Hall Pass: Spend a day in the life of a high school freshman

Hall Pass: Spend a day in the life of a high school freshman
Bellevue Leader (Sept. 22, 2004)
By Wendy Townley

One by one, and in groups of three or four, the students file through the glass double doors at Bryan High School. It’s nearing 7:30 on this rainy Wednesday morning, and there’s barely a still mouth in the building. Chatter, singing and the occasional swear word slip pass the lips of these students, many of whom were still in slumber 60 minutes ago.Shuffling through the doors, wearing a bulging blue backpack and jeans, is 14-year-old Thea Langston. Her cheerleading jacket and French braids are sprinkled with drops of rain, as is the black violin case she lugs in her left hand.Thea greets a few friends and makes a stop at the music room to drop off her violin. She won’t need the instrument until the last class of the day, which begins at 1:20 p.m.

Next stop, her first-floor locker. Thea shakes off her jacket and hangs it on the hook inside, revealing a long-sleeved white T-shirt. For a high school freshman, you could expect to see more inside Thea’s locker. Pictures. A mirror. A calendar, maybe.

“I just have this folder and a dirty pair of socks on the bottom,” she says with a grin.

Thea’s schedule is pretty tight this, her first semester of high school. A five-minute passing period, paired with classes spread throughout the building, doesn’t allow time to stop at her locker. Her entire day’s books are tightly packed in the canvas backpack that hangs off her petite shoulders.

A quick glance at the clock. 7:40. The first bell, an electronic tone that sounds four times, rings at 7:45. For many people twice Thea’s age, they’re stuck in traffic at this hour or haven’t even left the house.

But for Thea, and thousands of high school students like her, the day is well on its way.

7:45 a.m. French 3-4.
Classes at Bryan are broken into blocks – not periods – and last about 90 minutes. That means Bryan teachers can pack more into each daily class. Mrs. Wattonville greets her 25-plus students with a wide grin.

“Bon jour!” she says.

“Bon jour,” the class replies, albeit a bit sleepily.

Thea is seated in the back of the room, her backpack splayed open on the floor. Mrs. Wattonville requests, in French, for her students to pass forward last night’s homework. Thea makes a few markings on her sheet and hands it over.

“Your quiz grades were good,” Mrs. Wattonville says, in English. “They looked good.”

Several of the students slouch in their desks, one of whom nurses a large cup from McDonald’s. Another picks at her thumbnail with an unbent paperclip. Others finish up homework from other classes, while another reads from a slim hardbound book, assigned reading from an English class.

Mrs. Wattonville’s bright eyes match her smile as she asks the students to update their fund-raiser sheets. The students have sold candles and other holiday items for Bryan’s French department. As it turns out, Thea’s team takes first place.

“Yes!” Thea says, raising her arms in the air and shaking her head, her turquoise fish earrings dangling below.

After the students are settled, Mrs. Wattonville returns a recent assignment for the class to go through together. Moments later, Mrs. Wattonville turns out the lights in the front half of the classroom and rolls forward an antiquated overhead machine. She places a clear transparency on the overhead that matches the work in the students’ hands.

One by one, the class works through the answers as the students make their changes. Thea uses her red pen to make changes, intermittently moving her colorful candy necklace from her wrist to her neck and back again.

Mrs. Wattonville jumps from student to student, asking for the right answer. Sometimes she does this in French. Other times, English.

When the lesson is complete, Mrs. Wattonville flicks on the lights. The room is flooded in a glaring glow. Several of the students wince as the clock nears 8.

It’s the fourth week of classes at Bryan, and several of the teachers are just hitting their strides. So far this semester, the French 3-4 students have learned to say numbers, letters, months, seasons and days of the week in French. They’ve learned verb endings and subject pronouns.

Today, the class learns the classic queries: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

Mrs. Wattonville instructs the students how to pronounce each word individually. She slows her pace, asking the students to repeat what she says.

Word by word, the students echo their teacher. A short while later, they’re asked to string the words together.

“Qui. Quoi. Quand. Ou. Porquoi. Comment.”

Again, their mouths wrap around the letters, speaking faster each time. Thea’s lips turn to a grin the faster she speaks.

“Tre bien!” Mrs. Wattonville commends her students.

It’s 8:55. Thea eyes the clock and stifles a yawn.

At 9:12, the end-of-class shuffle is in motion. Papers are collected, backpacks are zipped and shoes squeak across the linoleum floor.

The tone rings at 9:15, and the students are ready for a break. Thea’s next stop: English.

9:21 a.m. Honors English 1-2.
Bellevue’s growth has left Bryan short on space. A series of portable buildings sit on the school’s north side, serving as additional classrooms.

A river of students exit Bryan and enter the buildings with moments to spare.

The Honors English classroom is packed tight with students, the air conditioner blowing loudly. Thea greets a few of her friends and takes a seat. Ms. Thye, a spunky woman with short blond hair, passes out copies of the Omaha World-Herald. The students page through the newspaper and skim a number of articles. A short while later, Ms. Thye asks students to point out articles they found interesting.

