Old Schools Still Teach

"I told them to come on over!" Dorothy Lengyel, director of the University Heights Center where I am currently creating my Heighten installation, stood on the steps inside the doors of the north entrance to this old wooden school building and proclaimed her position to those of us who had gathered to see what all the fuss was about. "It's shameful what's happening to education in our state!"

There was no question: She welcomed the group of 60 or more protesters who had gathered loudly on the steps outside. 

"No more cuts!" chanted the students, bundled against the cold, some in Santa hats. "Fund our future!" and "Chop from the top!"

They had come intending to march inside and demand a conversation with Representative Frank Chopp about cuts to education funding.

A speaker raised his megaphone. "You're standing at the doors of what used to be a school. It was closed due to budget cuts. We demand that the state uphold its constitution and fund our schools!". The crowd cheered wildly.

In my conversation later this evening with Dorothy she confirmed, in case there were any doubt, "Yes, I welcomed them. They were respectful, they had something important to say, let them say it!" I listened and scribbled notes as she went on to describe the astonishing, fighting history of this place. 

The school was at the forefront of desegregation in the 70's. The teachers decided to racially integrate their classes of their own accord while the rest of the Seattle school system was still "testing" the idea.

When enrollment dropped in the 1980's, rumor has it the school board was ready to sell the property to be razed and developed by Fred Meyer. Can't you just see it? It's not hard to picture a Fred Meyer on the huge lot at 50th and University.

Instead, the community rallied and formed an organization that bought and saved the 110-year old building, one of the three remaining oldest schools in town (another is in the CD, and BF Day in Wallingford). This is the building, with its history of proactive social change and its proud instinct for survival, whose doors the students marched to today to protest the precarious state of their education, fully cognizant of its importance to their futures, cheering as they listened to snippets of the storied past of the old school they were about to march into.

"This isn't about politics," continued Dorothy as I scratched notes on every available space on my too-full desktop notebook, "it's about education. This is America! There's freedom of speech, and we are an educational instution. And if we can't support a respectful, meaningful expression that is not disruptful or harmful, then what are we doing here?"

I'm tired. It's been a long, exciting day - the first day with a paint crew of seven students, all skilled color mixers and painters, all as jazzed as I am about this ambitious project of "heightening" the building. I'd like to go take a shower before I head back over to the University of Washington for an art sale supporting, as it happens, collaborations between professional regional and local artists and their up-and-coming student counterparts in the art program at the UW.

But I feel like I need to get this out. It's the closest I've felt yet to the unrest and dissatisfaction with the way things are being run that is bubbling up and boiling over everywhere in the country (and the world) right now.

And thank heavens for that. At Boston University in the late 1980's the buzzword was apathy. The talk was about how, in the midst of divestment in South Africa and the rising tide of political change happening there, at our school, despite the institution's decision to keep its considerable stockholdings in South African companies, the response of students was for the most part, nil. A conspicuously apathetic shrug of the collective shoulder.

These students are up in arms. They are awake. They are not even in college yet, yet they are literally clamoring at the doors of their representatives to make their views heard, in the hopes that something will actually be done to ensure their educations are given the state support they need.

Unfortunatey, they picked a bad time. The Senate is currently in session and all of the pols who have office space in the building are in Olympia.

Still, several photographers with much bigger guns than my little iPhone caught the action. Their voices will not go unregistered. And I have a feeling they'll be back.

"The mission statement of this center is that we are incorporated to advance innovative education and cultural development," said Dorothy to me.

"Our motto is Old Schools Still Teach. If we can't say that education is endangered, which it is, then what are we doing here?"