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Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Valediction: Then and Now…

School Days, School days

June 16th. It is early evening. A confident young man, impeccably attired in a turn-of-the-century suit, strides to the lectern. He looks out at his audience, smiles to set them at ease, and begins to speak:

“We stand tonight as one who stands upon a high mountain top and sees a vast panorama revealed to him by the dawn of day. Our advantages have placed us in a like position. Before us is a great future replete with possibilities and dangers. Before these responsibilities and dangers many a man better equipped than we has cowered. Many a college graduate when thrown upon his own resources has lost heart and like Hamlet, the Dane, has gradually sunk beneath the burdens which seemed impossible for him to bear.”Old Time Ed.

With those admonitory words Frank Murray, valedictorian of the Class of 1911, the first graduating class from Monroe High School, bid adieu to his four fellow classmates and sent them off to a “future replete with possibilities and dangers.”

The Tualco Grange. 6:30 p.m. June 16th, 2011. Poised and confident, a tall, good-looking young man dressed in dark slacks and long-sleeved red shirt—turn of the century casual—reads the following:

“…Regret, deep and lasting, fills our hearts that our relations are to be forever severed; that shall not take leave of the influences and good counsel which has been such an incentive in our work; and that we must say farewell for the last time to the happiest days of our lives.”

At the request of the Monroe Historical Society Tom Meeus, valedictorian of Monroe High School, Class of 2011 (one of Monroe High’s seven valedictorians this year), for the second time in one hundred years concludes Frank Murray’s valedictory speech. Tom Meeus, Valedictorian What better way, I think, to commemorate one hundred years of education in Monroe than to have a current valedictorian read words composed by Monroe High’s very first top scholar of one hundred years ago.

I had read the text of the speech before Tom presented it to the Grange audience and was curious, for one, about the tone of Murray’s speech. My thirty-one years in the education business have put me in the audience of many valedictory speeches. What I remember of those—before I dozed—was uplifting in tone and spirit. Go forth and conquer! Excelsior! The world is your oyster! Snap it up and savor it! Murray’s speech, on the other hand, was cautionary, a look-over-your shoulder sort of message (“…Life itself accomplishes evolution of man by subjecting him to hardships.”); Frank’s message was that moving on from one’s high school experience was a tentative time when apron strings should be severed and the graduate tiptoe forth with trepidation, like one about to advance across a minefield.

I discussed this with Tom before the presentation. I asked him if most of the graduating seniors, Class of 2011, would understand the allusion to “Hamlet, the Dane,” (the suicidal young man of “to be or not to be” fame). Tom thought the Advanced Placement classes would understand but the mainstream seniors probably would not. Tom himself admitted he’d never read Shakespeare’s play about the gloomy young Dane. And there was the vocabulary, too. I doubt today’s teenagers would include: “replete, cower, naught,” or “degrade” in their text messages.

American history is not my strong suit. I tried to view Murray’s speech in its historical context: WWI was half a decade away; the Great Depression a quarter of a century beyond. Just what sort of world the valedictorian was about to step into, I’m not sure. Maybe Murray was a young cynic or just trying to appear a young man wise beyond his years. Frank was a member of the school’s Literary Society. Maybe he was just showing off…. The tone of the speech seemed more collegiate to me—and perhaps in keeping with the economic climate college grads face in today’s sagging job market.

After the centennial reprise of Frank Murray, Tom introduced Max Echterling, Tom’s fellow valedictorian and ASB president. Max gave a speech more in character with the modern valedictory sendoff. Max the ASB Prez In a speech tinged with humor (Echterling quoted Kurt Vonnegut, a name, I’m sure, also foreign to most mainstream high school graduates: “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover your high school class is running the country” ), Max  pledged his confidence in the Class of 2011 and felt the country would be in very capable hands when his 2011 classmates handled its reins.

