The day after opening Our Town I flew to California for my 50th high school reunion. Unthinkable, but there it was. Spending a month in Grover's Corners is a good way to get ready for an event like this, since the play is so much about the whole arc of life, and of things past, passing and to come. I went to John Muir High School in Altadena, California.
It was a big high school (class of 750), quite diverse ethnically, and pretty much everything you'd expect a high school to be in 1959. Our school has produced a colorful gallery of graduates, including Jackie Robinson, Sirhan Sirhan (a quiet classmate of my sister's in remedial math), Bobby Hutcherson, Herbie Lewis and Rodney King (a Muir dropout). In my day it produced quite a lot of successful white people, many of whom were gathered in the Pasadena Westin hotel ballroom on Friday night, most wearing the recommended Hawaiian shirts. (These are a bad idea, BTW because they make everyone look the same---a crowd of old cruise line passengers waiting for the buffet). In a sea of old faces I managed to find a few people I knew, some I wish I had known better and some maybe not so much. Not so much a former high school idol who once looked great in his letterman's jacket and had gone on to found an HMO in St. Louis where he now lives on a golf course with fair round belly and much talk of himself. But then there was Woody Foster who went salamander hunting with me in Millard canyon, and who now teaches mosquito psychology at Ohio State, spending two months a year in Kenya figuring out how to fight malaria.
The next morning, some of us went back to Muir.I hadn't been there in a half century. The school looked mostly the same. The halls were beige and lined with battered lockers. The water pipes were tied overhead. The quad of grass and trees was gone--the nicest part of the school and the only grove of academe had been replaced by a squat concrete block. The wooden auditorium seats were still there, several falling apart. There was the stage where I had fidgeted through many an assembly, and where, in my proudest high school moment, I was awarded the Harvard Book Prize, given to the graduate most likely to attend Harvard (I was wait listed, and the book was unsigned inside). We spent a while talking to the resident stage manager--a lifer and former graduate who had been at the school for 15 years, and looked like the house muskrat. From him we learned the sorry story of the school's last decades. Thanks to political gerrymandering and redistricting and the tide of recent social history, the school's demographics have greatly changed. The student population is now 40% hispanic, 40% black, 99% white, 3% asian and the rest indifferent. The rich white kids now go to school east of Lake avenue or over in Flintridge or La Canada. When I was there, 25 kids were accepted at Stanford; this year one student got in. Only about half the class graduates. There hadn't been a drama production in years (this is always a reliable sign of decline). The academic scores were pathetic. There were reports of occasional defecation in the hallways. John Muir High had joined the ranks of America's failing schools. A lot can happen in 50 years. It seemed almost criminal. It IS criminal.
The night I came home I watched an episode of the PBS show on National Parks. The one that featured John Muir speaking noble words in a Scot accent. I was, for a moment, proud to have gone to a school named after John Muir, and I thought, really, saving our schools is a task as monumental and as important as saving our natural wonders, and even more difficult. It will take money and more than that (see the story of Geoffrey Canada and the Children's Zone in Harlem). In the school hallway there was a picture of the homecoming queen. She was black, and flanked by a latino and an asian princess. They looked very beautiful and radiant, much more so than our girls of 1959, one of whom (Anne Hyde) I had a great aching crush on and who was a no show at the Westin ballroom. Those girls, and their boyfriends, and their nerdy admirers are all worth saving. They were then and they are now.
Meanwhile, if Hawaiian shirts are required at our 51st reunion, me and my friends are going to work up "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" on our ukuleles, and I'm going to suggest we play it in the Muir auditorium at a school assembly.
I'm going to make sure Ann Hyde is there, too. If my Harvard book didn't catch her eye, my ukulele will. I'm going to start a fund to provide ukuleles to all the students at John Muir High so they can play along with us and add Jay-Z to their repertory. This could turn the whole thing around fast. Yes we can!