This could only happen in my life. Not all that long ago, my former high school principal wrote a pretty scandalous book about all the things he saw over decades serving as a high school administrator in both the parochial and public school systems in Michigan, including the school system I attended grades K-12. He spent much of his tenure as high school principal at Standish-Sterling High School, the high school from which I graduated in 1999. Much to my fascination, many of the incidents in the book actually took place during my junior high and high school years. At that time the junior and senior high schools were housed in the same building. I finally had the opportunity to borrow a copy and read what all the fuss was about.
Before I go any further, a little background is necessary. The Standish-Sterling Community School District, located in Arenac County, is a consolidated rural school district dating from the very late 1950s. It serves the small town of Standish, Michigan and the village of Sterling, Michigan, as well as much of the surrounding area. Prior to 1959, both Standish and Sterling had their own school systems, including high schools. I have family members who graduated from Standish High School and Sterling High School, and scores who are alumni of Standish-Sterling High School.
Farming makes up much of the community and in fact the entire county. Despite being a small Class B school district with approximately 1,800 kids enrolled in the entire district, and even that number seems too high, it is far and away the largest of the three school districts in Arenac County. The other districts are less than half the size of Standish-Sterling Community Schools. In my opinion, those two districts, which are in close proximity to one another, needed to consolidate decades ago. Only traditional high school rivalries continue to get in the way.
As for my personal history with the Standish-Sterling school district, it is the foundation upon which my entire education rests. I attended all three schools that made up the district at the time: Sterling Elementary (K-3rd), Standish Elementary (4th-6th), and Standish-Sterling Junior/Senior High School (7th-12th). In spite of being bullied horribly in elementary school, cliques, lack of any athletic ability whatsoever, and more than a few mediocre teachers in junior high and high school, I did receive an excellent education. There are only a handful of my high school teachers who truly prepared me for college well and inspired my imagination. For that I will always be grateful. My freshman year at Michigan State underscored just how well I was prepared and set the stage for all that was to come.
But there is so much more to my personal connection with the school district. Not only did my Mom teach 6th grade and then kindergarten at Standish Elementary the entire time I was a student, she attended both Standish Elementary and Standish-Sterling Central Junior/Senior High School her entire K-12 education as well. I poke fun of the situation here. It meant I had several teachers my Mom had had 24 years earlier. As the child of a teacher, that much more was expected out of me, daily.
There is so much that goes along with being the child of a teacher. I don’t know where I’d begin. I do know this: I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. I know nothing else. One huge benefit of being a teacher’s kid is being privy to inside information, including the earliest possible cancellation of school due to snow and ice. While I would not consider my Mom a gossip by any means, at times she felt compelled to share information with someone, anyone. It was usually me. She knew I would and could keep things to myself. At times things would happen at school which demanded explanation. I always knew my Mom would and could explain without resorting to lies and cover-up. That gets at the heart of the book I mentioned above, Listen To The Echo by Dennis James Haut.
Well, where do I begin with the book? I’ll start by stating who I think should consider reading it. The only people I think would be interested are: 1. People who grew up in the Standish/Sterling area during the 1980s/1990s or had ties to the school district at that time. 2. Writers who want the perfect example of why good editors are needed. The book also offers a good example of why and how gratuitous errors in spelling, grammar, and usage can hinder the entire message of a book. Mr. Haut tries to explain this away in a “review” of the book on Amazon. He states that he planted all of those errors in the book in order to make a point. He treats it almost as a perverse game. I was left with two simple questions: 1. If you meant to have over 2,000 errors in a published book, why wouldn’t you, as author, ensure it didn’t endanger the readability of the book? That certainly wasn’t the case with Listen To The Echo. 2. If it was meant as a game, why would you not include that information at the end of the book? Again, not the case withListen To The Echo.
Now that all of that is out of the way, I will indulge you dear readers with the juiciest tidbits in the book. It is true. The book contains true stories of sexual escapades between teachers and students, as well as administrators and school staff. It confirms many rumors I heard over the years and sheds some very nasty light on one particular love triangle that took place while I was in junior high school. Let me set the scene.
