The class of 1982 that graduated yesterday from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring was different from any other in Montgomery County.
Among the students who donned red and white gowns for the 47th commencement was Keith (Anwar) Gilbert from the rough-and-tumble area surrounding Maple Avenue in Takoma Park. And Chris Vera, the bilingual daughter of an Argentine embassy employe, who was the school's top athlete. There was Judy Versteeg, the 1982 version of the All-American suburban students who dominated Blair High two decades ago. Hao Quang Vu, the class valedictorian from Vietnam, crossed the stage for his diploma, too. So did 17-year-old Denise Godbout, whose mother, Betty Graves Godbout, graduated from Blair in 1961.
These are some of the students who have given Blair a new identity: Montgomery County's first urban high school.
It is Blair's ethnic diversity that is now at the center of a bitter debate between Silver Spring parents and some members of the Montgomery County Board of Education, who voted last year to change the school's boundaries so that fewer white students would attend the school. In a few weeks, the Maryland State Board of Education, which became involved in the issue after receiving complaints from parents' groups, will decide whether to reverse the county board's actions.
Like the Silver Spring community around it, Blair has changed dramatically in 20 years. Its classrooms are no longer filled only with English-speaking students from stable, middle-class families. And the school no longer prepares students only for a simple and easy life that was a given for community residents in 1961.
When Denise Godbout's mother graduated 21 years ago on the evening of June 16, Silver Spring was a fast-expanding suburban community of some 77,000 residents. It shared with Blair High a striking degree of homogeneity. Only 3 percent of the community's population was nonwhite. Most Silver Spring residents were the products of middle to upper-middle class white professional families who migrated from Washington to the suburbs after World War II.
The students at Blair mirrored the community. They were not from the wealthiest Montgomery County families (Bethesda-Chevy Chase, their rivals, were the ones "with cashmere sweaters"), but most of them could afford the amenities they wanted. Their "life" was high school and, on the surface at least, life was pretty good.
It was the undefeated Blair football team and the big bonfire the night before the homecoming game (Blair 21, B-CC 6). It was sleigh rides down to Sligo Creek on Friday night. It was going to the Silver Spring library and then to the Hot Shoppes (pronounced Hot Shop) on Georgia Avenue, attaching a tray to the side of your car and ordering a Mighty Mo or a Teen Twist. It was sneaking to the wooded grove (now a cement parking lot) or climbing through a window in the cafeteria up to the roof to smoke a cigarette. It was double-dating and "pediddles"--kissing your partner when you saw an oncoming car with only one headlight. It was trying to fit hoop skirts into your date's car on senior prom night. And it was listening to WDON's Don Dillard broadcast live sock hops from the Silver Spring armory.
Blair High was a narrow world then, defined within strict limits. Its students had few choices to make. Apart from an initial decision over whether to enroll in the "CP" or "NCP" (college prep or noncollege prep) course curriculum, classes were largely determined in advance. The Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer were recited dutifully in homeroom every day. There was no revolt against a Thanksgiving Day assembly program that consisted of a Flag Salute, the Pledge of Allegiance, and three songs: Let Us Praise God, America the Beautiful, and the Alma Mater.
The sober, monotone voice of principal Daryl W. Shaw booming over the school PA system ("May I please have your complete cooperation?") usually elicited a tomblike silence in the hallways. With some grave exceptions during homecoming week, the senior class trip and commencement--when Blair students cut down pine tress at B-CC, yanked telephones from the wall and spiked the punch on prom night--school rules were adhered to religiously.
An unauthorized trip to Errter's market next to the Blair campus for a Coca-Cola and a tuna sandwich resulted in a school suspension. Denise Godbout's mother, Betty Graves, who remembers smoking in the grove (allowed), also remembers the librarian, Miss Stickley, making students read Pokey the Bear for hours in the school library as punishment for committing minor school offenses.
In a world of such order, the anxieties that are common-place among students today were few, or at least well-hidden. If there was intense pressure to do anything, it was pressure from peers to conform. And conform they tried to do.
The community and its school were proud of the uniformity of the student body and of the area's native pool of educational talent. Blair graduates enrolled in the nation's finest colleges--Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the rest. "Because of the influx of top scientists of the world and their families, Silver Spring enjoys one of the highest IQ ratings in the nation," boasted a 1961 evaluation report of Blair.
There were four blacks in the graduating class of 759 seniors. (It was an era when signs saying "whites only" still hung in some doorways and when teachers separated interracial couples at school dances.) The few black students at Blair came from old Montgomery County families, such as the Gaithers and the Crutchfields. The only foreign students were like Ediriono Sumedi, an Indonesian, who was among a handful of diplomatic children and two exchange students sponsored each year by the student government, the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, and the American Foreign Students program.
Although many in the senior class say they were involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement by the time they graduated from college in 1965, their awareness as high school students of world poverty and deprivation was reflected only in the student Welfare Committee's four annual charity drives.
It was 1961 and Blair students had grown up in the Eisenhower era of stability. The mood was optimistic. Two nuclear bombs had been exploded in war, but that would not happen again. Families were stable (and divorces or separations were not discussed). The future promised husbands, and wives, and children. A high school diploma guaranteed a job. Blair students were confident that, in the best American tradition, they would succeed. And they knew they would succeed with more material benefits than their parents before them.
