses in my life. My mother died of pancreatic cancer in 1987 (5 months before my wedding). As a matter of fact, your dad took care of her. I weathered that storm (but I’m not telling you something you haven’t experienced yourself). Seven years ago, my husband had brain surgery (due to a genetic malformation in his brain that he never knew he had, until he went for a run one day and never came home). Thank God for a good samaritan who saw him on the side of the road and called 911. We didn’t know if he would live or die. He lived and got up and continued to work at WCHS and dedicate all of his time and energy to the students at that school who he felt were his own.

    Now . . . here we are in 2010. I’m sorry you had such a bad experience in high school. Was it really the school or was it just your own personal situation at the time? Whatever . . . the point is that what is going on now is affecting people that you don’t even know in ways that you can’t even imagine.

    When I was in high school . . . I imagined my life totally different than it is now. I was in love for the first time in my life, etc. etc. . . .but for the past 23 years I have spent my life raising 2 children with a person who has dedicated his life to catholic education (even before coming to Cape May County). He was dealt a raw deal. I hope everyone can get over the past and really concentrate positive energy on the people who have been so adversely affected by this absolutely awful situation!

    • HI Roe!

      Thanks for your read and connection, particularly given how “personal” this situation is for you. For those in the trenches like your family, my offering may seem callous. I appreciate your measured response and all that you shared of your walk.

      For many others who this “passing” affects, far and wide, what I share has its place–and ultimately might lead to a bit of “healing” and even greater support for the school if that’s how the energy moves.

      Some mistakenly read that I had a “bad” experience in highschool; it’s more that I wanted to “fill out” the experience of WCHS and highschool in general. I speak not only for my experience but for those of others whose experience was either painful or heartbreaking.

      With compassion for all we loose and suffer in life and all we celebrate,
      Kelly

  2. When I heard that the school was closing, I laughed. Every monday morning during my 4 years of hell there, I wished that the bell tower would be gone when the bus came over the Grassy Sounds Bridge. I had and still have no sense of belonging to a community there. Although, I do thank Mr Breslin, Sister Paul Mary and Sister Muriel for their dedication. So for those of you who feel like a part of your past is gone, get used to it. Life is about change, and change is about things disappearing. One thing that WCHS taught me was that life is a bitch, and if I survived that place, I can survive anything.

  3. Loved your editorial…..so glad there are a few others that don’t feel the closing of WC is comparable to the fall of the Roman empire!

  4. When I alowed my daughter to choose her High School experience, we “toured” the county together and she decided on WCHS. What a wonderful choice for her, she enjoyed and participated in High School in a way that would not have come so easily in a much larger school, where many children are lost to the extremes. She thrived, and I became reaquainted with the joys of a small community. The closeness, the continuity, shared histories. All high school experiences are similar to what you discribe, and I feel the love of it coming through your words. It was a wonderful thing while it lasted, but it unfortunately falls away as the “downtown” shopping districts fell to the malls. Everyone has fought to try to keep it going as long as possible, it is a sad day for the wonderful community of the Wildwoods. Will Wildwood High School be the next to be regionalized into the bigger & “better?”

  5. Hi Kelly
    I thought your letter was fantastic. You should have tried Wildwood Catholic when you didn’t come from “The Island”, that was a real joy. Coming from St. Raymond’s in the Villas did not exactly put me at the top of the hierarchy, in any way shape or form. Sitting in front of Sr, Eileen Fenton in homeroom freshman year was a living hell, what on earth was she doing teaching? I couldn’t help it if she hated her life, that the only contact she had with the male species was with pimply faced teenage boys! Never felt like I fit in.
    Freshman and sophmore years felt like one constant humiliation after another. I didn’t think I would ever get out of that hell.
    A few years ago I had the opportunity to see one of my fellow classmates on a daily basis for about two months, this girl had it all in high school, popular, pretty, athletic, (what’s that?) from Avalon, who could ask for more at WCHS. She turned to me one day and said, “Didn’t high school suck?” I couldn’t believe it, she had had it all, and it still seemed to be horrid to her too. Maybe it wasn’t Wildwood Catholic that was horrible, maybe it was just our age? We were all scared to death, trying to fit in, praying that nothing bad would happen that day.
    You’re right there were some highlights, I too had my first kiss, and first love at Wildwood Catholic, and those are good memories. There were some great teachers, I guess I am the only one that ENJOYED reading Animal Farm and 1984, and another thing I really liked Mr. Waters, actually looked forward to his class. ( I know I might be alone here).
    in the past few years the class of 80 has had a few informal reunions, I’ve completely loved every single one of them, all the walls are down, and everyone just enjoys one another’s company. The most precious thing I took from Wildwood Catholic were my friends, I am still close with them today, and I love them all. I hope people read your letter in the spirit it was written, the truth isn’t always pretty, and it isn’t all ugly either. take care tracy

    • I think you’re right Tracy, it’s as much about the “age,” the “coming of age.” Those were tender learning years. Makes me happy to be in my forties. (And I actually enjoyed Geometry with Sr. Fenton; go figure! )

    • Two comments on Tracy’s message.
      I had a new appreciation for several of the “old” teachers once I became a parent of a WCHS student- Mr. Watters specifically.

