A new school awaits new memories

Petula Dvorak
Columnist August 27, 2012

We learn this time of year, every year, that “new” can mean lots of things.

New pants, new shoes, new backpacks, new teachers and new friends. A new school year, a new chance to be someone else.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

But even when it comes all shiny, improved and expanded, new isn’t always good. At least at first.

At Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, about 1,800 kids walked into the embodiment of new about 7 a.m. Monday.

The $94 million school took seven years to go from concept to reality — and its debut was greeted with both excitement and trepidation.

“I’m a senior, and I feel like a freshman,” said Faith Karakezi, 16, who was coming to the new school for the first time Monday morning and knew she’d be lost.

Nope. No clear advantage to being a senior this year. No sending the freshman boys into the girls’ locker room. No intimidating the sophomores who think they’re good enough to sit at the seniors’ table. No laughing at those freshmen lost in the halls after the bell rings.

“Ah, lemme see. That room is around the corner, over there,” Principal Jeanette Dixon tells a student who is lost but shouldn’t be. “They all have maps. Why don’t they use their maps?”

Where will the nerds hang out? Which bench will be the stoners’ lair? What cafeteria table will the jocks commandeer?

It’s all new, and nobody knows.

The principal of this sprawling school calls it the “crown jewel” of Montgomery County’s school system.

The halls feature swirly inlays that symbolize the 14-mile Paint Branch stream for which the school is named.

There is an auditorium worthy of a city theater company, with a media hub to shoot live broadcasts and a gorgeous studio from which to anchor them. There are professional-looking radio sound booth windows looking over to the television studio. It’s one of the school’s signature specialties, media studies, and now it has the facilities to showcase it.

It’s a school all parents wish they had, a tower of hopes and dreams and achievement.

The teachers, of course, love it.

Brian Eichenlaub, a teacher in charge of the school’s science and media studies programs, gave me a tour of the place.

He showed me the green roof outside the art studio, where students can go to paint in natural light. We saw the medical careers center, which has actual hospital beds and hookups, where students learn enough to step right into a hospital internship. The library reading space is in a light-filled rotunda; the band room has soundproof practice booths; there is a dance studio.

“I hear it’s called the Taj Mahal,” I said.

I saw him cringe.

“See, people say that, but that’s a bit unfair. You have to remember where we were coming from,” he said.

The old school was 43 years old and seriously outdated. It had been built to house 1,550, but it had been packing in more than 1,850 for years.

Still, Ingrid Valladares is going to miss the old place. They had a farewell party last fall before demolition, and Ingrid, 17, sat outside the new school Monday looking at the rubble of the old place next door.

“We’ve been there for, like, three years now. And over there we had memories,” she sighed. “Here, we have nothing.”

The teachers knew there would be some of this. Teresa Shatzer, a 1992 Paint Branch graduate who is now a health education and P.E. teacher, said she got very mixed reactions.

“A lot of the students are just overwhelmed,” she said. She walked into one normally rowdy class and was stunned that “you could hear a pin drop.”

To make the kids feel a little more at ease, the staff lined the walls with familiar pictures of past students, hung old award banners and brought over all the old trophies.

The library ladies took great care in transporting the school’s beloved, huge fish tank to the new school. “A lot of the kids already came by to see if the fish made it,” said media assistant Jenni King.

Whew. The fish are here. Okay. Something familiar.

And, of course, there’s the lunch lady, Freda “Grandma” Kaplan. She’s 81 and still coming to work at Paint Branch each school day.

But the rest is a blank slate. Bathrooms without graffiti, lockers without dents, desks without carvings or gum hardened underneath.

It’s up to the kids now to add that element of milestone and memory, the stairwell where the first kiss happens, the classroom where the whole class applauds a perfect report and the gym where a half-court Hail Mary shot whooshes into the net. It’s alchemy, the creation of a school, that goes beyond a building.

“Actually, I was excited we’ll be the first class to graduate from a new place,” said Japji Bindra, a 17-year-old senior. “It’s up to us to make the memories, our class will write the history.”

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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