The Honors English students appear at ease, reading the morning paper as if they’ve been doing it for years. There’s more chatter.

Fifteen minutes into class, Thea applies a layer of lip balm, a necessity for today’s female high school student. It’s an absentminded movement, one she will perform many more times today.

That’s what high school is – and always has been – about. Not so much blending in as much as not standing out. A poster suspended above the chalkboard reassures Bryan students it’s OK to be different: “What is popular is not always right. What is right is not always popular.”

The theme is carried through as the students and Ms. Thye discuss “Farewell to Manzanar,” the true story of a Japanese American family forced to stay in internment camps during World War II. Japanese Americans made sure not to make a scene or stand out during their time at the camps.

The same holds true in high school.

Thea crosses her ankles and reclines in her chair, flipping through the book’s thin pages. The students are asked to drive today’s discussion, bringing forward questions they had during last night’s reading assignment.

One student, a thin boy with light brown hair, glasses, a black T-shirt and cargo shorts, stumbled over the word “promenade.” He thought it meant dancing, but wasn’t sure.

The classroom dictionary comes to the rescue. Another student, seated in the back corner next to the bookshelf, pulls the heavy book, looks up the word’s meaning and shares it with his classmates.

As he recites the definition, several of the students page through their small books. The pages have a certain dusty smell to them, the smell of knowledge.

Several of the students look small for high school, but their bodies reveal more. Look closely and you can see how these students are becoming adults.

The rattle of a delivery truck outside brings the students to attention. One of the students, her dark hair flowing down her back, directs the discussion to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who approved the internment camps. She shakes her head.

“So they locked up these people, and they did nothing wrong?”

“Yep, they did.” Ms. Thye responds.

Several of the students rally around this thought, and it angers them. The students become more vocal and, later, the discussion involves the majority of the classroom.

As the clock’s hands approach 10:50, the dictionary student commends the class for today’s discussion.

“This is better than a regular test, because it makes you think when you hear what other people have to say,” he says.

With that, the tones sound. Thea and the other students gather their belongings and shuffle outside. The sun makes them squint, but only temporarily. It’s back indoors for more learning.

10:57 a.m. Advisement.
It’s what Bryan calls homeroom. For about 10 minutes, the 15-plus students, grades nine through 12, gather in an art classroom to hear the day’s announcements. It’s Thea’s job to read the announcements each day. At times, the school asks the Advisement classes to discuss a current topic, such as the dress code or a new parking policy.

If anything, this block gives students a chance to decompress their brains from the morning’s cerebral marathon, before the onslaught of the afternoon begins.

Thea jokes with a number of her freshmen cohorts, many of whom chat with one another as the announcements are read. It is rare that the seniors in this group are the silent ones, rather than the younger, more inexperienced freshmen.

Earlier in the day, Thea said she didn’t find the seniors to be intimidating, or trying to make the extra effort to exclude her. As the only freshman on the cheerleading squad, Thea has garnered respect from the seniors, those on her team and others throughout the school.

But all freshmen don’t have it as easy. There are pockets of those less-popular students hanging about empty stairwells and silently walking to class. Their eyes downcast and their books in hand, it’s hard to see their sad eyes.

Years removed from high school provide empathy for these students. High school can be a difficult, sometimes scarring, period for a person. Knowing that high school is only four years can be comforting.

11:14 a.m. Honors Biology.
In a first-floor classroom, a number of students sit in pairs and groups of three at tables. The classroom is rather sparse, with missing ceiling tiles and a few pieces of paper tacked to the wall.

Ms. VanOsdel, a shorter woman with blonde hair, begins handing back tests from a day or two ago.

Thea covers her head at first, concerned she performed poorly.

“Oh, no!” Thea says at first, but then sees her grade. Her friends giggle around her and begin chatting again.

Other students react in the same way, but not all are happy with their grades. The volume increases.

It’s obvious that Ms. VanOsdel likes it quiet. It’s clear she’s more focused on serving as disciplinarian than flexible educator.

The students don’t have much more time to rattle their teacher. They’re dismissed for lunch at 11:30, and will return for the second half of class at 12:10.

As lunch nears, the students become antsy. Thea and her friends, seated at the front of the room, pack up their papers and notebooks. Again, Ms. VanOsdel uses a stern, slow voice to address the students.

“People, remember that we’re meeting upstairs in room 213 after lunch. I will give you a few extra minutes to gather your things, but you cannot be late. I will not allow you to be tardy because you had to stop and get your books.”

The students aren’t really listening. They’re out the door and on their way to the cafeteria.

11:30 a.m. Lunch.
The volume in Bryan’s lunchroom is equal to the hallway passing periods, when students’ mouths are in constant motion. The students, all four grades, are without their bulky backpacks. Several groups are already seated at the long tables, munching on vending machine items and sipping on bottles of soda. Many more snake their way to the kitchen, where today’s selections include a chili dog or pepperoni pizza. Students can also select salads, fruit, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The cartons of milk are reminiscent of what you may have had in grade school.

