Shiny blue banners are draped proudly above the gymnasium bleachers at South Burlington High School. They list the names of every valedictorian in the school’s 42-year history, granting those stellar students an immortal status within the red-brick building. Across the gym hang smaller banners honoring the school’s most successful boys’ and girls’ basketball teams.
The academic tributes are a relatively recent addition. Five years ago, the then-principal had the banners raised to emphasize academics at one of Vermont’s best public high schools.
My older brother’s name is on one of those valedictorian banners. He was a bright, diligent teenager—a future Dartmouth and Berkeley standout and just the kind of student the writers of A Nation at Risk were longing for, a math and science whiz who dreaded intellectual mediocrity.
My name is not on any of those shiny blue banners. Unlike my brother, a year my senior, I was part of what that historic report identified as a “rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”
I was a chronic underachiever.
The commission that issued that report began its work in August 1981, two months after I graduated from South Burlington High. Reading the report recently, I was struck by its explicit tone of frustration.
Returning to my old high school to see how times have changed (or stayed the same) since I was there made me appreciate the report’s tone. It also reminded me of the tension that lack of motivation can produce between students and teachers, and children and parents.
‘For too many people, education means doing the minimum work necessary for the moment, then coasting through life.’
“This has always been a pretty strong academic school,” says Carl Frattini, my former advanced-math teacher. He is still at South Burlington, a 950-student school that sends about 65 percent of its graduates to four-year colleges and sports SAT scores that are well above state and national averages. “The top 20 percent of our kids—they probably work as hard as students have ever worked, and they perform at an incredibly high level,” he says.
But the middle of the pack—the place where I resided—is loaded with what Frattini calls “floaters,” students who are skating by, trying to do the minimum amount of work for the maximum gain. And that, he says, is as difficult to deal with as it ever was, maybe more.
“I had ‘senioritis’ my first three years of high school,” jokes senior Brooks Racine, a B and C student who plans to go to college, but is taking a relatively light load of six courses that includes Outdoor Leadership, Independent Living, physical education, journalism, Public Issues and World Affairs, and precalculus. “I should have worked harder in high school.”
I could have said the same thing about myself.
South Burlington is situated between New York’s Adirondack Mountains and the Green Mountains of Vermont, a cosmopolitan community by Vermont standards, and home to the children of college professors and corporate executives.
Both my parents are college- educated. When I was in high school, my father was a chemistry professor at the University of Vermont, where I eventually completed a college degree and met the mother of my three sons, who are now 5, 8, and 10.
One night, I had some chemistry homework to finish, but I didn’t feel like doing it. So I headed down the stairs from my bedroom and into our compact kitchen, one of the smallest rooms in the house and one that seemed to rise in temperature as extra people entered. My father, a serious man with a thick mustache and sideburns back then, was doing some paperwork at the kitchen table. I told him I needed help.
After asking me a few probing questions, his brow furrowed. “Did you read the chapter?” he asked in an irritated tone.
“Yeah,” I said defensively.
He asked a few more questions. “You haven’t read the chapter, have you?” he accused, staring at me.
“I hate this crap,” I yelled at him, avoiding his question.
He told me I’d never survive in college with study habits like mine. He knew I had tried to manipulate him, and both of us were growing angry.
I clenched my fists and yelled back that maybe I didn’t want to go to college. Before long, we were screaming at each other.
Fortunately, my mother intervened, sending me upstairs to my bedroom to stew over the fact that my father wouldn’t do my homework for me. I never tried that trick on him again.
When I was back in Vermont recently, I attended a hockey game between South Burlington and Middlebury Union High School at South Burlington’s home rink. The facility is less than a mile from the school and was built long after I graduated.
We had to drive to a rink that was about 10 miles from my house when I played hockey. Since our daily practices began at 6 a.m., I’d have to wake up at 4:45 to eat breakfast and get ready to be picked up by teammates. Every hockey season, my grades would drop precipitously—and during one 1st period biology class, my teacher threw an eraser and hit my head because I had fallen asleep at my desk. My final grade for the course: D-plus.
Today, most of the team’s practices are at 4 p.m. I’d bet the current team’s 3.35 grade point average on a 4.0 scale is better, too.
On this winter night, South Burlington is outworking its opponent, dominating in shots on net, but having trouble scoring. Finally, the players’ hard work pays off. The team takes a 1-0 lead. Then 2-0.
During stoppages in play, the public address system blares snippets of music, a crowd-entertainment feature that wasn’t around when I played. Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days"—about a high school athlete who never quite moves on in life—plays so loudly that it’s not worth trying to talk to my mother and father, who are sitting next to me. So I listen closely to the song and begin to think of a troubled boy who was on my hockey team years ago.
I was a sophomore when he was a senior. I was the second-youngest player on the team, impressionable and struggling to fit in at a new school.
He was much taller, had long brown hair, and a rugged, wiry build. I remember him as always on the brink of getting barred from playing because of grades or school behavior. His destiny was spiraling out of his control.
The boy sat next to me in a cramped locker room as we got ready to play the perennial state champions at their home rink. It was my first high school hockey game. The room was relatively quiet as players finished lacing up skates and putting on equipment, the aroma of unwashed hockey gear hanging in the stale air.
He leaned toward me, a smirk on his face, and asked in a voice loud enough for other players to hear: “Ever smoked dope?”
