Sharpstown High, 1978-79

I recently discovered the high school I spent my sophomore year is slated to be demolished early 2018 when a new building is completed.  Sharpstown was an odd amalgam of Texas conservatism and 1970’s permissiveness.  Built in the late 1960’s, the building featured outdoor terraces and a courtyard allowing students to taste the outdoors between classes.  Sharpstown served as a bridge during the 1978-79 school year before my third and final high school.  That, along with Houston’s late 70’s oil boom, gave an ephemeral feel to my year there.

Although I teach at the college level, there are always a handful of students from local high schools in class.  It never hurts to take a look back and recall what it was like during those years.  I spent my freshman year at a small Catholic school of less than 400 students.  The teachers and administrative staff knew all the students.  Sharpstown had close to 2,000 students and only included grades 10-12.  The influx of new residents severely taxed Houston’s infrastructure, and the schools were no exception.  I never had any interaction with the principals, and I got the impression they were flying by the seat of their pants to put all the pieces together.  The burgeoning enrollment necessitated the use of temporary wooden classrooms built on blocks outside the main building,  The shacks as I used to call it.  The surrounding neighborhood was also different in ways I was not accustomed to.

I came from an older, denser, urban neighborhood in Buffalo built before the advent of the automobile.  Within a 10-15 minute walk were many shops, bars, supermarkets, bowling alleys, churches, and schools.  In fact, there were both three Catholic and public grade schools within walking distance.  If I wanted to go downtown, I could hop on a bus less than a five-minute walk away.  I had a great deal of independence that vanished in Houston.  If you didn’t have a car, you were skunked.  And at age 15, I didn’t have a car.  Turns out I would not have a bus ride to school either, for reasons known only to the school staff, a bus was not run out to my neighborhood.  So, like many a middle age guy, I can say I walked one and half miles to school.  Not uphill both ways though.  Seated upon the Gulf Coastal Plain, Houston is flat as flat can be.

That walk was uneventful, and once the temperatures cooled down in late October, not bad at all.  For the most part, the scenery was a nondescript mix of apartment complexes, fast food joints, and strip malls.  Two notable exceptions was the maze of baseball diamonds at Bayland Park used to film one of the Bad News Bears movies, the other was the corner of Bissonnet and Fondren.  The business on that corner, whose nature I’ve long forgotten, stunk to high heaven all day and night.  If nothing else, that smell served as a marker the school day was about to commence.

After homeroom, I was introduced to the Texas concept of gym class every day.  In New York, gym had always been a once a week deal.  In my experience, there is very little instruction in gym class.  If someone is struggling in basketball, why not instruct how to shoot rather than throwing them to the wolves?  A thought experiment that could be used would be to visualize oneself traveling with the basketball on the way to the hoop.  Imagine two scenarios, one shot with a high arc and the other with a lower arc.  Which will see more area inside the rim to enter?  That’s the high arc shot and a technique Robert Parish, then with Golden State and later with the Celtics, used with great effectiveness.  That lesson could be coordinated with a geometry section on conics to provide a link between concrete knowledge and abstract concepts for students.

It was in gym where I had my first run in with the school staff.  Having run cross-country and track the prior year, I approached a coach, described my times and goals along with a desire to try out.  He waved me off, said I wasn’t the type of person he wanted on the team.  An odd statement as it was my first day there.  Being fifteen and hugely annoyed, I unplugged myself from the extracurricular aspects of Sharpstown, to the extent where I have no memory of the sports teams there of any sort.  In my teaching, I make it a point to welcome every student in my class.  I work on the assumption each student has something to contribute to the class.

Something else to consider when dealing with high school students, and it’s a recent discovery, the brain continues to develop until age 25.  Teenagers tend to process their decisions in the part of the brain known as the amygdala as opposed to adults who use the prefrontal cortex.  Decisions made from the amygdala are emotional whereas the prefrontal cortex processes information rationally.  When discussing a controversial topic in class, I endeavor to keep the emotional temperature cool.  Passion is fine, but in class, you want to discuss these things with clear thinking.  We also have to be cognizant of the differences between now and then and how a teenager’s lack of impulse control can lead to consequences we didn’t have to contend with.  During high school, I was part of an aspiring punk rock bank.  Let’s just say I am happy not to have that effort for the world to see on YouTube.

Class sizes were large at Sharpstown, some teachers struggled with it, whereas my 2nd period biology teacher did not.  Ms. Buch ran a tight ship, treated you fairly, and pushed the curriculum to challenge you.  Resources were scarce, we only had one lab per semester rather than the weekly session I had been accustomed to.  Still, it’s hard to imagine a teacher doing a better job under the circumstances.  A’s had to be earned and my main competitor made it a challenge.  I had to match her score to get an A, but it was competition in a productive way, bringing out my best as a student.  In later years, when I heard the stereotype that women do not excel in science, I would remember this class and think it’s such bulls..t.  And it is.

