Barlow – A student’s recollection of days long gone.

I was recently asked by a current senior at JBHS to give my impressions of Barlow’s early days. I guess my attending the school 62 years ago might qualify me for the task.

As I pondered what to write about our early days at good old JBHS, I decided to peruse the school’s latest handbook to see what had changed over the past 6 decades. The first thing that struck me was the 84-page length of the document. Then came the daily bell schedules. Black days? Gold Days? Early dismissal and 2-hour delay schedules? Is Tuesday a Gold Day or a Black Day? What happened to good old Monday through Friday? To me, this was already looking a lot more complicated than it needed to be.

So, let us return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when going to high school was both easy, and dare I say it? Fun.

Joel Barlow opened its doors on September 10, 1959, just 13 months and 8 days after the first bulldozer broke ground for the construction of Easton and Redding’s very first high school. The gymnasium, industrial arts area, and the cafetorium – a combination cafeteria and auditorium – were still being completed, but they would open only a month later in October. The school began its life as a combination junior and senior high school, serving only grades seven through eleven that first year, as the towns had decided to allow the members of the senior class of 1960 to finish out their education in Danbury and Bridgeport where most of Redding’s and Easton’s high school aged students had been studying.

Parts of the building were still be completed when the doors opened in September 1959

On opening day, 31 teachers welcomed 525 students from both towns. The operating budget that year was $522,301. There were 18 regular classrooms in addition to: a physics lab, a biology lab, a chemistry lab, a lecture room – Room 19 that all Barlow students of the era can recall – a home economics area, a shorthand classroom, and a classroom full of typewriters. Typewriters? Most people over 40 will likely remember those single purpose writing machines that could only spell as well as the operator could and are now sold in antique shops alongside of Roy Rogers lunch boxes and rotary-dial telephones. There was a library, an art room, a woodshop, a drafting room, and a metal shop. The gymnasium had a set of folding doors that split the room in two, one side for the boys and the other for the girls. To save space, the bleachers pulled out from the west wall where they were stored like a Murphy-bed in a studio apartment. There was also a music room behind the stage that sat on the east side of the cafetorium. Thankfully, it had a lot of soundproofing – no doubt made of asbestos – to spare those students using the cafetorium as a study hall the agony of listening to kids learning how to play the saxophone.

January 3, 1960, Bridgeport Sunday Post article on the new Joel Barlow Junior and Senior Highschool.

The faculty had a small room at the far north end of the front corridor where they could smoke themselves silly between classes. They also had a private dining room at the south end of the cafetorium where they could do the same over a hot cup of coffee. I would guess that neither room had smoke detectors, or else there would have been a fire truck parked outside the school every day between the 8:10 and 2:14 bells.

There were seven periods in every school day. Each day began with a 10-minute homeroom session where students would first pledge allegiance to the flag (mandatory) and then listen to the principal make his announcements over the school’s intercom system. Some teachers offered a prayer, and some led the group in singing something patriotic. Good, bad, or in between, it was a different world back then.

Classes lasted 40 minutes with a 5-minute time allowance to make it to the class that followed. Beginning in 1964, a 10-minute break was added between second and third period. Students were then allowed to go outside to smoke in the area behind the gymnasium during that break…a real Marlboro Country. Seniors could smoke in their own outdoor space – the Senior Courtyard – where they were allowed to congregate whenever they had study hall time. In the 1960’s “more doctors smoked Camels than any other brand,” so there were obviously no known problems associated with tobacco.

Senior Courtyard. The school administration offices can be seen in the background, so there was some limitation to the activities that Seniors partook of.

Fifth period lasted for a total of 80 minutes and was divided into four 20-minute segments where students would scramble to make it into the cafetorium, stand in line to purchase a 1960’s version of a nutritious, yet mostly flavorless, hot lunch, and then wolf it down before returning to class. With 5 minutes travel time allowed both to and from lunch, fifth period was 10 minutes longer than the others. Hot lunch was what the “Lunch Ladies” served on any particular day. There were no choices of entrees. You drank milk. Whole milk, none of that healthy 1% stuff. Soda – no way! They didn’t serve pizza – EVER! Salad? Nope. Chopped up fruit in cups was offered, as was an apple or maybe a semi-ripe banana. If you didn’t like what was being served, you could always bring your own lunch and that happened a lot.