I felt trapped. Other players watched me shake my head.
Then he looked straight into my eyes.
“Ever snorted coke?”
I sensed danger, as if my future were somehow falling into his hands. I shook my head again.
He patted me on the shoulder. “You will.”
Several years later, I heard he had been shot and killed in Hawaii.
Today, South Burlington has students who might be heading toward a similar fate.
Assistant Managing Editor Kevin Bushweller interviews South Burlington hockey captains Matt Kaufman, Patrick Sheahan, and Kevin Thibault. Bushweller was the team’s 1981 captain.
According to the 2001 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 10 percent of the boys and 4 percent of the girls at South Burlington High School said they had carried a weapon on school property. In addition, 44 percent said they had tried marijuana, 9 percent had used cocaine, and 19 percent, hallucinogens.
“There are kids who, no matter what I do, I see them sliding back,” says Tim Wile, a counselor who works with some of the school’s most troubled teenagers.
As an education reporter for nearly 15 years, I have visited countless schools. Whenever I’m in them, I spend time sitting in the lobby watching the school world turn. It’s a fascinating place, so often the point where the intellectual, moral, and spiritual personalities of hundreds of teenagers intersect.
Much about the main lobby of South Burlington is comfortably familiar. Students mill about, flirting, trading verbal barbs, or jostling each other in a friendly manner. In an enclosed area with windows that look out into the lobby, the main office secretaries are seated at desks in what seems to be a configuration similar to when I was a student.
But then the changes begin to overwhelm the familiarity of the place.
Mounted on a lobby wall is a television set tuned to CNN. On this day, news about the coming war with Iraq dominates the headlines. A few students stop by to listen. One boy asks Patrick Burke, the school’s 35-year-old principal and former boys’ ice hockey coach, if he can switch the channel to ESPN, the all- sports network. The principal says no.
In a room near the front entrance with windows that look into the lobby, a South Burlington municipal police officer, armed with a .40-caliber handgun, is talking on a phone. She divides her time between the town’s middle and high schools—a presence that was nonexistent in my time. Her cruiser is parked near the front entrance.
Two years ago, a former student with mental problems made veiled threats against the school. The school went into lockdown until the alumnus was arrested. Coupled with high-profile shootings in small-town or suburban schools elsewhere in the country in recent years, that incident led to greater perceptions of the potential dangers of attending or working in the school, says Tim Comolli, a technology and longtime English teacher.
Yet some of the old-timers say the school is a friendlier, gentler place than when I was enrolled.
Dominick Marabella, 72, the school’s attendance officer and a former South Burlington Middle School principal, stands in the lobby just outside the police officer’s window, cajoling students to get to class. “Fights in school—that has dissipated,” he says in a thick Boston accent.
When I was a junior, I had squeezed in front of some people to get into the lunch line. A senior took offense at my maneuver. He yelled at me to go to the back of the line; I ignored him.
We ate our lunches. But his anger boiled over into the lobby. The senior followed me there and began yelling at me. “Come on, wimp, drop your books,” he taunted.
So I dropped my books, grabbed him by the shirt, and we both started punching.
The assistant principal at the time, Reginald Godin, ran out of the main office to break up the fight. As he moved between us, I tried to throw one more punch at the other boy. Instead, I grazed the side of Godin’s face, knocking his glasses to the floor.
The fight ended, and the assistant principal ordered the two of us into his office. As we sat in front of his desk, the boy was yelling that he would get back at me. I just kept my mouth shut, more worried that the red mark on Godin’s cheek was going to mean the end of my days at South Burlington.
My parents were called in. They sat in the assistant principal’s office, expressions of disappointment overwhelming their faces. He told them I was suspended for three days—hence, I would miss a varsity soccer game. That was a devastating blow to me, and I felt like protesting. I didn’t, because I knew the punishment could have been worse.
Recently, I called Godin. More than 20 years later, he remembered me, but not the incident.
He is now the business manager of the public school district in St. Albans, Vt. Because of all the zero-tolerance discipline policies in effect at schools across the country, I asked if the penalty for my fight and errant punch of an administrator would merit a longer suspension today or even expulsion. Certainly, in some districts today, he says, I would likely have been expelled.
But that wouldn’t be the case in his current district. The penalty would have been similar, maybe a little more than three days, but no more than 10. One reason for that, he says, is the district does not want to have a two-tiered discipline system. Federal law puts limitations on the number of days a special education student can be suspended.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re not creating two sets of standards,” Godin says.
That’s what I remember most about Godin—his devotion to fairness.
‘Take hold of your life, apply your gifts and talents, work with dedication and self-discipline. Have high expectations for yourself and convert every challenge into an opportunity.’
His thoughts on educating today’s generation of teenagers echo in my mind when I think of my own boys and the mistakes they are likely to make in high school.
“We don’t like to see youngsters make bad decisions,” he says. “But that’s all part of growing up.
“What a youngster does in high school doesn’t mean that’s what they’ll do as an adult.”
That may be the most important lesson I learned from my high school days. A person can remake himself. At schools like mine, the opportunities are there. It’s just a matter of whether you choose to seize them.
As A Nation at Risk pleaded to my fellow students: “Take hold of your life, apply your gifts and talents, work with dedication and self-discipline. Have high expectations for yourself and convert every challenge into an opportunity.”