Joe Gatti's iconic Seven Arts mosaic on the old Coronado High auditorium
Everybody paid attention to the round, white clock on the west wall. The room was big and carried sound. We were suited up and while some sat silently preparing or exercising, others congregated, working off nerves with jokes and stories. Those tales of past exploits were entertaining in themselves, but they often contained important lessons. The jokes let off steam. Individuals handled the stress of these moments differently; a few thrived on it, others tried to set aside their self-doubt. As the hands of the clock moved, the payoff from months and even years of training and preparation would come — or not. What began in the new few minutes, and it would be over so fast, all you had was what you brought tonight. Except...except, those seconds of improvisational magic on which everything might turn.
The reputation of the school was at stake, its deep traditions, its prestige. Everyone was deeply invested in the event that was to come, but many of us had college scholarships at stake, a few even hoped to turn pro. As the time approached the noise in the room grew until Mr. Newcomer made his entrance, his customary clipboard in hand. Silence. In an authoritative baritone, he ticked off a few last notes to a quiet team. Then we all stood and clasped hands — as I recall it was arm-over-arm, so one's right hand held the other's left hand and so on, bringing the circle closer, making the fellowship unbreakable. And we all recited the Lord's Prayer. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done... Afterward, one of the assistants opened the door and we filed out, ready.
This was theater at Coronado High School, in what is now "south Scottsdale," in the early- and mid-1970s. While many high schools had a "senior play," we have a theater season that usually consisted of eight major productions, including two musicals (one with faculty), spring repertory and a summer play. The fare was ambitious in its difficulty and scale: Twelfth Night, Fiddler on the Roof, Of Mice and Men, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, A Midsummer Night's Dream and West Side Story among them. Under the leadership of Jim Newcomer, the theater program's excellence was always at the college level, often surpassing it. Theater instructor Judie Carroll and Ralph Bradshaw from the fine English department also directed productions. Nor was the theater program unique.
Coronado's Fine Arts Department was among the nation's best. It included the visual arts under Joe Gatti, four or five choirs, several bands and an orchestra. We performed Handel's Messiah every year. Presiding over all this was the late Eugene Hanson, who had come to the then new Coronado in the early 1960s and there built his cathedral: It would be one made of music, theater, paintings and sculptures and the thousands of souls he molded with not-always-gentle hands. Mr. Hanson was a fearsome presence even to seniors. Once I was called in; he had found a summer job for me. I had other plans but didn't dare refuse it (which turned out to be quite an adventure, taking inventory of the entire school district). I later learned of his gentleness, too. But no one doubted his commitment to absolute excellence, his generosity, his love of teaching and students.
The school had good sports teams, pretty cheerleaders, all that. It had business classes and an advanced vo-tech department with everything from drafting to auto repair. Its academic departments were superior: English, foreign languages (under the chairmanship of the unforgettable Leo O'Flaherty) math, science, journalism, etc. Arizona history was taught by Marshall Trimble — not as a celebrity appearance, either; he was just another member of a fine faculty. If one applied himself or herself, one could get a very good education there. But it was symbolic that architecturally the low-slung, modernist campus was framed by the large gymnasium on the south side — and the equally imposing performing arts auditorium on the north end, whose front was graced by a beautiful tile mural of the muses. Fine arts mattered at Coronado.
I think about this as American public schools cut teachers, increase class size and wonder what's wrong. In most districts, the arts are considered a frill and have either seen severe cutbacks or been eliminated entirely for years. Indeed, except for a few very well funded places, our idea of education has been reduced to teaching for the test in a narrow range of subjects — and sports. That seems to fit well for a country promising its young citizens of average or humble means a future either as pliant workers to be abused — or soldiers.
The Coronado of old is gone. Quite literally. The lovely campus with its distinctive buildings, grass and shade was ripped down and replaced by ordinary Arizona school/prison architecture. The old middle-class cohesiveness of the surrounding neighborhoods is gone, too. Old CHS wasn't a rich school, nor was Scottsdale then the moneyed freak show it became. My family had fallen into what might be called genteel poverty. Rather, it was a creation of an American middle class, with secure jobs paying good wages to a wide swath of the populace, ever widening, ever rising. That's gone as income inequality hits historic highs and we learn that the top 1 percent increased its share of national wealth during the Great Recession, while the bottom 90 percent lost.
And while hardly every school could match Coronado, and societal inequality was huge based on ethnic lines, there was no question that schools such as Coronado were the goal for all. Thirty years of tax-cuts and anti-public school rhetoric have destroyed even that sense of the commons. Yes, we face huge demographic and family chaos challenges. But this loss of a commitment to the common good and meritocracy is our first sin. And pardon me if I doubt the charter-school racket can fix it, even if some fine charters exist nationally. In Arizona, these schools — and now, sadly, many public schools — lack the cornerstone of good learning: A well-stocked library. Nor does our society really support the foundation of Coronado's success: Superb, committed teachers. Without these things, all the computers in this quadrant of the galaxy stuffed into classrooms won't help.
Most of those involved in the arts at CHS didn't intend for it to be their livelihoods, yet the arts enriched all their lives. I went on to get a bachelor's degree in theater, and for a time worked professionally and taught. Then I moved on. But everything good that followed began at Coronado. I learned discipline and critical ways of working as a creative craftsman, management and organizational skills that I would employ in other fields. The education of the whole person encouraged at CHS was most valuable. It was education as soulcraft. It was educating citizens, not preparing "workers" or "consumers." Of course, many Americans who enjoyed similar experiences went on to spend the next decades voting against their interests, voting against the very institutional strengths that had made their lives so rich. And therein lies our journey as a nation.