FootprintsSomeone once said, “Footprints mark the places we have been and for those who come  after they chart a path for them to follow.  We all hope to leave in our wake road maps to destinations and experiences of enduring value.”

My first full-time teaching job was at a junior high school in Weston, Connecticut.  It was a serviceable, “cookie-cutter” building but somewhat over-crowded and shop-worn.  My classrooms that year were a converted storage area and the cafeteria.  At the time there was no high school.  The students were transported to Staples High School which was and still is a great public high school in nearby Westport.

But the clock was ticking in Weston.  It was clear that the town had to build its own high school so they wisely hired Stan Lorenzen, a former head of Staples, as the Principal of Weston Junior high and a key architect of the new high school venture.

The site chosen for the new school was a heavily wooded area between the old junior high and the Hurlbutt Elementary School complex to the east.  The intent was to put all of the Weston Public Schools on one interconnected tract of land.

During my second year, teachers in Weston Junior High were encouraged to create club activities.  One of mine was the camping elective.  We did all sorts of things from learning how to tie knots, to pitching tents and building wet-weather fires along with other campcraft skills.  I also taught the kids how to read and use compasses to find their way in a pre-GPS world.  The final compass challenge was a treasure hunt that included a vector which took the kids through Stan Lorenzen’s office.  To put it kindly, that bit played to somewhat mixed reviews.  The elective was a chance for normal, hyperactive middle school kids to burn off a little excess energy.  In fact, one of the more popular activities was to hone the skill of chopping down trees for accuracy (making them fall to hit a predetermined spot) and then sawing the wood into logs and splitting them for firewood.  I kept a pretty extensive stash of axes and saws that trained, qualified kids could check out to practice on the yet-to-be-cleared site for the new high school.  By the end of the year, the camping elective had done a pretty solid job of clearing a fair swath of trees in advance of the bulldozers and cranes.  Needless to say, I had a bumper crop of firewood that year.

And so the building of the new school began in earnest.  It took about a year with a grand opening in the fall of 1968.  At the time it was a state-of-the-art space with lots of room and a nice mixture of veteran and young teachers.  There were the usual new-building issues; piles of dirt for the yet-to-be-landscaped areas, a leak in a main corridor that during the dead of winter and with the aid of a balky heating system turned the indoor hallway that ran past the guidance center into a target-less curling “sheet”.  The school atmosphere was touched by the times; anti-establishment stirrings among the young people, drugs, and of course, the Viet Nam War, a scourge that permeated everything like a persistent, rancid odor that never abated.  But the fledgling Weston High School and the nation somehow moved forward.

Over the early years of Weston High School heroes abounded among members of the community and the district board of education under the steady hand of Tom Aquila, the Superintendent of Schools.  I never truly appreciated the job he did until I spent a few years as a school administrator in California. Tom Aquila’s mark still resonates not only in the halls of Weston High School but throughout the K-12 district.  There were the resourceful administrators at the high school, Jim Hoeh, Dick Benzing and others who kept it light and livable in stressful times.  There was the talented faculty who in the absence of any existing local models had to create a curriculum and an atmosphere out of sheer imagination and endless effort.  Names like Gillen, Westervelt, Chalk, Patrick, Sacramone, Walendzik, Secord, Concilio, Hand, West, Ritter, Gustafsen, Estes, Regan, Sidoli, Erhard, Miller, Didsbury, Lynch, Diamond and so many others come to mind…dedicated, professionals who loved their craft and their students.  As a staff we were committed to opening young minds, shedding some light in a sometimes dark and foreboding world and helping the students to fully honor that person in the mirror.  As a staff, we also became friends.  Friday afternoons at the local Cobb’s Mill Inn were congenial, joyful times that warmed the cockles of many a heart while likely posing a threat to many a liver!

And then there were the kids, our reason for living, our young charges, our family. I still hear from them 40 years later and I am reminded over and over how much I still miss them and how much I owe them for so enriching my life.  I will always cherish the precious days I spent in Room 72.

Breathing life into a living entity like a new, untested high school…creating something out of nothing is a life-enhancing experience.  As a family, we put our hearts and souls into the challenge and like any family we didn’t always get along. But that never diminished our love for the place or our kids.  I remember the sometimes contentious “discussions” about how to handle the smoking issue which in those days was still a negotiable matter.  In order to preserve the student restrooms from certain destruction, we decided to establish an outdoor smoking area where kids could go and light up.  I would watch with a measure of amazement at the way a student could stand in a T-shirt and casually smoke on a day with a wind-chill factor in the low teens and not show any visible signs of acknowledging the weather conditions.  Maybe it was sheer toughness or, more likely, it could have been the effects of any of a number of mind-numbing “medications” du jour that was often a feature of the smoking area’s à la carte menu.  Somehow we all survived that time and place.

From those early beginnings the ever-changing cast of characters that parades across the stage in any school community still works hard to make a good thing even better.  Almost all of us who were there in 1968 have moved on to other places or have left this earth altogether.  We are still a part of Weston High School and Weston High School is a part of each of us.  It is a bond that will never break.

Connecticut has always been a leader in public education and 2014 is no exception.  In its current high school ratings, the US News ranked the best high schools in the nation.  As a state, Connecticut did very well but in its ratings of high schools by state, the number one 9-12, open enrollment, comprehensive high school in Connecticut is a wonderful, dynamic treasure.  It is called Weston High School…a footprint!

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4 Comments on Footprints

  1. Rick Brearton says:

    Wruby,

    Instant recall—as I visualized walking through the halls at WHS, through your thoughtful article—
    YOU (and Antoinette), were an inspiration to all of US. The passion for teaching/connecting you (all) had, and obviously still do, oozes from your pores. All of our Weston student family that you and your fellow colleagues touched, are better people as a direct result of the dedication and purpose you showed by example. Thanks can never be expressed enough for the many ways you touched our lives and kept us true to ourselves.

    We will always be grateful and love you for it—

    Rick

  2. Bob Westervelt says:

    Well done, Paul! I often talk about experience of building our high school, and this essay says it even better. It was such a special time and the former students I interact with frequently also agree. Westy

  3. Jim Wexler says:

    PAUL!

    I don’t suspect that you remember me but what a wonderful surprise it was to find your site!
    Your name came up while I was having dinner with Peter Thompson in Litchfield, CT.
    In looking back, as I often do, you were perhaps the most important teacher in my school life.
    I often relay the “staged fight” to others that you so cleverly orchestrated and how out of 29 students we had 29 divergent accounts. I credit you and Dale McCormack for opening my eyes to the Vietnam conflict and my involvement with SDS when I moved to Chicago where I was supposed to be studying art. I was just TOO restless for such a sedentary pursuit.
    Whatever became of the Leon Trotsky family films that you found in the attic of your Easton Rd. rental??
    It’s the second day of Spring here in Sharon, CT. I just put another log in the wood stove as a light snow continues to fall.
    Regards,
    Jim

  4. Ian Cassell says:

    Over the years, I have tried to explain to people what made WHS different and special. Most haven’t understood in the least and wonder how someone could have such attachment to their high school at this late age. You have nailed it.

    Ian

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