Bonnie Henry: Wakefield's closing doesn't mean it'll be forgotten

2013-01-13T00:00:00Z 2014-07-01T16:51:59Z Bonnie Henry: Wakefield's closing doesn't mean it'll be forgottenBonnie Henry Special to The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

We used to call them junior highs, reserved for kids who'd reached the seventh, eighth, and - in earlier days - ninth grade here in Tucson. None of that middle school or K-8 stuff we largely have today.

Nope, we were immersed in Junior High School, and all that its very name entailed. No more attending some small, neighborhood school where you belonged to one classroom and teacher for an entire year.

Instead, you faced an imposing structure with stairwells, individual lockers and a host of teachers who expected you to be on time and prepared for that hour's lesson in English, history or practical math.

My particular school was designed by noted architect and one-time Tucson mayor Henry O. Jaastad. Built in 1939, its namesake was California teacher Maria Wakefield, who, along with fellow teacher Harriett Bolton, crossed Apache-sieged territory by stagecoach, arriving in Tucson in November of 1873. They would become Tucson's first female teachers.

I knew nothing of this, of course, that day back in the late '50s when I first entered Wakefield's Lysol-scented halls as a scared, skinny 12-year-old. It took some time to adjust - the biggest adjustment being physical education, or P.E., as we called it. All the girls were issued short-sleeved, one-piece uniforms that ended, bloomerlike, about mid-thigh. How we hated them - and washing and ironing them for the weekly inspections.

Our loathing also extended to the communal showers everyone had to take - and prove participation in by turning in a damp towel - unless you were able to sing out "M" once a month during the daily roll call. Being able to signal that womanhood had indeed arrived came later for some of us than others at that age, and it was always greeted with soft hoots and murmurs of welcome. To what, we weren't quite sure.

Wakefield was where I first encountered bullies, particularly one boy who taunted me every day on my way to the auditorium, where we brown-bagged it in lieu of a real cafeteria. There was also a gaggle of girls - tough girls - who used to gather inside the schoolyard every morning before school. Somehow, the rumor started that they were going to beat me up. Never happened. In fact, I became friends with most of them.

Bullies and P.E. travails aside, Wakefield offered plenty of good times. Every Friday there were after-school dances, where we be-bopped to Buddy Holly, Little Richard and the like.

I ran for class secretary and actually won. I joined the cheerleading squad, somewhat out of school spirit, but also to be able to travel by bus to other junior high schools in town, viewing through palm-smudged windows slices of Tucson I'd never seen before.

Wakefield is where teacher Jerry Parks coaxed me into helping him produce a somewhat regular school newsletter. It was the first time I heard the word "journalism" and began to fathom what that might mean for me.

Like the south side it proudly buttressed, Wakefield was diverse and dynamic back then, despite its humble neighborhoods. And its teachers brooked no excuses for not learning.

Here is where we read "The Great Gatsby" in English class, sang Pete Seeger songs in music class, learned about Sputnik in science class, and discovered, through our social studies classes, that "propaganda" didn't just apply to the Russians.

Our teachers forced us to analyze and consider the larger world we baby boomers were about to enter.

Times change. Shrinking resources and dwindling enrollments mean Wakefield will soon be closing. But while I mark its passing - and its history - I also remind myself that it is, after all, only a building. It's what went on inside that counts.

Bonnie Henry's column runs every other Sunday. Contact her at Bonniehenryaz@gmail.com

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