In his novel You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe tells the story of George Webber, a first time author who writes a book based upon his hometown. After Webber has the fortune—or, in his case, perhaps misfortune is the better word—of getting his book published, his former neighbors take insult at his rendition, going so far as to send the writer death threats. Though Webber’s book is highly regarded throughout the country, he never finds redemption in the eyes of the town’s residents.
Now, as a writer who does quite a bit of musing on the town where I grew up, I never really faced the “can’t go home” dilemma. You see, I never left. Oh, I wandered away for a few years, for college and such. In fact, when I was a senior at good old WD, I considered colleges with my eyes on two numbers. The first was how much money they would give me. And the second was how many miles it was from home. (How else can you explain how I ended up in Valparaiso, Indiana?)
But despite my teenage yearning to flee, I ended up back here. (Cue the “Welcome Back, Kotter” theme, please.) In fact, I’m raising my kids just a block and a half from the house where I grew up. I guess the only person who stayed closer to home than I did was my brother, who still lives in (and now owns) that house.
Still, every September I feel reminded that, no matter how much things stay the same, they seem to change just as much. And that reminder comes in the form of my annual visit to my old alma mater, during that parental rite of passage known as Back to School Night.
On Thursday, I headed back to the hallowed halls of WDHS for my 12th official BTSN. Four years for my older daughter, four for my oldest son, and now the fourth for my middle child, now a senior. This year had the bonus addition of a second schedule, as my youngest son is now a freshman. So that means three more years to come before I get a break from the place. (And I will be returning when my third-grader finally reaches the high school—but no rush!)
It’s funny how out of place you can feel in a place that used to be a second home. Oh, the school looks the same for the most part. It’s a bit bigger now, and there’s a place called the LGI, which a helpful teacher explained stands for the “Large Group Instruction” room. It’s located right passed the guidance suite (wait a minute, they have a suite now?) and was the location of my middle child’s Current World Issues class.
Ironically, I took Current World Issues as a freshman, while he’s tackling it as a senior. I remember thinking the subjects we tackled in that class weren’t all that current. My son’s teacher seemed to have a better handle on this, as he said he didn’t use a textbook since they would have to buy a new one every year to keep up on our changing world.
As I walked the hallways, I notice that the world at WD was changing too. Gone were the blackboards and chalk of my teenage years, replaced by smartboards and other electronics. Assignments are all online, and every teacher has a website.
There was also a very strong “anti-bullying” emphasis in the high school this year. It was mentioned in the assistant principal’s speech, then reinforced through numerous posters around the building. Even though I didn’t recall such a campaign during my school years, I did remember the assistant principal. Donna Martello is a long-time staple when it comes to WD leadership. She was student council president and editor of the newspaper back when I was an underclassman. That all seemed like a bit of symmetry to me.
Though the classrooms, the desks, the chairs and the halls were just as I remembered, the school was distinctively different. This was still WD, but the 21st-century version. Which, of course, was just as it should be.
As I waited in the gymnasium, I read on the wall names of my high school classmates—Doreen Love, Dave Smith, Val Reichert and the Kapp twins—on the student-athlete wall of fame. A few still held long-standing records, but most of the achievements of the class of way back when have been overshadowed by those who followed in our footsteps in these halls.
Then I heard a voice. “You’re still here?” I turned to see Mrs. Richman, a member of the health and physical education staff who was my teacher a long time ago.
“I’ll be here for a while,” I responded, thinking of the third-grader.
“I know,” she said. “I still remember you as a 10th grader in my homeroom.”
I laughed as I remembered too. “Then the question should be, are you still here?” I said.
Then they turned on the smartboard and went into their presentation. As the teacher clicked through the links, I realized that home always waits for us, though we might not recognize it once we get there.