Back to School
Revisiting Bellaire High School
The desire to go back and relive a part of our past is often nothing more than a fleeting thought. Knocking on the door of a childhood home and asking for a nostalgic tour or reconnecting with a friend from grade school can bring back vivid memories.
After high school graduation in 1979, I was ready to move on. I thought I would never again step foot in those school hallways. The future was centered on becoming a Longhorn at The University of Texas at Austin.
But recently, I had an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, to return to my alma mater, Bellaire High School, going back to school as a 57-year-old student – for a day.
Bellaire principal Michael McDonough paired me with a student to shadow: Fayth Kemp, an energetic and bright junior (now senior), was my host for the day. Fayth, who loves writing, is on staff at the student-run news site Three Penny Press. She is in the eMotion Dance Company and National Honor Society, and will attend Florida A&M University to major in pre-law and business.
Her class schedule had been provided to me in advance, so I was aware that the day would run the spectrum from Spanish and AP Calculus to jazz dance. With introductions made, it was 7:40 a.m., and we were off to first period. Memories flooded back walking though the familiar halls lined with red lockers on the same terrazzo floor I walked on 40 years ago. Chattering students still scurried to get to class before the final bell rang. Entering the first class of the day, I noticed the door was adorned with artwork and posters, instead of the plain red-painted door we had when I was at Bellaire. These subtle differences stood out, yet so much looked and sounded the same. Taking a seat in the class, I wondered what other changes were awaiting.
The energy of the classroom had taken on a new dynamic. Gone were the black chalkboards, replaced with white boards. The teacher’s desk, once prominent at the front of the room flanking the dusty chalkboards, was now positioned to the side or rear of the classroom. Rather than sitting behind the desk in lecture mode, the instructors seemed more interactive, walking around the room and engaging with students. Even the entertaining class clowns in my U.S. History class were seamlessly brought into the conversation about the Red Scare of the 1950s by our teacher, Jared Manuel. The class clowns were fully relatable, as I had been labeled one myself. I took comfort in knowing we were still represented.
Beyond the interactivity of the teachers, classmates also intermingled with each other. Fayth’s Spanish class, taught by Sandra Barron, was having an extra-credit quiz on the day I visited. On a large computer screen at the front of the class, quiz results were live as students proceeded through the exam. Working as a team, everyone’s progress was visible for all to see, which created great momentum to reach the finish line. This was quite different from when I was in school where any interaction between students taking a quiz could have been labeled as cheating. Technology has made learning an entirely different and fun game.
From all that I had encountered so far, high school had clearly become less rigid. Four decades ago, violating the rules forbidding eating or chewing gum in class was considered misconduct and could result in being sent to the principal or given detention, as I had experienced first-hand. Today’s rules against food in the classrooms seemed to have been relaxed. Initially, I thought my classmates were sneaking in a few bites. I asked Fayth if we were allowed to eat in class. She responded with an emphatic “of course.” I pulled out my Fiber One bar and enjoyed snacking in class without suffering the consequences.
A day in the life of a high school student is not complete without P.E. class. As I am awkward in all sports, this had always been my least favorite class. As I was repeatedly the last one chosen for any team, I was certain the same scenario would be playing out again. But the class I would be joining was eMotion, the Bellaire jazz dance company. Originally, this had me a little concerned. I have zero rhythm. Certain this would be embarrassing, I had reached out to Bellaire’s director of communications, Debbie Campbell, to suggest I follow another student with a more conventional schedule. Debbie reassured me that all would go well, so I found myself facing jazz dance.
“They start with stretching,” reassured Fayth. “That will be easy for you to do.” I walked in on energetic young ladies in dancewear, stretching in preparation for the days’ practice. While not dressed accordingly, I joined the stretching. While awkward and embarrassing at first, the rhythm eventually set in. Fayth encouraged me to just have fun.