Today, Blair High, like Silver Spring, is not the cocoon of middle-class America that it used to be. The community is a melting pot of races and cultures and socioeconomic groups. Within its boundaries live tens of thousands of newly arrived refugees from Southeast Asia and Latin America and the Middle East. There is a sizable black population, comprising many families that moved from Washington to its suburbs in the late 1960s and 1970s. Blair, which was about 3 percent minority in 1961, is nearly 60 percent minority today.
For many of Blair's 1,725 students, school is not the center of life. It is merely a piece of life, and for some, a small piece of a complicated and confusing life. For the 500 students at Blair today who do not speak English as a native language, high school is a refuge from war and oppression in home countries. Of the 500 students whose families live at the poverty level, many view Blair as a place to get a full breakfast and lunch. For the students from broken homes, or violent homes, or drug-ridden homes, school is a daily escape and a place to survive.
Blair is the heart of the community that has changed around it: 60,000 people who live in a patchwork of neighborhoods in Silver Spring outlined by the Capital Beltway on the north, the Montgomery/Prince George's county line on the east, the District of Columbia at Eastern Avenue and East West Highway on the south, and 16th Street and Rock Creek Park on the west.
The students represent a jumble of subcultures: They come from Hispanic neighborhoods around Flower Avenue and Piney Branch Road in Takoma Park, from predominantly black high-rise apartments along Maple Avenue near the District line, from enclaves of Vietnamese families living in the Northwest Park Apartments complex near New Hampshire Avenue, from upper-class white families living west of Georgia Avenue and north of University Avenue near the beltway, from lower middle-class integrated neighborhoods on the northeast fringe of the school's boundary area.
Silver Spring's changing demographic profile, which so profoundly transformed Blair High School, began shortly after the class of '61 graduated (before members of the class of '82 were born) and coincided with the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
First, a wave of Cuban exiles, mostly well educated professionals, arrived after fleeing the Castro regime in the early 1960s. Later in the decade, lower income black families from the District began to trickle over the line into Takoma Park. Following them came a second influx of Hispanics, this time from Central and Latin America.
The fall of Saigon in 1975 resulted in an exodus of Vietnamese refugees, at first mostly professionals, to the U.S., and many made their way to Silver Spring. By the end of the 1970s, turmoil in Central America, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia created a whole new population of "boat people" who sought refuge in the United States.
As foreigners and black families moved to Takoma Park and Silver Spring in increasing numbers, many well paid professionals moved further out, north of the beltway, to Rockville and Potomac and Gaithersburg and upper Silver Spring, and beyond the county line to Frederick.
Like other high schools in Montgomery County, Blair also changed as a result of the social upheaval that challenged the suburban status quo. First, girls rebelled against the dress code and won a "major victory"--being allowed to wear slacks to school. (The dress code is not only obsolete today, one administrator says, but "beach wear is de rigueur.")
Students no longer are required to use certain stairways to go up, and others to go down. In asserting newly discovered "student rights," they demanded a new course curriculum and liberal interpretation of many school rules. With a social and cultural revolution in its midst, Blair had to depart from the traditional role it played 20 years ago. Now many of its oldest conventions are gone.
Today, instead of a valedictorian named David Mark Zwerdling, the top student is Hao Quang Vu, a refugee who came here from Vietnam in 1975. Blair seniors, who nervously considered spiking the punch at the senior prom in 1961, were given a hot-line number to call at the prom last Saturday in case they felt too intoxicated to drive home.
The school no longer raises money for a foreign foster child; it has plenty of its own "foster children" to care for. The school newspaper, Silver Chips, does not concern itself only with the narrow issues that filled its pages in 1961, such as who was elected to student government or won a varsity letter. Now the newspaper includes an international profile describing the ordeals of newly arrived foreigners; or a story about a Silver Spring shoot-out involving two Blair dropouts; or a poll of student opinions on the 1980 presidential election or a story about sexual standards that reports the percentages of teen-agers having premarital sex.
The hodge-podge of cultures has given Blair a distinct, and sometimes maligned, identity. Elsewhere in the county, students and parents often refer to it as a tough, ghetto school where violence is commonplace and illiteracy high (at a meeting of county school system officials two years ago, one administrator asked for a "moment of silence" for Joseph Villani, who had just been named the new principal at Blair).
Although Blair was the first county high school to erupt in racial violence, in the early 1970s, it was also the first to quell the tensions. Now, administrators and faculty members say, Blair has better ethnic harmony than any school around.
Still, the stigma persists and is a bane to Blair students and teachers, whose defensive pride makes them tire easily at charges that Blair is "bad." They believe their school is different from and more complex than, but just as good as, the other 21 high schools in the county. And they know that its task of education is unique.
The world that awaits the class of '82 is not the secure and hopeful one that greeted students who graduated 21 years ago. It does not promise stable families and good salaries and spacious homes with front lawns. It does not view nuclear war as an impossibility. It is not a world in which crime, violence, and divorce are aberrations.
And Blair High School no longer prepares its students solely for the good and simple life that was once the norm in Montgomery County.
At one end of the school's hallways American students are reading a Balzac novel in French and holding conversations in that language; at another end remedial students are learning the symbols of the alphabet. The school must train students to be auto mechanics and licensed beauticians. It must ready others for the academic rigors of the Ivy League or for the University of Maryland or Montgomery College. It must acquaint foreigners from 53 countries with the basics of the English language and of American life. It must feed nearly one-quarter of its population, some 500 students who arrive with empty stomachs and no money to buy breakfast or lunch.
It must provide order in a world of chaos.