Brent and I were hanging out w/ one of my oldest friends this weekend. At one point Brent called me “number four,” a nickname he’ll say around this friend, since we went to high school together and I was ranked fourth in our class. The nickname always spurns an immediate conversation about high school and old friends and times. The reminiscing this Saturday was particularly sad, being that our high school is now officially closed. The class of 2017 was the last class to graduate from Fowler High School.
When I tell people I was fourth in my class, I always follow it up w/ something like, “but it wasn’t a real high school.” They look at me confused, like, were you homeschooled? Fourth in your class means you’re fourth in the birth order? I explain, no, I went to a real high school, but it wasn’t a real high school. And then there’s the impossible task of describing my high school.
If you’re from the Syracuse area, you know what I mean. The four city schools all have their own reputations, but Fowler is in a class all its own. The west side of Syracuse is one of the poorest areas in the country. Graduation rates hover around 30% and 40%. The school used to have a day care center for teen moms because teenage pregnancy is rampant. Picture the school straight out of a Hollywood movie like Dangerous Minds or Save the Last Dance, and you can start to imagine what it was like.
I was terrified to go to Fowler. My sisters and I went to Catholic school through eighth grade and switched to public for high school. It seemed in a very real way like being thrown to the wolves, since virtually none of my friends were going w/ me and I knew absolutely no one. That’s a slight exaggeration; from having three older sisters attend and going to countless games, plays, award ceremonies and graduations, I knew a handful of faculty and staff. That’s the key to being popular in high school, right?
That’s the thing about Fowler, though. There wasn’t the popular clique, the “in” crowd, the kings and queens of the high schools you see on movies and TV. This reason alone made for a really great high school experience. I was never bullied or witness to bullying. It was as if we were all in this shitty situation together, so we might as well get along and try to make the best of it. Because going to Fowler really was a shitty situation.
We didn’t have athletic fields. We didn’t have real uniforms; my tennis uniform a pair of red mesh shorts and a white t-shirt w/ a falcon screen printed on the back. My volleyball and softball uniforms were the same red mesh shorts, but those at least had jerseys. What luxury those seasons were! That’s the other thing about Fowler: I was able to play a varsity sport each season for all four years. I love playing sports and consider myself semi coordinated, but at my middle school, everyone made the tennis team, I was cut from basketball, and I didn’t even try out for softball. At Fowler, the problem wasn’t cutting kids, it was getting them to make it through the whole season. Kids quit all the time, either b/c they didn’t like how the coach yelled at them, or b/c they had to get a job and their hours interfered w/ practices and games.
I mentioned going to see my sisters in plays, two in particular: Picnic and You Can’t Take it With You. Um, what the fuck are these? They’re old ass plays that no one cares about and are the only ones they could get the rights to. It didn’t matter much anyway, since the drama department consisted of my sister and her friends and the old couch my parents donated when we got a new one for the living room. The performing arts ebbed and flowed throughout the years, since I don’t remember a single production being put on in my four years of high school.
My experience in Catholic school sheltered me in a way I didn’t realize until I went to Fowler. My parents are very much working class, but at Fowler I was one of the rich kids. I wasn’t on free lunch and my parents would come watch my games b/c they didn’t have to work several jobs to make ends meet. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t in the majority. There were countless races, ethnicities and cultures living and working in that school. One of the articles I just read about the closing said that over 40 languages were spoken at Fowler.
Having your high school close its doors seems like a problem of a different generation. My dad’s high school no longer exists, and he’ll point out the parking lot where it used to be whenever we drive by. It seems different though, since it was a Catholic school and because he’s, you know, old. Fowler will remain a school; they’re turning it into the Public Service Leadership Academy, and I can’t think of a more ridiculous name for that building and that part of the city.
My high school experience was nothing at all like the high schools on TV, but it was a great four years. I still drive by the school whenever I’m back in Syracuse. I point out the lack of windows and chain link fences, the seemingly vast and ever empty student parking lot since no one can afford a car, but all w/ a fond regard. I still smile when I think of the memories from that place. It will always be Fowler to me.