Third period, out in the shacks, was something else all together.

My English teacher was eccentric.  He would pop pills in front of the class.  I don’t know what those pills were except they weren’t Tic Tacs.  Being 1979, we just laughed it off.  During the year we read The Catcher in the Rye.  Sitting in a windowless classroom, my only connection to the outside world being the hum of an air conditioner siphoning out the Texas heat, I just wasn’t feeling it.  Set in the 1950’s, the same decade my father left high school to work in a coal yard, I couldn’t identify with the endless complaints on prep school life by Holden Caulfield.  I thought Caulfield required a couple of weeks working at a Jack-in-the-Box to set him straight.

I was a bit too rough on Caulfield.  While prep schools offer outstanding academic preparation, on the East Coast they are usually the launching pad into the Ivy League, they can be very insular.  Phonies and incompetent people don’t exist only in prep school, but anywhere when the social structure has ossified to a point where they are not held accountable.  I’ve seen it in public schools and the private sector.  The key is to build your own social network where such people cannot impart their incompetence upon you.  Caulfield needed a more diverse life experience, which he attempts to pursue in the novel.

After English, it was back into the main building for French.  I have long forgotten most of the French learned in that class.  I do recall gaining an appreciation for not having to know if words in English have a feminine or masculine case.  What I’ve discovered since, it’s easier to remember a language if you are situated where it is spoken.  Otherwise, if you don’t use it, you lose it.  It’s also where I learned a bit of Texan dialect.  Someone asked me if the bell was fixin’ to ring for lunch and I’m thinking, I didn’t know the bell was broken.

Typically you’re confined to the cafeteria during lunch but Sharpstown was an open campus, meaning you were free to explore the premises or leave the campus.  One might head to the west end of the second floor terrace smoking section for students.  The Mad Men sensibility had infiltrated high school.  One student would spend his lunch hour throwing a frisbee at one end of a stairwell, then casually walk twenty feet to the other side catching it at the end of its trip as it rolled along the semicircled brick wall.  Sometimes I opted to go to a friend’s house across the street.  We’d joke about avoiding Rubber Biscuits in the cafeteria.   It was all good as long as you were back before the end of the lunch period.

High school culture is pretty tribal and the students were organized among musical tastes.  There were still some of the old 70’s standbys. The Who opened the school year with their final Keith Moon album and Led Zeppelin closed out the following summer with their last effort.  Disco, while on its last legs, still had a bit of steam going (Donna Summer spent 10 weeks out of 52 atop the singles charts from September 1978 to August 1979). Although punk and new wave was making serious inroads, it didn’t get much airplay in Texas.  In the pre-internet era, it took quite an effort to hear what The Clash was up to.  However, Bob Marley started to get some airplay along with new talents such as Ricki Lee Jones.  One sizable contingent among the students were the Kikkers, named after the country radio station KIKK.  I plead ignorance as to what was happening in the 1979 country scene, as I said, high school is pretty tribal.

Now that I am on the teaching side, I endeavor to break down tribal barriers in class.  In retrospect, I can recall some teachers amplifying those differences.  That’s a mistake.  You want your students pushing out from their social comfort zones.  One way to do this is to throttle up on the subject content to the point so students have a greater sense of urgency to succeed in the course more so than expressing their social self-identity.  It’s not a coincidence gym class is where high school tribalism reached its peak.  With no instruction and only a requirement to put on your gym shorts to pass, it allows students to slide back on their worst instincts.  While tribalism in high school can be pretty silly, beyond that it can have dire consequences.

In November 1978, over 900 members of the Jim Jones cult committed suicide by drinking the now infamous Kool-Aid.  Actually, it was Flavor Aid, which was to Kool-Aid what Mr. Pibb was to Dr. Pepper.  Besides being quite insane, Jones was quite cheap.  That’s an outlier, thankfully,  However, tribalism can lead to dysfunctional workplaces and politics.  America is a more tribal, less goal oriented society now then in 1979.

My summer job in 1981 was at Ashland Exploration in the Houston Center downtown.  Down the block was James Coney Island where I would eat lunch along with oil execs, geologists, drafters, and administrators.  All of us jammed in school desks the restaurant used to seat its customers.  We’d talk politics and I’ll never forget one chemical engineer, who was conservative by nature but told me, always better to deal with moderates on the other side than extremists on your own side.  He also said you obtain political goals by seeking the golden mean.  Try having that discussion today and your likely to hear the latest from the conspiracy-industrial complex.