Watching these talented performers practicing a routine for an upcoming show was inspiring. Their choreographer set the tone with just the right hip-hop music. Repeatedly rehearsing each step made for a swift third period. The options for P.E. at Bellaire go far beyond the standard rotation of volleyball, track and softball I had to endure. The jazz dance class at Bellaire is popular, with both guys and girls signing up for the program.
As a student, I always had looked forward to lunch, the best part of my school day. Admittedly, I cannot recall ever eating the food in the Bellaire cafeteria. There was a walk-up window where students could order sub sandwiches, but other than that, I opted to leave campus to grab a burger from Bellaire Broiler Burger or to enjoy a barbecue sandwich from The Hickory Pit. In the interest of full disclosure, I shared with Fayth that lunch would often be my last class of the day, as I often chose not to return to school afterward. When I explained to Fayth that we had an hour for lunch when I was at Bellaire, she educated me on lunch at Bellaire today. “We have 43 minutes for lunch. None of the cooler students eat in the lunchroom. Some leave school, but most just eat their lunch sitting somewhere on campus in little groups.”
I noticed students sitting everywhere – the hallways, the area by the auditorium, outside, and in the parking lot. The cafeteria, however, is still where the action is. Students with backpacks wearing the standard jeans, shorts and T-shirts queued up in line chatting about the latest in pop culture or listening to music funneled in through headphones as they waited to be served. Surprisingly, some of the food served was not an HISD creation. Fast food such as Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s and Taco Bell are brought in on rotating days as ways to support the various clubs on campus. I walked through the long lunch line for burgers from McDonald’s that were stacked where only HISD pizza and rolls costing 10 cents used to dominate. There is a separate line should any student opt to eat HISD-prepared meals like chicken wings, tacos and beef hoagies. Lunch options have clearly multiplied over the last 40 years.
The students I shared class with were welcoming and did not make me feel as if I were the odd man out. Selfies were taken, and questions were answered. During my introduction to the staff of the school paper, Three Penny Press, I explained that I employed and worked with young social-media professionals. Two students, writer/poet Jackson Gray and photographer/meteorologist-to-be Mark Hicks, asked me for a job. I think they were joking, but maybe not.
The eight-period day at Bellaire was long and exhausting. While so much about Bellaire has changed, much of the familiar remained. Three teachers who taught when I was at Bellaire are still on staff. The chance to revisit with Russian teacher Lisa McLendon, Career Technology Education teacher Alice McKinney and English teacher Camille Quaite brought back memories. Their dedication as teachers and mentors is inspiring.
Ms. McLendon and I reminisced about how she and others led Bellaire students on the school’s first trip to Russia in 1979, and how they went three times a year for the next 10 years.
Ways of disseminating information have changed. Laptops have replaced schoolbooks and bulky televisions where we once viewed public-television shows or witnessed space travel and exploration. “Technology enables us to do different things in the same classroom, like cartoons in Russian for different levels or keyboarding in Russian on the phonetic keyboard,” said McLendon. “The constants are the excellent leadership…. The wonderful students and their parents make the school as strong as it ever was.”
Bellaire is about to embark on the largest evolution yet. With the exception of the science building, which was completed in 2012, the entire school will be razed in phases to make way for a new and much larger 425,000-square-foot complex, including a multi-level parking garage. During this time, students will occupy the campus and move to completed areas as construction progresses. An updated contemporary structure with symmetrical design features, along with outdoor and rooftop green spaces, will replace the current mid-century building that has been home to Bellaire High School since 1955. The construction is estimated to take approximately 30 months, with students expected to begin roaming the halls of a completed new Bellaire High School in early 2021.
Going back to high school was hard. As we parted, I commented to Fayth that I didn’t recall my school day being so long. I found it somewhat challenging to keep up with her pace. Fayth was engaged in each class we attended, eager for any test or task that was assigned. These are skills that will serve her well as she continues her journey beyond Bellaire High School.
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