I wrote an essay for the April issue of the Williamsport Guardian headlined, “One Woman Looks Back at the ‘Good Old Days’ in Williamsport.” The article was prompted by the celebration of the 50th reunion of my class from Williamsport High School. I reminisced about how things might have seemed rosier than they were, how in retrospect our lives were narrowly circumscribed, that some of our classmates might have had a difficult time with racial, ethnic and gender discrimination—discrimination that, for the most part, I was only vaguely aware of as a high school senior. The entire article can be found on the Williamsport Guardian website.
This follow-up is written in the hopes that others will share their stories of growing up in the “good old days” in the Williamsport area. I was surprised by the impact the article seems to have had—and was impressed by how many people read the Guardian. There seems to be a power in sharing stories, giving us an opportunity to learn and grow. Here is some of what I heard:
“I liked your article. Did you know that … ” (followed by an example of what life was like for her or one of her friends).
“I thought I was the only one.”
“I enjoyed your article. Sounds like my high school days.”
“I guess the good old days were not so good after all.”
My worry about the article had been that I was being presumptuous in talking about what might have been other people’s experiences and that it might be insulting to them (whether they were black, white, gay, straight, Jewish, Catholic, pregnant, girls or boys.) That is why I tried to keep the article focused on “my” experiences—what I saw fifty years ago and the little I’ve learned since. But the article seems to have struck a chord with many people.
After reading the article, my African-American friend Jane Luther, from Jersey Shore, wrote, “I have been thinking about high school and how our experiences were so different. When I run into one of my classmates, their experiences and recollections are so different from mine. A few months ago, I met a classmate in the grocery store. We were discussing the then-current situation with racial bullying going on at the high school. She said, ‘We never had that; we all got along.’ Of course, she didn’t remember that when I tried out to be a cheerleader, one of the popular senior boys said, ‘Don’t vote for her. We don’t want a n***** representing us, do we?’”
Another reader commented that she had been married and pregnant in high school about that same time. She was not allowed to stay in school and she never graduated. That didn’t stop her from getting both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. She seemed pleased to find that the article touched on what was “her” experience.
Wilma Reeder recalled that she was married and pregnant—and was the first pregnant girl allowed to stay in school. It had not been easy. She, too, did not stay through graduation and recalled that school officials would not use her married name on any of her records and that she needed her parents’ permission to take off a day from school to visit her husband while he served in the military.
Readers told me their guidance counselor stories. The daughter of a mill worker who was told she should take the business course became a college professor. The young African American man who was encouraged to do Vo-Tech became a psychiatrist.
One of my favorite stories was about the Williamsport Country Club. The club did not accept Jewish families as members at that time. A classmate told me that, in our senior year, she asked a boy in our class to go with her to a dance at the Country Club. When he turned her down, she went crying to her mother, who had to explain that he was Jewish.
A reader from South Williamsport said that the article made her think. There were no African-Americans in her class, but she had never given it a thought. One man said that his former wife, originally from the Philippines, was called a n***** as she walked down the street in Muncy.
“We didn’t even know what homosexuals where,” chimed in another reader. “Well, maybe we did,” said another. “We were coy about Liberace and we might have whispered about our music teacher at school, but no one our age could possibly have been gay.”
We have seen changes since then. Jane Luther ended her note to me this way: “The upshot of all this is to say, if we had gone to school together, we probably would not have been friends. I’m glad that [our common interests] brought us together at a time when we could be friends.”
And the stories go on. Clearly some people were prompted to rethink their own experiences. I was surprised when one of my classmates thought that I might “get into trouble” for publishing my story, that it is somehow “radical” to tell those stories—stories that may have been brushed under the table, so to speak. I don’t think so, and I invite all of the readers of “One Woman Looks Back at the Good Old Days” to tell their own stories. Stories are powerful and so valuable to our common history.
You can write or email me in care of the Guardian (firstname.lastname@example.org), and we will do our best to tell your stories so that others may learn from them.