Friday, July 29, 2011

Those Were The Days, My Friend

Mr. Hellner - he was our journalism teacher and oversaw the publication of our high school newspaper those many years ago. News that he has died at the age of 84 was shocking in so many ways. First of all, in my mind, he remained the tall, strong presence he was to me more than fifty years ago. The news is ricocheting among my classmates - Mr. Hellner was popular. Not only was he a good teacher, he was charismatic. His sense of humor was always at the ready. He was a class act.

Of course my head is bursting with memories. I can feel the warm spring breeze drifting through the open windows of the school. The original high school building, three stories including the basement, brick facade, wide staircases inside and out buttressing the east and west walls, was old and rickety even then. But it too, had presence, character, and a particular communal aura. The banging of locker doors, bells ringing, laughter, and yelling - the unique symphony that envelopes high schools bounced off those walls.

In those years, playing of pranks was fun - Mr. Hellner did not hesitate to lock the newspaper staff in the journalism room and march off to lunch. Which meant we could retaliate - and that we did! He was one of the "new" teachers - so it was up to us girls to introduce him to the wondrousness of us. Only teenagers can be so unflinchingly arrogant! A couple girls (mind you, we were honor roll students so supposedly above normal nonsense) taped down the button of his telephone and made it ring, then hid in the adjacent room to listen in as he repeatedly tried to answer his phone. So clever! There was no stopping us. At some point, he got tired of us wunderkins and meted out punishment - the abhored "making up time lost" by having to stay after school. His mistake was, he left us alone in the room - and locked the door again. It was not long until the boys were driving back and forth in front of the school, honking and yelling at the rascally girls hanging out the windows laughing and shouting back.

I'm not sure schools then or now, that house thousands of young people could maintain that feeling of home-y-ness. The same is true of all the people involved - faculties, students, bus drivers, school nurses, and even the cafeteria workers - were/are a close community - a family. Even though small and rural typically meant limited academic and athletic opportunities, we were sheltered and safe - at least in our public domain.

The confines of the Island helped make the high school the hub of Island social activity for many years. It was only after the Agate Pass Bridge was built and ownership of automobiles became widespread, that the school became less and less important to Islanders. "The bridge" allowed us to drive to the metropolis of Bremerton! On the way, we drove through Poulsbo and Silverdale - 'course we teens called Poulsbo, "North (Kitsap)" and Silverdale, "Central (Kitsap)" the allusion being they only mattered as sports competitors. All of the schools (Islanders, Norths, Centrals) were so-called "B" class - that is, each of the high schools had 300 or less students. Now the schools are "A"'s or maybe even double or triple "A".

Our hangouts were restaurants - or cafe's/drive-ins. On the Island, it was the "Cat'n'Fiddle" in the(then)new shopping center just down from the high school. But in Poulsbo, it was "Greg's Drive-in"! We drove there - so grown up! "Greg's" was owned by a member of a pioneer Island family who died in a plane crash in Alaska a few years after he opened "Greg's". It was like we lost an uncle. And to me, his death was even more unbelievable because I babysat his two kids. Their house was down the road in Hawley from my grandparents' house. Daringly, they had that house barged to the beach from Seattle. That, too, was a remarkable event viewed by lots of people. Another family built a house on the beach nearby - descendants of the ship-building family, the Hall brothers. I sat for those children, too.

Babysitting allowed me a little sense of freedom at the same time it exposed me to teeney bits of life. Vomiting children, crying children, mean children, sassy children, being hit by children - when my mother and her partner opened "Esther's Fabric Shop" I was happy to be a sales clerk even though I never took home a paycheck. Fabric was my barter and I got to sew in the back room. One of the most popular fashions included full skirts with tons of petticoats paired with a coordinated blouse. I couldn't afford the winter stuff, Pendleton skirts and matching sweater sets, but in spring, my skirts and blouses stood up to the best of them. Oh, and cinch belts (wide elastic things) made my skinny seventeen inch waist look even more little. My only claim to fame!

