I was asked to speak at the 90th birthday of Kenilworth School, my alma mater, on Oct. 23rd. Obligations keep me from attending, but this is what I would say:
Ten years ago I had the great fortune of speaking at the 80th birthday of Kenilworth School. I had come a long way from a child for whom this school held so many good memories, but also one for whom it held anxieties and fears, an average student except in reading, one who was poor in athletics, a target of bullies, who watched the clock on the wall in every classroom waiting for each school day to end, who quailed in terror when we were herded into the auditorium and made to lean against the walls and cover our heads as protection against Soviet missiles.
Ten years ago I had returned to a Phoenix spread across 1,500 square miles. A huge freeway cut its way beside Kenilworth. "Master planned communities" were where many people chose to live, even as they complained that Phoenix had no soul and no history. Natives were hard to find among the huge Midwestern influx. The temperature had risen 10 degrees and the summers were hotter and longer. Downtown and north Central had been denuded of retail and jobs. And yet Kenilworth School still stood. My message then was how Kenilworth and everyone who loved it — lawyer Fred Rosenfeld and other alums maintained an association to help the school — had kept faith. Here was Phoenix's soul and history.
At a time when most Arizona schools reflect a dehumanizing prison architecture (including my rebuilt beloved Coronado High), Kenilworth still stands as a monument when American public buildings, especially schools, were built to inspire and animate a great people to great deeds. No wonder it is the alma mater of Barry Goldwater, Paul Fannin, former Phoenix Mayor Margaret Hance and a host of lesser-known notables.
When Kenilworth was built, Woodrow Wilson was finishing the misbegotten year of his second term and Arizona had not been a state for even a decade. Phoenix's population was 29,000; it barely extended beyond McDowell Road. The gaudy boom of the 1920s, and its horrific crash into the Great Depression, were still in the future. The dams on the Salt River were new and the Central Arizona Project seemed an impossible aspiration for a frontier state. No history here? Please go back to Minnesota or Iowa or Illinois.
Kenilworth was blessed with able, kind teachers. I think of Miss Metcalfe in first grade, who taught generations of children there. I chose to write with my pen nestled between my first and second fingers. She said that was fine — her sister wrote that way. Miss Shannon in the third grade, who suspended regular class so we could all watch the World Series. No "teaching for the test" with these fine educators. Mr. Hall was a new teacher in seventh grade, a young man who had served in the Army and held himself like a soldier. Seventh was when I encountered the worst bullying by a gang of young thugs — anyone who talks of the kindness of children has forgotten what it was like to be a child. They singled me out and relentlessly poked, pinched and gang-punched me for much of the year. Mr. Hall watched but wisely stood back. He knew more about me, and more about self-respect, than I did. One day, being pursued down a stairwell by this gang — God, I hated the stairwells and their vulnerability — something inside me gave way. I swung at one of the lads and connected. His nose snapped. It felt good. Damned good. The others were...suddenly afraid. I wrestled a second one to the ground and they all fled. I never had a bully problem again, ever.
Good times outnumbered the bad. I worked scraping plates in the cafeteria, as well as on Hall Patrol. The career topper was being on the AV crew, setting up, taking down, fixing and moving around film projectors, film-strip machines and record players. The AV crew had keys to the classrooms, heady stuff for a 12-year-old. The library was a sanctuary. Every grade had music class, and the Music Memory program exposed us to classical music, as well as a trip to hear the Phoenix Symphony. I was a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout — although I dropped out after making First Class my interest in girls increased. As we got older, in eighth grade, we learned saucy gossip about a principal we disliked. The freedom of school was amazing compared to today: a simple, low cyclone fence ran around most of Kenilworth, except for the athletic fields; older students would go to lunch at Jack in the Box on McDowell. We walked and rode our bikes to school along the straight, honest streets with city sidewalks. The idea of "play dates" would have been absurd.
Kenilworth was built to be part of a coherent, walkable city. It was on the streetcar line before that was ripped out. The neighborhood, including the Moreland and Portland parkways, was inspired by the City Beautiful Movement. The houses ranged from bungalows and even mansions (such as that of sidewalk builder "Frenchy" Vieux) to period revival homes. By the time I came along in the 1960s, most of this remained. Now, like once lovely, leafy North High School, Kenilworth has been deformed by parking lots. When I went there, Fifth Avenue ran straight past with tall palm trees pointing toward downtown and soft lawns. Teachers parked on the streets surrounding the school — no freeway broke up the neighborhoods of which the school was the centerpiece. But trouble was coming. The big freeway plan had been laid down and a massive sheet of concrete was to carry Interstate 10 a hundred feet in the air over Kenilworth. It became nearly impossible to get loans for houses on Moreland and Portland, in the freeway's path, and the first of central Phoenix's now ubiquitous vacant lots appeared and spread. The flying freeway with its monstrous "helicoil" offramps was defeated, but would not go away. Even with the tunnel, many wanted Kenilworth demolished as had happened to so many older Phoenix schools. Somehow Kenilworth beat the odds.
By the 1960s, much of Phoenix's segregation had been eased. So we had white, black and brown students; we all mingled and made friends. Because the old city was still compact, Kenilworth also had a class diversity much lacking in today's schools. We had the rich kids from Palmcroft, including the Rehnquists, the poor ones from south of Roosevelt and those in between. This was they heyday of Maryvale, so no one valued the old houses of this neighborhood. But it was our neighborhood. We loved it. It was a great place to grow up.
Kenilworth now carries the unsavory name "inner-city school" but it has won outstanding ratings. It's sad that most of the better-off Anglos in the now fashionable historic-district neighborhoods adjoining Kenilworth send their children to private schools. They ride buses and don't play together in the alleys of Willo or F.Q. Storey or at Encanto Park. Kenilworth today is mostly Hispanic, no doubt suffering under a Legislature and schools chief Tom Horne who have made Arizona schools a national disgrace. But consider the two Italians now contending to be New York governor; a century ago, Italians were targets of lynchings. So maybe we can work our way through this latest period of hate and good things will await today's Kenilworth students.
Kenilworth remains a beacon of keeping faith, of what Phoenix was, could have been, and the soul it still has if one is willing to look for it. I happily plant my heart there.
Yet it also poses the implacable question. How could the Baby Boomers, most beneficiaries of the public schools, have let them go? How could they have accepted the soft apartheid in public education? How could so many of them become enemies of "government schools" — these the same self-proclaimed worshippers of the Founders. Well, the Founders believed in an educated citizenry and free public education for all, not a profit for the "school choice" racket.
Kenilworth still stands, asking.