Forgotten memories looking for class home

January 29, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

The photographs are mostly black-and-white, curling, crinkled and yellowing with age, a series of freeze-frame memories from a school that no longer exists.

Most of the pictures have no names attached, most are undated. The only way to fix them in time is through the hairstyles - the Farrah Fawcett layers on the white girls, the 'fros on the black kids, or, later, the Jheri curls. Sometimes, the clothes offer hints - the short-shorts the basketball players wore in a distant, pre-baggy era, or the go-go boots on one woman during what looks like a faculty sing-along around a piano, the bell-bottoms on who surely was the "cool" teacher.

This is what remains of Baltimore's Southwestern High, the late and not-so-lamented school that closed last year. It was one of those persistently failing schools that the state tried to take over in 2006, and no stranger to police calls. Plus, its massive, fortress-like campus - originally built to accommodate more than 2,000 students - had become outdated during a time of declining enrollments and a shifting philosophy toward smaller learning environments.

But that is not the story told through the pictures, stacks of which were left behind in the school, which has been taken over by the nonprofit SEED Foundation. SEED will open a public boarding school on the site this fall, similar to one it already runs in Washington.

It was SEED's director of new school development in Maryland, Carol Beck, who discovered the abandoned photographs as she went through the 350,000-square-foot building to ready it for renovations.

"It's like moving out of a house," Beck said. "You're supposed to be moving furniture, but instead, you're going, `Oh look at this.'"

They're nothing special, really, except that's what makes them so compelling, so universal. Change a few externals, and they're your high school photographs. There are the team pictures - capturing smiling faces, scowling ones and that inevitable awkward moment when the photographer clicks just as you were getting one last scratch on a suddenly itchy cheek. Year to year, you see who remained on the team, who dropped or graduated out.

Anyone remember Mrs. Scott? She appears in one tennis team picture that has the names written on the back - no first name for her, of course, unless you count "Mrs." - and she appears in others, bespectacled, always smiling, in an array of T-shirts or track suits. There's a formal photograph of young man in an ROTC uniform, next to an American flag, and inscribed on the back, "For Ms. Scott from Maurice." (There's a last name, but I can't make it out.)

There's also a Mr. Bonds, who seems to have been a coach, and Mr. John Feathers, a white-haired man speaking at a lectern, who on the back of the photo is identified as "The Head Master."

"There's also a painting of him in the cafeteria," Beck said.

But that's about it for photos with ID's. The rest are generic school scenes - a basketball game against Carver, volleyball matches, a relay race. There are pictures shot in hallways, in the gym, on the field. They were probably yearbook pictures, many have been stamped on the back with the page number and position.

One tennis team photo has "1976" written on it, and given the hairstyles and the fact that there were still white students at what had become a predominantly African-American school indicates many of the pictures date to that time, Beck thinks.

In the cavernous, dark and cold building - the heat has been turned off - the school seems particularly ghostly on this cloudy winter day. The old Southwestern is disappearing by the day - already, construction equipment is clearing ground on which a dorm will be built, and SEED staff are going through applications to select their first class, 80 sixth-graders who will start this fall at what eventually will be a sixth-through-12th-grade school.

And yet amid the flurry over the future, Beck wants to respect the past.

In addition to the pictures, there is a big case filled with sports trophies, largely for wrestling and track. There is a videotape, carefully labeled "Southwestern High School 29th Senior Graduation June 9, 2002 videotaped by: Cordell Chambers." There is Shawn Manning's ID card, issued on 12/11/97. There is a banner from the Class of '83, announcing that its members "hold the key to success." There are LPs, mostly spoken word, featuring everyone from Langston Hughes to H.L. Mencken. And there is whatever might be in some file cabinets that remain locked.

Cecelia McDaniel, Southwestern's last principal, said she thought the school had been emptied of all its memorabilia - and there was a lot of it.

"You found things you didn't even know existed," she said of clearing out the 37-year-old school. "We had an activity for alumni, and we had all the things displayed.

"We had people come in who were graduates of the first class. We had kids whose parents who went to the school come," she said "We gave away T-shirts, trophies, yearbooks. You hate to see any of that go in the trash."

McDaniel is calling around to see if she can find any former staff or alumni who might be interested in part of Southwestern's past. Beck is checking to see if anyone is interested in archiving the photographs.

"We hate the idea of ditching all this as debris," Beck said. "We want to just not dis the history."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

For more photos from Southwestern High, visit baltimoresun.com/southwestern

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