I forget where I was going with this monologue - it started with Mr. Hellner so I'll continue with some more of those teachers who were a part of and important in our lives. Legendary "Coach" Paski was featured in an earlier story so let me tell about his wife, Mrs. Lois Paski. She was as much integral to the girls' education as Coach was to the boys'. Her empire was the kitchen and sewing room. We learned to sew an apron and baked biscuits at the same time she exemplified what it was to be a "Lady", poised, collected, and intelligent. A lot of us probably didn't realize that then but assuredly her lessons stuck with us forever. Half times at the football and basketball games were governed by versatile Mr. Samek - he who had a hand in everything musical - individual lessons, the marching band, the orchestra, jazz ensemble, chorus - his daughter Lynnette was the majorette. There was Mrs. Daisy Sams Wilson. That woman was the target of far too many pranks. I don't recall why - maybe because she was so guileless and spoke with a soft southern accent. She was our drama coach and our French teacher. It was in her class, right before lunch, that one time a couple of girls brought Oreo cookies they had laced with cayenne pepper. Because it was right before lunch, the boys were always starved. Any lunch sack was fair game. Yes - they did - and gagged and yelled as they tore out the door. We could hear them glugging gallons of water in the boys' bathroom down the hall. The girls were laughing uproariously. Poor Mrs. Wilson could not figure out was going on. Her high-pitched scream brought the Principal from his office right above the French class. The girls weren't disciplined. The boys vowed revenge.

These are just a few of the teachers. Most stayed for many years and often taught brothers and sisters. They really were family members. Others in the community also influenced most if not all, of us. Or at least, were known figures. Like the school nurses, Snookie and Mrs. Burdess. The two of them certainly knew who would faint or cry at the sight of a hypodermic needle, who had the earliest menstrual period, which kids were in the most fights, and on and on.

There was Mr. Sarin who delivered everyone's mail on the rural box routes. Mrs. Westerlund the post mistress who every one knew, knew everyone's business. The first full-time, Island based attorney, Mr. Alpaugh was keeper of lots of secrets.

The biggest repository of secrets, however, had to be the coffers of the Island newspaper, the Review. For many years, its gossip column (anonymously (sic) authored, hinted at romances, chided those who forgot a birthday, sympathized with broken arms and legs, etc. Burying of pets, visits to and from the Island by relatives, birthday parties, and the like were weekly fillers in the paper which found its way to every home. It was, after all, the "only newspaper in the world that cared about Bainbridge Island." High schoolers were kept abreast of all things school not only by the school newspaper, "Spartan Hilites", but also by a weekly Review column about high school activities written by the school's chosen journalists.

So you see, the nature of the cocoon in which we lived. A little stifling? Perhaps. Ignorance is bliss, as is said.

I just came across a letter to the editor in the May 1958 Spartan Hilites (high school newspaper - what is it called now?) The Annual Staff (the yearbook staff, "Spartan Life")showed its affection for Mr. Hellner.

"This is an open letter to Mr. Hellner. 'We're Sorry...' we leaned out the window of the journalism room and sent signals with the window shades, put 'for sale' signs and 'leave no milk' and 'A day spent is a over with' signs in the room. We're sorry - we decorated the room with crepe paper, drawings, a tiger, rugs, and pinatas; coffee and spaghetti on the floor. We're sorry we dropped the typewriter on the pavement, and drawers and folding chairs on the floor. We're sorry for using the journalism room for a beauty parlor, dance floor, gymnasium, dressing room, and cafeteria. We're sorry you thought we stole your keys; we're sorry we didn't. We're sorry we got every multiple of the annual in late; we're sorry every photographer within 50 miles has heart palpitations at the mention of "Spartan Life." We're sorry for all of the practical jokes we played on you - the telephone incident, the teacher's annual, the letter from Hearst - We're sorry we always kept ahead of you with the practical jokes. We're sorry we never observed "proper protocol." We're sorry for giving you ulcers, high-blood pressure, the shakes, nervous frustrations, heart disease, and permanent brain injury. We're sorry we won't be here next year to pull any more practical jokes on you.

The Annual Staff." the Editor of the paper, "Spartan Hilites," added "Me, t!". It might also be interesting to note the last name of the Editor was Woodward - a name now permanently etched in the Island's history.

There are no more spirited, self-centered, clueless, giggle-infested, boundary-less groups of people than a gaggle of high school girls.

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