The evening continued with high school testimonials of former grads. The eldest graduate in attendance was Mabel Neisinger (nee Boyce, the sister of Merv Boyce ), the valedictorian of the Class of 1936. Ninety-five year old Mabel was accompanied by her daughter Suzanne Imbeau who served as spokeswoman because of her mother’s laryngitis. We learn Mabel had to memorize her valedictory address, all twenty minutes of it: six weeks to write it; six weeks to commit it to memory. The class salutatorian and student body president followed Mabel with twenty minute speeches of their own. She wore a blue dress, Mabel recalls, a dress she made herself especially for that august occasion.

Mabel’s successor, Frances Albert, valedictorian of the Class of 1937, was also in attendance.This sprightly little lady (the sister of Ted Biderbost and Kurt’s Aunt Frances) had returned to the site of her earliest schooling (Tualco Grange was formerly a schoolhouse) to share those days and the special evening with the audience. 1937 ValedictorianThe Grange was a “two” room schoolhouse then, said Frances. A temporary wall was erected to separate some of the grades from the others. The school’s only teacher moved from one room to another to teach her two dozen some pupils. Obviously proud of the schooling she received at the little school, Frances not only earned valedictorian status in 1937 but continued on to higher education at the University of Washington. This vivacious Monroe High alumna is quite the cosmopolite: has visited all fifty of these United States (Alaska three times) and made three trips to Europe. And this fall, we’re told, she has a cruise on her social agenda. Her point? Humble beginnings—if they are solid—need not limit one’s horizons.

Others stood and shared their experiences. Among them was another valedictorian and a runner-up salutatorian. Walt (“Wally”) Armstrong stood and told of his struggle getting through high school. “It took me seven years,” he laughed. “I started in 1947 and finished in 1954.” A job driving logging truck and a hitch in the service stretched his four years to seven. “When I came back, I was too old to play sports,” Wally recalled: “twenty-two and six months was the cutoff for high school athletics.”A Dillar, a Dollar, ten o'clock scholarOne testimonial was punctuated by the pealing of a bell: the old school bell still had that same hearty tintinnabulation from those school days of long ago. It was Butch Olsen who rang the bell and later apologized for the interruption before he launched into the story of the evening, one he warned was more sobering than the others. “How many of you can say you got rid of your principal?” Butch asked and then went on to tell how in 1961 he sold a load of firewood to his high school principal. The exertion of stacking wood caused the principal to suffer a fatal heart attack. I hope Butch was paid before his principal’s demise…he never did say….School daze, IIAfter the ring and tell session, I sought out Tom Meeus. In another life I taught speech classes or speech units to high schoolers. During the “stand and deliver” sessions I would evaluate my my students’ performances and rate them 1-5 in five general areas of speech delivery: poise, volume, pace, advance preparation, and eye contact. Tom immediately noticed the “teacher” in my attitude and tried to get the jump on me: “You can’t fault me on eye contact,” he warns, “They’re not my words; I just read them.” However I did take the liberty of rating Tom’s performance and while I won’t crunch the numbers for a composite score, I will say that Frank Murray’s peaceful sleep was not disturbed by the reading;  I’m sure valedictorian Murray, Class of 1937, President of the Literary Society, would have smiled in approval at Tom’s delivery. I did tell Tom had he worn a tie I would have given him a “6” out of “5” on poise!

It was an event energized by the enthusiasm and confidence of the new alums and the experiences shared by the “seasoned” graduates. To sweeten the evening we all retired to the kitchen counter to choose a bowl of strawberry shortcake mounded with whipped cream. Seated at one of the tables and about to address a heaping bowl of shortcake was Gramma Snow. Gramma was in charge of refreshments at Historical Society functions, the head of the food detail. I put my hand on her shoulder to get her attention and asked, “How long did it take you to slice all those berries, Gramma?” She smiled and informed me that the berries had come already sliced, sugared and ready to serve; the Valley berries were late, still green, small, and hard as marbles.

Gramma SnowI was disappointed when I dug into my shortcake…a small disappointment, but a disappointment nonetheless. The flavor seemed lacking, not the full-bodied robust berry sweetness of freshly picked Tualco Valley strawberries. These berries tasted like they came from a thirty-five gallon plastic bucket…which in fact they had.

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