Teenagers. Basements. It’s the perfect recipe for trouble.
I once did my own teenage basement maneuver. And well, my children, it got me sent to boarding school.
Of course, being a total nerd, I didn’t do something really exciting, like drink all my parents’ booze, or worse. No, not me. My “hijinks” did involve a vinyl covered bar stool. But the knotty pine (natch) bar was just a place to sit while making a furtive, whispered call. I was looking for a private school application. Yes folks, my racy teenage idea of rebellion was…to check MYSELF into boarding school.
Let me explain. I was 13. A scrawny artsy kid with limp, long single-ply hair. The big metal front doors to our local Detroit junior high school attracted roving drug dealers and real-live troublemakers. The school had plenty of ordinary kids like me, but it also included a sizeable population of kids who probably spent half their lives up to no damn good, down in basements. Here’s a sample quote from an adorable 13-year-old pal (stated sweetly, in between long drags on a Kool): “Yeah my ma had me when she was sixteen. I’ll probably have a kid by then too.”
If we were lucky, we got this woman for a teacher. Patt Morency. The super strict languages teacher. She scared me a little bit, with those eyebrows. Look at them. They kind of say it all. However, every morning I used my coveted school newspaper “press pass” to push through the explosive throngs of kids waiting to get in the building and sit peacefully in Mrs. Morency’s classroom. I was supposed to be writing. Mostly I just talked to this formidable woman–a font of common sense, inspiration, tough talk, and life lessons. I hung on every word. I still remember many.
One day I told her I was tired of being in a school where discipline was becoming elusive. Case in point: my lazy social studies teacher asked me to write some of the exams for the class. Doing this is like riding the Tilt-A-Whirl or eating too many Whoppers. At first it’s fun, but then you just feel kind of sick.
I had my eye on applying to the rigorous public exam high school in Detroit. Mrs. Morency endorsed the idea, but suggested checking out a suburban private school. I’d never heard of a private high school that wasn’t Catholic, but I was game.
Not intending to ask permission anyway, I started the application process without my my unsuspecting parents’ knowledge. In the basement, of course. Apparently already trying to live up to Howard Stevenson’s classic definition of being an entrepreneur:
Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.
The only resources I controlled were a Schwinn Varsity and $1/hour babysitting funds. The jig was up, though, when my surprised parents had to drive me to the tony suburb of Bloomfield Hills to take the necessary SSAT admissions test.
Invited for an admissions interview, I tried out some fancy words I’d only read and never said, including botching the pronunciation of “clique.” “Oh I don’t belong to any cliches, Mrs. Campbell. Oh no not me. I get along with a lot of kids.” I was somehow offered admission and a scholarship. The Schwinn wasn’t going to make it there every day, so a boarder I became. After the first week of being ridiculously sick to my stomach every morning (everyone is so much smarter than me!), I got through three years that completely changed my life.
Fast forward to this last weekend, and the Cranbrook/Kingswood high school Reunion. I have a bunch of photos and odd memories to share.
The school was only 45 minutes from home, but it is a world all its own; an architecturally significant campus of 315 acres, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is simply breathtaking. Yet it still took my untrained eyes three full years to just begin to appreciate the beauty of the place. It deeply influenced my choice to become a designer and how I see the world.
Every detail of how we lived was thoughtfully orchestrated by the founders, the architect Eliel Saarinen, and the hordes of master craftspeople who formed the place in the early 20th century.
From the silverware we held, to the chairs we sat on, the rugs we walked on, and even the most humble corners of the space: every molecule of the place was deliberate. Intentional. Consistent with a vision.
However, I didn’t spend a ton of time during Reunion taking glamour shots. There are hordes of sites and books that lovingly document Cranbrook. (And a lot of recent press about a certain alum running for President .) Instead, I sought out the personal. Starting with viewing my junior year dorm room. Frankly, it looked naked without my cheesy posters and other teenage decor.
There are actually bowling alleys below the dorms. Despite the fact that I’d even been in a youth bowling league, I never much used them. This weekend, my friends said that the lanes were very warped. Since they learned to bowl on them, they developed terrible form and could never compete anywhere else.
Further along in the recesses of the school’s lower levels on the way to the gym (basements remain a theme here) I tripped on some funny vintage photos of pretend sports teams like this one. This is the 1968 Varsity Hula Hoop Team. These photos cracked me up.