Two of our favorite “Lunch Ladies”, Mrs. Franklin and Mrs. Metcalf cooking our mid-day meal. Mrs. Franklin was affectionately known to the entire student body as “Ma Franklin”

We had a dress code in the early 1960’s, although I really don’t recall if we had a helpful handy-dandy handbook that spelled it all out like the one they use today. What I do know is that girls had to wear skirts or dresses – no slacks or blue jeans. I think the length started out being no more than 2 inches above the knee and it gradually crept up as the decade wore on. Guys needed to be dressed in slacks – again no blue jeans – and we wore shirts with collars. Footwear consisted of regular shoes. No sneakers. No boots. Nothing advertising the Gap or Tommy Hilfiger – whoever he is. Shorts were limited to one day every spring. That session was dubbed Dandelion Day. We all came to school looking like Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae and picked dandelions during study hall. It was absolutely as stupid then as it sounds now.

A school store was started by members of the student council sometime in 1960. They were allowed to convert a storage closet into a small venue that carried 22 different items – pens, pencils, notebooks, paper clips and the like. During the first year of operation, they sold a total of 1706 units. A few years later, they would begin to offer candy bars and their revenue rose substantially. Nothing like a little sugar to keep students alert during Latin class!

The first vending machine appeared outside the cafetorium sometime around 1963. No soft drinks or candy. The machine was dubbed the “Fruit-O-Matic,” a refrigerated box that dispensed hermetically sealed “fresh” fruit. I doubt that either the vending machine company or the school made much money from that venture, as I don’t recall ever seeing anybody using it.

If for some reason you needed to call home, there was a single phone booth with a payphone that sat outside the cafetorium. In 1960, the only person in the world who had a wireless communication device was Dick Tracy.

We were not allowed to carry calculators back in the Dark Ages. The only mathematical aid we were allowed to use was a slide-rule – a stupid stick with a bunch of numbers that were so small you needed the vision of an eagle to read. If you could master its use, you were likely bright enough to not even need it. Since book bags and backpacks were still lightyears from being popular, your slide-rule needed to be small enough to fit in your shirt pocket where it competed for space with your favorite pack of smokes.

The one event that every Barlow teen looked forward to was turning sixteen. On your sixteenth birthday you stood in line at the MVD to get your learner’s permit. Sixty days later you were back there taking your driving test. School sponsored Driver’s Education didn’t exist, but lousy teen drivers did. Driving was the truly coming of age experience in the middle of the twentieth century. Most of us convinced our parents that we needed our own car and some of us had it ready and waiting to go on the day we received our license.

The students parked on the north side of the building – the building has since been expanded so many times, today, you’d never know that space ever existed. If you want to know what we drove, tune into a Barrett-Jackson televised auction and watch our classic GTO’s, Lemans, Cutlasses, Skylark’s, MG’s and Austin Healey’s fetching six-figures. But a brand-new GTO convertible in 1965 cost just a little over $3,000. Those who could only afford a $300 car ended up driving a Renault Dauphine. At least until it flipped on its side whenever a corner was entered going 3-mph over the posted speed limit. One good flip and most parents put their kids in a much safer Chevrolet Corvair.  Parking was free. I about choked when I read that student parking at Barlow today costs $150. Seriously?? Does that come with valet service? In 1965, $150 bought you two full years of gasoline.

One dollar’s worth of fuel would last all month if you owned one of these Honda wanna-be motorcycles.

By the spring of 1964 a new, and much cheaper to insure, mode of transportation began taking up one corner of the student parking lot outside of the library. Motorcycles. Well, sort of. They were mostly Honda’s. Stylish but not particularly powerful or fast. Many were ridden by girls, while the boys who opted for two-wheel transportation preferred the English made Triumph’s. Faster, louder, and more masculine in appearance. Besides, back then the Japanese were known for making inexpensive toys and transistor radios, not highly sophisticated motoring machines.