While I can’t change that on a national scale, I can at least demonstrate to my students that excessive tribalism, to paraphrase that fictional educator Dean Wormer, is no way to go through life.  Lack of self-reflection on the group affiliations in your life can lead you down a rabbit hole you don’t want to go.

Given my outsider status, I was not plugged into the Sharpstown culture as I had been at my prior high school, but Sharpstown was large enough and the social structure pliable enough to find a groove to navigate on.  The transient nature of the place gave me a set of friends from all regions of the country and internationally, including Cuba.  This was quite different from Buffalo where most families had resided there for several generations.  You don’t learn everything from a book, and having this diversity of experience was an added bonus.

It was a good crew.

Perhaps too good, and too rambunctious, we went though several history teachers before one was found that could manage us.  While I have been teaching, I’ve learned that each class has its own dynamic.  The dynamic in history was quite boisterous.  To be honest, I rather enjoyed it and looked forward to this class each day.  However, this was a difficult class for any teacher to handle and I don’t envy the task they had.  Taking control of a class after the year has started and the student behavior already ingrained is among the more difficult jobs a teacher will have to face.  Kudos to Ms. Newman for getting a handle on that situation.

From there it was back out to the shacks for geometry, except the hum of the air conditioner was often overwhelmed by the claustrophobic pounding of raindrops from the torrential afternoon thunderstorms that often hit Houston.  I don’t remember much about this class, only that the teacher was very unhappy to be there, making me very happy when the bell was fixin’ to ring and I could get out of there.

Then I would make the trek back home.  One student I met had to walk all the way towards Meyerland by the 610 Loop when he stayed with his father, a two-hour walk.  Guess I didn’t have it so bad.

My last memory of Sharpstown was bumming a ride home after the English final in May.  That final was difficult, not in a challenging way but in a ridiculous way.  Half of the exam consisted of obscure passages from novels we read throughout the semester and asked what chapter it came from.  How on Earth would I know that?  Nobody in the class memorized these things verbatim.  I left the shacks for the last time in a pretty foul mood, wondering what the hell that was all about.  I would find out in a few years.

During the summer, the Iranian Revolution caused block long gas lines and the massive Woodway Apartment fire gave pause to those who thought wooden roof shingles in Houston was a good idea. The ambient background noise included Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, My Sharona by the Knack, Children of the Sun by Billy Thorpe, and Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Sharpstown started to fade in my rear view mirror.  On deck was a new high school, where the KKK held a cross burning just a few years before.

That’s a story for another time.

By 1981, I had moved back to Buffalo for college when Sharpstown appeared in the local newspaper by surprise.  My English teacher had been arrested for extorting sex with students for passing grades.  That bizarre final made sense, most likely designed to flunk students making them vulnerable to this predatory behavior.  Beyond the original article, I know nothing else of what happened.  Only that it was extensive and had gone on for a period of time.  I don’t know what assistance was provided by the district for the victims, but knowing what other victims of this type of abuse experience, it’s safe to say many are still suffering from the effects to this day.

A few years back, I heard a lecture by a neurologist on the physical effects imparted on the brain by repeated high stress episodes.  The doctor noted that modern brain scans on patients with PTSD are difficult to differentiate from those who experienced a concussive injury.  In other words, a traumatic event can physically injure and/or hinder development of the brain and can cascade into a life long pattern of depression, drug abuse, and sometimes, suicide.  This stresses the need for schools to coordinate professional counseling and medical attention for abuse victims as soon as possible.  That may seem like common sense, but as we saw with the Catholic church and more recently Penn State, these situations are often met with a determined wall of silence.

And this also highlights how inadequate the recent attempts to “teach grit” to students who are under duress are.  An analogy, grit is great to have if diagnosed with cancer, but it’s not a substitute for chemotherapy.  I find the arguments for teaching grit more of an excuse for resource deprivation towards schools in high need districts.  And grit will not be enough for the victims of sexual abuse.  If the district did not provide resources for those students at Sharpstown then, it should do so now.

As grotesque as the events described in that 1981 news piece was, I don’t think it would be fair to let it dominate my memory of Sharpstown.  There were some 2,000 students and they, especially those who rose above the high school culture, along with the teachers who did their best, deserve that prominent spot in my mind.

Sharpstown High has had a turbulent existence since I left.  The aspects of the building which made it the most distinctive of the three high schools I attended, the courtyard, the stairwell/frisbee courts, the shacks, also make it very difficult to monitor what is going on inside.  The new building, a rectangle with a commons in the middle and the classes around the perimeter seems to be designed to address that need.  It’s understandable, especially getting rid of the shacks, but still, I’ll be sorry to see the old building go.

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