But I wasn’t laughing so hard when I saw, next to the Underwater Basket-Weaving Team image, a photo of my own Varsity Softball Team. Wait a cotton-picking minute! I know we were just Division D weaklings. I know none of us were recruited to even a crummy college team. But, today, are we on display as public laughing stocks? I am choosing to believe otherwise.
I got over my athletic revery when I looked down the hall, into the gym, and saw these poor Sad Sack kids taking the SSAT and I was just glad not to be one of them.
Onto brighter pastures, I’m in this photo with my closest school friend and classmate, Donna. (Dr. Donna to her dermatology patients.) We’re in the Kingswood weaving studio–the largest private weaving facility in the US. You can only see a fraction of it in this photo.
I spent many teenage lovesick hours there among the looms. Wandering over at night, to listen to sappy records, mooning over my Bob/Shaun/Crush du Jour. I wove my pitiful little heartaches away. On this very loom in fact. (Don’t underestimate the healing power of repetitive motion. My adult version involves taking 5 mile walks at 6AM.)
After I wrote this post I found a photo of me mooning away over this loom, in our yearbook.
Yes, good old #1761. You served me well. In fact, I am writing this blog post wrapped in one of the big brightly colored blankets I made on you. Planning the blanket design out with a colored pencil sketch, I distinctly remember asking our weaving teacher Miss Hardy if the design was too juvenile. I was worried that I might not like it later, when I was older and more sophisticated. (How did I know I was such a doofus but not know how to avoid being a doofus?) She affirmed an adult “me” would still like the blanket. Alas, survey of one says: “No, not really“. Sorry Miss Hardy. It’s too bright and juvenile. But I will be buried with it anyway.
An oddball part of our tour was to meet up with another close pal, Raquel, in a dorm suite bathroom. Teenage girls spend a lot of time in bathrooms, so this little visit down memory lane kind of fits.
But what I most remember about this bathroom is my medicine chest. Why? See the tiny razor blade slot? It’s the perfect entrance point for a moisture-loving cockroach. One that just might be sitting on your toothbrush some fine morning. An active specimen you discover just as you sleepily open the cabinet door and reach forward to begin your morning ablutions. It’s too bad some poor fool took off my later addition of firmly applied duct tape. (And I also boiled the toothbrush!)
Being a prep school, the Reunion was a weekend long affair, requiring multiple costume changes. Before the final soiree I ended up walking around campus looking for a place to put on my “nice” dress. Making the mistake of hastily laying my outfit on a stack of dining room tables (to take a photo of the stack of Crane chairs), the jewelry slipped down between a couple tables and got firmly lodged.
The necklaces were intertwined with my dress and the whole outfit was going nowhere. Certainly not on me. Until adrenaline kicked in and I managed to pry the ancient huge tables apart and release my duds. Until then, I was imagining showing up at the party in sweaty jeans and sandals, or perhaps abandoning ship altogether.
That would sort of fit with my high school record. The one time my parents made the trek to see me play softball I was so excited during pregame practice that I took a powerful fly ball straight to my (giant) forehead. I spent the game in the infirmary, and on the bench. Another time they came out to see me win a big award –“Shhhhh…don’t tell your daughter. It is a surprise!” I did not even come to the ceremony. I was too busy angling for a ride across campus from a cute day student boy with a car. (Which he never gave me, thus I missed The Very Important Annual All School Assembly For The Big Award.) I was slinking by the full auditorium just as hordes of students came streaming out, some saying “Congratulations” to me. For what? I really did not know.
Anyway, I got it together and had a blast in my nice dress. The woman in the grey polka dot frock, Ann, said, “You’re different. I remember you as being really studious.” Me: “Hell yeah. I was terrified of losing my scholarship!”
I held onto my financial aid. I stopped being nauseous. I moved my toothbrush. I spent every penny of my graduation money ($250) on a cute Swedish loom. And I owe it all to some wonderful scholarship donors, and three people who stood firmly behind my teenage wanderings: namely my mom, dad, and Mrs. Morency. My dad has passed, but I had dinner with mom and my beloved teacher after Reunion. As I sat there in the restaurant booth with the two of them, I again remembered one of Mrs. Morency’s stories. Back in her student days, she was short of funds and a family friend paid for her semester’s college tuition. The friend did not require repayment. She only asked that young Mrs. Morency pay it forward to someone else in need. She did that many times. It’s my turn now. I look forward to that with pleasure.
Thank you to Kingswood/Cranbrook, to my brave, trusting parents who gracefully got out of my way and cheered me along an independent path, and to Mrs. Morency. (But your eyebrows do still scare me.)