      And, so funny that you mentioned the “heirarchy” within the school. I believe it started before our time, and continues today. It may also apply to the young men, but it was more apparent with the girls.
      1) St. Ann’s girls- the Queen Bees (not sure how the Assumption girls felt, but I assumed the Crest girls were in this group, too).
      2) St. Joe’s/ Sea Isle- these girls were cool, with an added level of edginess!
      3) Star of the Sea- allowed in the inner-circle because they were smart.
      4) The “publics” from the island towns- allowed to exist, and might be considered for inclusion under the right circumstances.
      5) Middle Township and Lower Township girls were either ignored or cruelly banished from the in crowd.
      Of course there were exceptions for athletes and other talented students…but most of us had to suffer through our fate!

      Hey, this is good therapy after 30 years :)

  6. Although I can not disagree with your experience at WC, (I always thought being a 6’4″ red headed protestant didn’t help in my animosity) I saw the great things my friends accomplished. I went through 7th grade at public school and drifted through mediocrity with little expected of me caught between the truly intelligent and the hard to control behavior problems. I was always amazed how a school of average mostly white kids got so much done. The love of a sport and the competitiveness of 2 city schools basketball was awl inspiring. My friends from freshman year are still close friends today. I guess surviving the challenges of high school give us something in common.

    My son just got the news of the end of the school. I wish you could sit in our house and see how the wind gets sucked out of a family. I knew the school had little time left and came to the realization there wasn’t going to be a fun way to get the news. I learned long ago catholic school is not a democracy (I’m sure some teach on a power trip made that clear) but if you understand that mentality it helps in coping with the out comes.

    After watching kids take advantage of after school activities that many kids would be looked over in most schools was exciting. We got caught up in the excitement of possibilities. There were many things wrong with the school but only now that it is gone can I really appreciate the lessons learned good or bad. As hard as it was in our house I can only imagine what it is like for families with juniors (my favorite memories were of junior year).

    You were popular and well liked I’m surprised you don’t feel more disappointed at the loss of the school. You too must have had many good memories, there were many fun times. There are still pictures and banners of friend’s records there that add to a sense of belonging to something bigger than us. It marks the success of completing a challenge, a place we became adults. They announced the closing of Star of the Sea where I also went 2 years and I thought that was sad. I did not think I would be so heart broken to see Wildwood Catholic come to an end.

    • Thank you John,

      You captured the first-hand experience of this loss so well with this:

      “I wish you could sit in our house and see how the wind gets sucked out of a family.”

      With compassion,
      Kelly

  7. Hi Kelly. The link to your blog was forwarded by several 1979 WCHS graduates (we just had our 30th reunion). Your post was a trip down memory lane- the good, the bad, and the ugly! I married a fellow graduate, too, and we debated the positives and negatives of sending our sons to W/C based on our experiences. It was a good fit for our oldest, and not so much for our younger son. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    Ann Millar Delaney, WCHS ’79

  8. Hi Kelly,
    I found your article through FB. I couldn’t help but smile as I read your article, AND when I heard Wildwood Catholic was closing. I, too, was a low-track student, discouraged from taking anything that would lead me to college. Despite our “Guidance Counselor’s” attempts, I did attend college, recieve honors, and like Casey, became a teacher myself. I’ve always said the only good thing I got from High School was my husband.

    Looks like you and Casey are doing really well. It’s obvious you live a beautiful life! Good for both of you!

    Robin

  9. Reading your words I can not help but feel sorry for you. You publish this piece, that seems at times to be a little far reaching in your attempt to sound well read and wise, but it makes me feel sorry for you. You take this time where people (namely faculty, staff, students, and loyal alumni) are being horribly affected by the school’s closing, and decide that it is the perfect time to unlock your diary about your poor experience at the school. For all the those who hold Wildwood Catholic near and dear to our hearts,we say shame on you and this “un-tribute”. That diary was better kept under your tear laced pillow where it belongs.