Thea’s homecoming date, a brown-haired boy wearing a green Cabela’s T-shirt, cargo shorts and tennis shoes, attempts to cut in line with Thea and her friends. But an observant lunch monitor stops the boy in his tracks.

“Nope” is all the lunch monitor says, shaking his head back and forth, as the boy sheepishly shrugs his shoulders and walks away.

Thea and her friends giggle. They do this a lot. Serious conversations rarely take place at school. The maturity happens later. For now, they giggle when they’re not sure what else to say, uneasy with simple silence.

Thea moves forward in the lunch line, selecting a PB and J, star-shaped French fries, an orange and a bottle of Minute Maid juice. She tries paying for a friend’s lunch using her account, but the lunch lady won’t allow it.

“Can’t do that,” the lunch lady says, shaking her head and pursing her lips. “Sorry, can’t do that.”

Thea pays for her lunch and loans the boy some cash. For less than $3, Thea and other students can make their selections, or some bring food from home.

Thea and her friends carry their red plastic trays and walk through the lunchroom to a table in the back, where other Biology students sit, chewing their food and talking. The walk can be unsettling – terrifying to some – while scouting out a place to sit. Rejection is what you’re trying to avoid, stumbling upon a saved seat that only makes your search that much longer.

The Biology students blend into the lunchroom din. The girls discuss next month’s homecoming dance. They whisper about who’s taking whom, and whom they’d like to go with. By the time Thea is seated, it’s nearing 11:45. Leisurely lunches aren’t often a reality at Bryan, as this group of students will return to class around 12:10.

The girls toss their garbage and take their trays to the kitchen. Thea makes a stop at her locker to grab her jacket. She grabs her backpack from the first Biology classroom and heads upstairs for the second half of class.

12:10 p.m. Honors Biology, second half.
The remaining 65 minutes of Biology are quiet, as the students make corrections to test questions they missed. Seated in a smaller, more confined classroom, they sit in pairs and are allowed to work together.

“If you have a question for your partner, you must whisper,” Ms. VanOsdel reminds her students. “I don’t want to hear any loud talking.”

For the most part, the students obey their teacher. Thea sits cross-legged at her table as she pages through her Biology textbook. She whispers (and giggles) to her surrounding peers, but finishes her work.

She begins reading chapter 16 for this week’s discussion.

Shortly before 1 o’clock, Ms. VanOsdel instructs her students to put away their books, so the class can go over their answers. The students take to the discussion; it’s the most attentive they’ve been since the first half of class.

The tone sounds at 1:15, and the students scatter. The hallways, as they’ve been after every class, are packed with bodies moving in different directions. Seas of students move against one another, some pushing their way upstairs as others move downstairs.

Again, there’s plenty of discussion, talking and singing. Thea waves to a few friends as she makes her way to Orchestra, her last class of the day.

1:20 p.m. Orchestra.
Mr. Abrahams moves through Bryan’s music room, with its bright green exposed ceilings and walls lined with awards. A number of matching green chairs are placed in a half circle at the front of the room, around the podium where Mr. Abrahams stands.

After the tones sound, the students collect their respective instruments and seat in their assigned chairs. Thea places her backpack and jacket on the ground and expertly places her violin under her chin. She, like the other musicians surrounding her, plays different notes to tune her instrument. The students don’t interact much during the beginning moments of class, as they’re focused on their music.

“OK, ready to begin?” Mr. Abrahams asks his musicians.

The students, all playing string instruments, adjust their postures and wait for Mr. Abrahams’ cue. Like so many times before, they shelve the day’s previous lessons for yet another class. One, two, three counts later, the class begins “La Rejouissance.”

The class plays the song in its entirety one time. After the first run, Mr. Abrahams compliments the students on their performance.

“That sounds good, folks,” he says. “Very good.”

In steps Judy Divis, a violinist with the Omaha Symphony. She volunteers her time with the students, refining their skills section by section, musician by musician.

Because of the hands-on nature in which this class is taught, there can be moments of downtime for the students. When the first-chair violinists are practicing a portion of the song, the remainder of the class must sit and wait.

Thea paws through her backpack and applies more lip balm. She holds her violin and its bow in different positions and she closely studies the sheet music displayed on the stand a few feet from her face.

The students who play the bass violin stand on the outer fringes of the half circle, waiting like everyone else. When the two boys realize they have time to kill, they gingerly place the oversized violins on their sides and recline in chairs.

Next the students move to “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2,” another selection they’ve practiced for today. And like the first piece, the students play the song twice as a group. Then, each section of the orchestra is instructed individually.

Near the class’ end, around 2:35, the students, using what they’ve learned from Mr. Abrahams and each other, perform a crisper version of the song.

Like clockwork, the tones sound precisely at 2:40. Another day at Bryan is done.

Thea gathers her violin, backpack and jacket, and heads into the hallway. The 14-year-old, with homework and cheerleading practice – not to mention dinner and a good night’s sleep – still on tonight’s schedule, will repeat this routine tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that. Like the electronic tones indicating the start and end of each day, Thea will follow the schedule set forth by school administrators until her final walk comes at graduation, in 2008.

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