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
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?)