    • Dear Loyal Crusader,
      I’m thankful to have your voice among the others here. I too shared the concern of offering “my perspective” at such a vunerable time for those actively involved in the school. I can only imagine what an upheaval this is in so many lives. Interestingly though, this “ending” affects so many more, long gone from the school, who share a range of emotions. From the many comments I received here and in person, I sense that “my voice” has a universal place and timely relevance–not only for alumni but for others whose schools have closed. Thank you for taking the time to not only read, but reply.
      Kelly Salasin, WCHS ’81
      Ps. I attempted to reply to you in person but the email you listed was not valid.

  10. Hi, Kel! Wow…do you have psychic abilities or what? Reading last night all the fb posts about Wildwood Catholic closing and “crusader pride,” I couldn’t help but think, jeez, am I the only one who is thinking good riddance? I do feel for the students who will have to change schools this late in the game and the faculty who will undoubtedly lose their jobs (including Roe’s husband, Frank Smith), but I’m definitely feeling more like the wicked witch at last is dead! I can verify almost every one of your examples of ridicule and hypocrisy and add many more to your list. I’m glad someone else is feeling the same way. I went to Catholic school for 12 years. I absolutely loved Star of the Sea, including the nuns, and was saddened to see that it is closing. However, to good old WCHS, all I can say is, thanks for the friends I made and I hope that not all of them have been turned off to their religion by the school’s so called “christianity.” The one bright spot I would not have missed was the greatest guy around, Frank Platt. He really was the best and I think of him often. As for you, Kel, I have to agree, you certainly were a distraction (cutting your hair with nail scissors in history class!) and a much needed one, at that! Thanks for sitting behind me all those years and keeping me entertained! Keep your posts coming – I really enjoy your writing. Take care!

  11. Great story I feel bad they are closing
    wc School Here in Phila they are closing three School down. They should
    close some of the public School down,
    that are in bad nighborhood.

  12. Kelly this article brought back so many memories for me ! I loved it. I don’t think I had quite the same experience as you , since I coasted through WCHS without anyone even noticing I was there. Sister Paul was very nearly gone to senility when I had her sophomore year and Mr Breslin never threw anything at me. I did have Mister Platt for homeroom freshman year and he made my transition to high school a pleasant if somewhat strange one. He is still sorely missed.
    Like you , I feel mostly for those who will be moved to another school half-way throug there experience there. for good or bad , it was and is the school where I began my own trip into adulthood , and as such , I will miss it. Godspeed WCHS.

  13. Kelly,
    That piece was awesome. I went to St. Ann’s and then onto WC for Freshman and Sophmore years. We moved from Wildwood and I went to public school which was a horror for me coming from a school so small where everone knew everyone. You described so much happiness, sadness and everything in between. Love the line about the pink handiwipe..how fitting. Your article actually made me laugh thinking how you described each of those teachers to a tee. Thanks for that ! Class of 84!

  14. Good piece.

    I atteneded a public high school. It wasn’t bad. Some of the things you describe are the Universal Pains of Growing Up. High school is a strange time where, as you say, you start to see adults as fallable people and become an adult yourself.

    Perhaps some of the unresolved animosity is vindication in having waited long enough for a door to close.

    Again, good piece.

  15. Hi Kelly,
    I went to St. Anne’s then on to WC for my freshman and sophmore years. After an ugly altercation with the Vice Principal (his name escapes me at this time but he was an awful drunk priest) my parents reluctantly transferred me to Wildwood High. The transition was difficult, not only academically but on a social level with new friends. However I cannot deny that I received a first rate education there free from the ridicule and judgment administered by the teaching staff of WC. Your writing and thoughts are poignant and comforting, thanks for the great piece on our alma mater. Rachelle

      • I never realized this about Father Johnston. He was the one who said to me and my beau, “My dear couple, there is to be no public display of affection.” It was such a great “line,” delivered so well that I’ve never forgotten it.

        Alcoholism is such a debilitating disease–affecting people in all walks of life. My late mother, a Wildwood Catholic alumni herself, suffered from it. http://themotherlessmuse.wordpress.com/

  16. Hi, Kelly. I’ve visited you before, and once again you’ve written a post that captured my attention.

    I attended Catholic school as well, and your beautiful writing took me back to that unique place we all share, no matter which Catholic school we might have attended in “the old days.” Our experiences are all so similar that we could easily have been in the same place.

    My elementary school is gone too, and the school at my present parish closed last year. Regardless of our memories and perspectives, the end of an era is always difficult to digest.

    All the best,
    Cheri

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