There were no security guards at the school in the 1960’s. Heck, we didn’t even have a police department in Redding and Chief Oscar Svihra had but two officers to cover all of Easton. Clarence Taylor was the town constable in Redding, and he was probably pushing 70. Clarence made Barny Fife look like Eliot Ness. Clarence drove a green 1946 Chevrolet Deluxe that never exceeded more than 35 mph. If a real police officer was needed, there were two resident State Troopers who were assigned to Redding. If they were off-duty or busy, Troop-A in Ridgefield could have an officer there in about 30 minutes. The school might have been locked at night and on weekends, but during the day it was open and accessible to everyone on the planet. Life was a lot simpler 60 years ago.

Football games were played on Friday afternoons or at whatever time the two schools involved could agree to on Saturdays. There were no night games because there were no lights. There was no manicured turf or fancy goal posts at either end. Our games were played on a field that sat atop of the school’s septic system. It was naturally fertilized and irrigated. Bleachers were built only to accommodate the fans of the home team. Visitors could stand on the other side of the field for as long as they wanted or bring their own lawn chairs. The scoreboard was made of wood and the numbers hung on pegs and were changed manually. There was no refreshment stand, just a couple of tables where the booster club sold the hot dogs and hamburgers that were being grilled over an open fire. Soft drinks were stored in buckets of ice and went for a dime. Warm apple cider and coffee were also available. An entire family of four could enjoy the game with eats for way less than $10.

The Barlow “concession stand” kitchen during a home football game.

On May 5, 1961, classes came to a standstill as the announcement came over the intercom that Alan Shepard’s Freedom Seven was about to launch him into space. We sat in silence as the countdown continued and then cheered in unison as the rocket successfully lifted off. Fifteen minutes later, the capsule safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. We cheered again and then returned to our classwork. Such was the extent of our connection to the outside world during school hours.

On Friday, November 22, 1963, our classroom activities were once again brought to a halt by an announcement delivered over the school’s intercom. President Kennedy had been shot while on a trip to Dallas. That ended our school day, and we wouldn’t return to class until after his funeral the following week. Some of the students who had driven to school that day loaded up their cars with classmates and drove them to church that afternoon to pray that our beloved president would survive. Without Twitter, Face Book, and Tic-toc-doc, we were unaware that JFK was already dead. That weekend we all grew a little older.

One thing I will always be grateful for is the well-rounded education we received prior to attending university. We were taught a little bit of everything and how to then research to learn more about the things that interested us the most. I doubt many of the boys in my class were planning on becoming a carpenter after they graduated, but we all took wood working, metal shop, and drafting. Four semesters of industrial arts were required. After taking those courses, we could all do simple repairs and even assemble most of the furniture we would end up buying at Ikea later in our lives. In most cases, knowing even a little about something will serve you well. Choosing a field of study for your future profession is much easier when you know what truly interests you and what doesn’t.

In the 1960’s, we didn’t have a 73-page Program of Studies manual. I am not so sure that most universities of that era had that many options to choose from. Courses didn’t have fancy names. History was History and it was offered as Ancient, US I&II, and World. It wasn’t called Social Studies with 14-different varieties to choose from. Not only was the world a simpler place in which to live but choosing which courses to take in high school was a lot simpler as well.

But we did have good teachers. As a new school, our teachers didn’t have tenure to protect their jobs, so the ones who didn’t perform were soon gone and the ones who did, stayed and excelled. Our teachers were dedicated, and they prepared us well by showing us how to research what we didn’t know.

The JBHS official school motto was in Latin, making it both classy sounding and impossible to remember. “Qui non proficiti, deficit.” Translated, “He who is not ready, fails.” Or in layman’s terms, “Shape up or ship out.” For those of us who chose not to study Latin, the latter phraseology seems to be the most fitting.

One can only hope that today’s students will have fond memories of their time at Barlow and live as prosperous a life as most of us who have gone before them have.

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