Imagine you are in 7th grade. The junior high you attend is simply one hall of the high school. One junior high teacher on staff is married to the assistant high school principal. Their son is a grade ahead of you. During the course of the school year a student walks in on the assistant principal having a full on affair with one of the secretaries. The affair becomes common knowledge and ends up in a cat-fight in the main office between the secretary and the teacher, i.e. the wife of the assistant principal. It happened, and it’s in the book. I just didn’t realize how nasty things became between the two women involved. It nearly ended with assault charges according to the book. I can’t imagine what the son of the assistant principal and teacher went through at that time.
Speaking of sex, Haut also addresses the many alleged affairs that took place between students and teachers. He doesn’t go into much detail, thank God, but one statement really made me think. He states that one of the teachers ended up marrying the student with whom he was having an affair. Again, completely true. I actually know the couple well, especially the one-time student. They are now both high school teachers. Get this: They’ve been married for over 20 years and have three grown children, all prominent kids within the school system at one time. The entire situation makes one want to throw out any preconceived notions of relationships. Next to the student/teacher affairs, affairs between teachers seem mighty tame.
One of the scariest and strangest incidents of my childhood is described in detail in the book. It occurred in 1995 and set the tone for things to come. Back then I was in 8th grade. I’m not exaggerating when I say I grew up in a different world. At that time, in the days before Columbine, there was nothing preventing students and staff from having rifles locked, unloaded, in their vehicles on school property. I grew up in an area of Michigan where school is called off the first day of firearm deer hunting season. It was not uncommon for high school kids in the area to hunt before school. Again, nothing prevented students from locking up their firearms in their vehicles on school property. Insanity, right?
Along came the damn French trip and all that came with it. Later we referred to it as the S. A. incident, S. A. standing in for the initials of the student involved. It all started with the idea of the French language class taking an ill-advised trip to Paris. One student on the trip, S. A., a senior, the Valedictorian of his class, with an appointment to West Point no less, made the mistake of thinking the drinking age in France, 18, applied to him. In the end he got caught drinking in a Parisian café. I don’t remember the specifics, but there certainly were consequences. S. A. didn’t like them, even though they could’ve been much worse.
One spring afternoon, S. A. decided to drive to the administration building, located almost immediately behind the old Standish-Sterling Central Junior/Senior High School, and threaten the administrators with a gun in his vehicle. This infamous incident, four years before Columbine, led to an immediate lockdown of the junior/senior high school. As I was currently in class near the back entrance to the school, in fairly close proximity to the administration building, I remember it vividly. Fortunately, S. A. was apprehended until the police arrived. Such vivid memories flooded back that I actually dreamed of high school after I finished the book.
I have to admit I absolutely hated high school. While I wasn’t bullied in high school per se, my worst experiences with bullies occurred in elementary school, I felt trapped and bored. I spent much of the time just biding my time until college. I couldn’t wait to leave Standish-Sterling behind me. Unfortunately, with such deep family ties, and parents and grandparents that continue to live in the area, not to mention family businesses in the area, it just isn’t entirely possible.
I suppose that is what surprised me most about Mr. Haut’s book. He throws just about everyone under the proverbial bus, including the families of the Valedictorian and Salutatorian of my class. It truly opened my eyes. On the surface throughout our K-12 years, it might have looked as though I was friends with both of those women. Frenemies would be a much more apt description. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say I didn’t realize the true depth of the bad circumstances both women faced at home. If I had, I might have looked at both of them in a different light. I can’t imagine the pure cajones it took Mr. Haut to write the book. His children and grandchildren still live in the area. What pure lack of class. It amazes me I received such a good education even under such inept leadership.
As a side note, as I looked for a picture to use with this post, I came across a picture of a classroom that somewhat resembles a cross between the classrooms of Sterling Elementary and the old Standish-Sterling Central High School, now Standish-Sterling Middle School, both built in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The picture is part of the post below, which is quite interesting itself.