“Isn’t there anything you can find to like about Paly?” my mother used to ask of my fourteen year-old self in exasperation. “I remember loving High School!”
I might have liked High School better if I were not in mourning at having to leave Peninsula School where I had passed my primary and Junior High grades. The campus was the former site of the Coleman estate in Menlo Park California. The central administrative building was an 1880’s Victorian mansion, still haunted by the ghost of Carmelita Coleman. (She died on her honeymoon from an accidental gunshot wound before she could even move into the elaborate house her new husband, James Coleman, had built for her.) Teachers and students who claimed to have seen Carmelita had an extra cachet, although I’m sure I never saw her in all seven years.
The Peninsula student body was perhaps 500 students total from nursery school to 8th grade; teachers and students were on a first name basis, and everyone pretty much knew everyone else. We had a weaving and sewing room, a pottery studio and a woodshop down in the house basement; an art room, and a music teacher/choral director ambitious enough to put on occasional Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with a cast of the older students. I loved it and felt nurtured by it all, although I didn’t realize how extraordinary it was, then. But there was no alternative but to leave once I’d completed 8th grade.
Starting ninth grade at Palo Alto Senior High School in September 1977 where my freshman class alone numbered around 400 students was a culture shock, to say the least. I was not athletic; nor was I academic although I had academically ambitious friends; I was too plump and too non-girly to be popular or fashionable; and I definitely wasn’t cool. High school to me was the educational equivalent of orthodontia, which which I was also coping at the same time. The persistence and quantity of homework was a rude shock; I keenly resented the way it swallowed my free time. School wasn’t just the school day anymore; now it followed me home in my heavy, text-book filled backpack, and kept me from doing what I enjoyed in the evenings and on weekends.
Looking back, Palo Alto Senior High School probably didn’t deserve my hostility; it was an attractive, well-funded suburban high school in an affluent town, and no barred-windowed prison. The other students were mostly teenagers from backgrounds very like my own and more graduates went on to 4 year colleges than didn't. The teachers were qualified, and some became life-long friends. Several of my close friends from Peninsula went there too, so I had a built-in social structure. I hadn't been planted in some bleak, dangerous campus riddled with gang warfare without any friends to talk to.
Even after the passage of Proposition 13 in June 1978, we still had it pretty good, then. Cubberly High School closed in 1978, sending half of its student body to Gunn, our rival high school, the rest swelling the Paly student body by half, but the slow decimation of California’s public schools and public services through fiscal starvation had only started to be truly felt by the time I graduated in 1981. I just wasn’t about to be talked into loving the place.
The “anything” I eventually found to like about Paly were the art classes I took through the four years. I’ve been drawing ever since I could find a crayon and a wall. After trying to play water polo in my detested P.E. class on chilly October mornings without any working knowledge of the game’s actual rules, Art Spectrum class before lunch was a blessed refuge. After struggling to conjugate French verbs when I hadn’t even finished sorting out English grammar, it was reassuring to know I could still use quill pens, pastels and paintbrushes successfully. During spring semester when we moved on from drawing and painting to more three dimensional art mediums, I learned that clay definitely wasn’t my friend, and my stained glass mirror frame was comical in its ugliness and poor construction. But it was all there and I could understand what I was supposed to do. Even while unsuccessfully trying to center a lump of clay on a pottery wheel—a knack I never could master—I could lose myself in it until the lunch bell rang. I didn’t have to solve for X, conjugate the verb nettoyer in the plus que parfait tense, or dissect anything in art class. Art helped me forget about trying to learn my way around a big, bewildering new campus or about my utter uselessness when holding a tennis racquet. I didn’t have to think about anything between the Diet of Worms of 1521 to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization when I stretched canvas over wooden frames.
Art was an elective, I was constantly being told. I really needed to focus more on my required, academic courses. Especially when I almost flunked 3 classes in the spring of 1978 and had to spend the last five weeks of school frantically making up the homework I’d rebelliously refused to do earlier. My advisor, known campus-wide as Jolly Wally, took a different tack, and let not a word be said against him, for that. To keep me from giving up on my education in complete disgust, he realized I still needed a class I looked forward to during the school day, and balanced that with the more academic courses.
Enter Commercial Art, one of the most useful single courses I’ve ever taken in my life. I still use those skills in my current job. In my junior year, I added Art History, and began my love affair with Italian Renaissance art, and took the more advanced drawing and painting course in my senior year. I never go on a trip without paper, water color paints and brushes, and would frequently rather spend an evening painting at home than going to the movies.
Art work is my necessity in life. Algebra? Never use it.