Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpDecember’s announcement that the storied H-B Woodlawn “hippie high school” program will move to a new multi-story building in upper Rosslyn was greeted with relative equanimity.

But high among the worries that surfaced – revealingly – is what will become of “the words of the prophets [that] are written on the H-B wall.” Among students, staff, parents and alumni, one of the gems of Arlington’s 44-year-old trust-the-student experiment has been the graffiti walls that each graduating class is allowed to paint, sloganize and memorialize in the cafeteria and hallways of the Stratford building on Vacation Lane.

Swirling in glorious amateur multicolor are song lyrics from Dylan to the Beatles, poetry, and human body prints – as Woodlawn chemistry teacher Dave Soles added when he was a student.

“Not all who wander are lost,” reads one testimonial. “We are the merry makers and the dreamers of the dreams.” “You can be in my dream if I can be in yours.” My daughter, class of ’06, says, “The halls are another classroom, ripe with political debate, literary analysis and impromptu song.” (Hers quoted “Hey Jude.”)

As the students’ online newspaper Verbum Sap Sat explains, newcomers to the 6-12 program sometimes fixate on planning what they might paint on the walls when their turn rolls around. Two years ago, Woodlawn’s “town hall” meeting discussed concerns about “censorship” of the wall when some contributors deploy off-color or hurtful language.

The wall began, I’m informed by H-B founder Ray Anderson, when the class of ’87 balked at trying to pack the names of all classmates onto a standard-size memory book. Then the class of ’88 demanded equal opportunity, and since then additions to the wall have never flagged.

One reason Anderson and current Principal Frank Haltiwanger wanted to keep the tradition alive is to “show we can make the necessary accommodations with the powers that be,” adds Anderson, who can recall the inscriptions left by his own three children. The agreement with the school board and superintendent was that students won’t deface the lockers or ceramic tile that go back to 1950.

The ever-loyal Woodlawn alumni often return and ask to see the wall that, at some 75 students per class, has now expanded to more than 2,000 inscriptions.

It’s easy to see how the Arlington schools’ plan to relocate the popular countywide program in a new structure on the site of the old Wilson School presents a challenge.

The good news is, the powers that be are hip. Scott Prisco, Arlington schools’ director of design and construction, told me, “It is my understanding that the paintings on the walls from students are a very important part of the school’s tradition. This tradition and important history that has been created needs to be preserved in some special way.” A most “sensitive and appropriate response” will be hammered out by students, staff and the building level policy committee.

A senior in 2012 created a digital record of the graffiti (though a few have been lost to renovations). Principal Haltiwanger told me it’s not feasible to move the walls themselves, so that some form of digital reproduction – perhaps a continually rotating video – is one idea being considered. “The move won’t take place for five years,” he cautioned, “and we just got this news Dec. 18.” But the powers that be agree: the H-B wall will endure.

* * *

The recently aborted streetcar debate brought out disagreement over whether a political-cultural gap exists between North and South Arlington. So my eyebrows were raised a few weeks ago at the Yorktown-Wakefield High School basketball game, where I noticed unusual lettering on the visiting team’s warm-up shirts.

Rather than reading “Wakefield” or Warriors, the green jerseys said “South Arlington.”

I later phoned Wakefield head coach Tony Bentley to gauge the significance. “Not a big message,” he told me. “The boys are just proud to be the only high school in South Arlington.”

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