By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Birmingham, Michigan, my old home town, is deep in flyover country. I live in California now and, Left Coast chauvinist that I am, I tend to assume that Birmingham is still in the boonies – and the Fifties.
But I am tending wrong. I took a tour of my old school last month along with a few dozen others from my high school class. We learned that Birmingham High School (now known as Seaholm H.S.) is thoroughly politically correct, digitized — and race-, gender- and handicapped-sensitive. It’s an honest-to-gosh twenty-first century kind of place. To wit:
The library is no more. Instead there’s a media center.
The choir room now goes by “vocal music room.”
The boys’ lavatory is now the men’s restroom, the girls’ bathroom, the women’s.
Both are wheelchair accessible.
The old shops, where the boys were required by state law back in mid-century Michigan to take a couple semesters of wood, metal or auto shop, are gone. That wing of the school is now the Engineering Lab. They build robots in there.
Michigan boys had to take shop in the olden days, and Michigan girls had to take home economics – cooking, sewing or child care. But home ec has gone the way of the treadle sewing machine, and this part of the school is now home to a huge kitchen where boys and girls – er, men and women – are required to take a semester of something called Food and Nutrition.
We had no girls’ swim team at all when I was in high school. There was no budget for it. But we did have Aquabelles, a synchronized swim club that met week nights after dinner. (The boys’ team had the pool every afternoon.) We put on splashy, sexy water ballets every year. Unlike the Olympic synchronized swimmers of today, we weren’t allowed to wear nose clips — that wouldn’t be pretty.
All these decades later, synchronized swimming at my high school has gone the way of the one-piece bathing suit. A girls’ swim team now outnumbers the boys’ three to one. A huge, many-laned pool has been built and the old pool room is now a weight room. On the Saturday my classmates and I visited the school, the girls’ swim team was in the weight room, working on abs and glutes.
If you were hungry after school back in 1957, you had one choice: an apple you bought for a dime from the apple vending machine that stood outside the cafeteria.
Now instead of an apple machine, three brightly lit – power sucking – machines dispense drinks and snacks. Two of them flash neon ads for Pepsi.
As for lunch in the cafeteria — we had choices – macaroni and cheese for thirty cents. Or a hamburger for another twenty cents. That’s it. Or bring your own.
On the days a sandwich was the thirty-cent offering, we had a choice – the sandwich with a slice of white bread facing up, or the one next to it with a slice of wheat bread facing up. Every sandwich had one slice of each, so you were sure to get what you wanted. Kinda.
Nowadays, the kids in this affluent suburb of Detroit have some dazzling choices. Instead of the plump local cooks and dieticians that I remember — they wore hairnets and white dresses — the cafeteria is powered today by the international institutional feeder Sodexo. A pizza station and a salad bar were just two of the options I spotted.
I’m trying hard to remember the racial make-up of my school all those decades ago. I think we had one black boy in my class. He palled around with a girl who was one of the few Jews in our school. The Jewish families all lived in the same neighborhood, as I recall. The real estate agents saw to that.
Now, only 94 percent of the students in the Birmingham school district are white. Three percent are African American. The rest are Asian, Hispanic and Native American.
Let’s see, check my math: Does that mean that today, in a high school class the size of mine – 500 kids – instead of just one African American, there would be maybe fifteen?
Coming soon: More pictures!