High School Revisited: The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same — Only Different

Seaholm High School Birmingham Michigan exterior. photo by BF Newhall

Birmingham High School — now Seaholm. The exterior hasn’t changed. Photo by BF Newhall

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 media center -- darkened for computer monitors.

The media center — darkened for computer monitors.

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.

The boys' lavatory is now a restroom for "men."

The boys’ lavatory is now a restroom for “men.”

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.

Three power guzzlers have replaced the modest apple vending machine.

Three power guzzlers have replaced the modest apple vending machine. Photos  B.F. Newhall

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!



  1. Mary Lou Mayer says:

    Hi Barbara. We probably knew each other. I was Mary Lou Bernecker then – taught 11th grade English for 5 years at Seaholm HS from 1956-1961 – including creating the Honors class. Then I went off to U of M to earn my MA in English and my MRS in 1962. I traipsed around the East Coast and Colorado, raising 3 kids who are now 44, 49 and 50. OMG – my first students are probably 73 years old and may be living in a retirement community like I am in Asheville, NC. I looked up an image of SHS for my grandchildren who live in Humboldt Co., CA

    Best to you and all my beloved students. Go Maples! Mary Lou

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Yes! I found you in my trusty Piper. I had Mr. Buell and Mrs. Richards, but not you, for English. I can remember Mrs. Richards pointing out to me how disorganized one of my essays was, a tendency I’ve struggled with all my writing career.

      Mrs. Richards is mentioned in a piece I wrote about “different from, different than” that you might enjoy. It’s at http://barbarafalconernewhall.com/2010/01/16/the-writing-room-different-from-different-than-which-is-it/

      Let me know if you’d like me to forward your email address to members of my class I’m in touch with. (And, yes, I’m fully aware of that dangling preposition.)

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