Western was every liberal's dream of what American public education ought to be, a school filled with a rainbow of happy adolescents. The class of '65 had 320 students from every racial, ethnic, cultural and economic background.
There were Army brats bused in from nearby military bases, such as Fort McNair, youthful scions of Georgetown's finest families, sons and daughters of janitors and senators, . . . diplomats in training, future sheiks and Gold Coast debutantes-to-be. If the school board had convened to handpick each student, it still couldn't have achieved the diversity that made Western unique. At a time when politicians and educators had devised a track system that retained the vestiges of a segregated school system, Western was a rich mix of ordinary students whose being together was the only thing that made it all so special.
It happened by accident, not by design. Western wasn't the brainchild of some ambitious politician's plan to provide a "special" education for a privileged few.
We shared with other D.C. public school students an abominable lack of educational materials: our modern European history texts were published in 1922, forcing teachers to present World War II and the Korean War as lectures. Many of us were admirers and followers of the late Julius Hobson, not for his politics, about which we knew little, but because he started an organization of High School Students for Better Education. That group lobbied the House and Senate District committees for more and better books, equipment and facilities for the public schools, none of which the class of '65 ever saw.
The building was nearly 70 years old, with dark, unventilated halls, peeling paint and a repugnant aroma. We froze in the winter and sweltered from Easter vacation until school closed for the summer.
By today's standards, Western was not a place for developing good study habits, much less a sense of school spirit, but we received the equivalent of the finest private education. It wasn't because of the place; it had more to do with timing, and the people.
Timing is critical. We entered Western as schools in predominantly white, wealthy Georgetown were experiencing the rapid exodus of families fleeing to Montgomery County or to private and parochial schools to protect their children from "you know who."
To avoid closing Western because of a declining enrollment, the school board opened it to students throughout the city. Because of its good academic reputation, it became a magnet, cutting through the established barriers of race, ethnicity and socioeconomics that continue to mark our city.
Students who would otherwise have attended overcrowded high schools in other neighborhoods, in classes averaging 40 to 45 pupils, welcomed the opportunity to blossom at Western, where they shared classrooms with as few as 18 or 20 classmates.
Like other schools, we had good teachers and bad ones. We had a history class run like a prison camp by an outspoken bigot who referred to blacks as "pickaninnies" and intentionally mispronounced the names of Hispanic students. Jesus (pronounced Hey-sus) Martinez was pronounced "Jeesus MARtinex." We had other teachers who shared and encouraged our outrage at such injustice.
We were lucky to have parents who, regardless of where they came from or what they did for a living, imparted to us a common bond based on sound middle-class values: We believed in working hard to achieve our best, and in respecting and learning from each other as well as from those who were paid to teach us.
Even as we matured into the inevitable exclusionary behavior of young men and women seeking social identity through fraternities, cliques and clubs, we continued to be sincerely accepting of each other. Our value judgments were based on how well we interacted, rather than on how little we had in common. We took great pride in looking beneath the surface, and saved our disdain for those who refused to do so. We jumped headfirst into a fantastic melting pot, turned up the heat, and bubbled about, joyously believing we represented what our country was meant to be like.
But we also believed that the world outside the school's wrought-iron fence would welcome, embrace and emulate us; that interracial dating would lead to living happily ever after; that the nation would learn to play bid whist in peace, and the future would be as harmonious as a Coke commercial.
Most of the members of the reunion committee were in the choir at Western. We were practicing for the 1963 Thanksgiving concert in an otherwise deserted building. School had closed at noon for a teachers conference, but Mrs. Maestros insisted that we stay for an afternoon-long final rehearsal.
She was a tough, uncompromising teacher who gave us her best and demanded ours in return. She had been battling the principal over her plan for us to sing a nontraditional "Alleluia," which he felt was unnecessarily modern for a high school program. When he stuck his head in the door and motioned her into the hallway, we could feel her fury at the sudden interruption. We began to whisper among ourselves, most of us betting that whatever the showdown was about, Mrs. M. would win it.
The awestruck look on her face when she returned made us snap to attention. She suddenly looked like a woman twice her age, and her face had lost all color. Leaning on the piano, she looked into the sea of confused faces and said, firmly but quietly, "We can't go on." Before we could register surprise or concern, Mrs. Maestros' body tensed. Fighting tears that choked their way into her throat, she said, "The president has been shot."
It was the '60s, and the world was in a state of tremendous turmoil, stretched between the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. But there were so many simple, clear-cut choices to be made about right and wrong. And we were blessed with an environment that allowed us to examine the whys and why nots of life with tremendous freedom.
We were so incredibly lucky to have slipped into a window between detente and armed hostility. We had fun. We learned to share the natural rhythm that makes some people seem to enjoy life more than others: Sledding in Dumbarton Oaks. Bid whist in the cafeteria before classes. Eight-cent ice-cream cones at Doc's corner pharmacy. Beating Wilson High School at any and everything. Dancing to the Shirelles -- LIVE -- in the Western gym. Coming of age in Camelot.