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A High School Reunion in Chicago Brings a Meeting of the Minds


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. This week on our program, come along to a high school reunion in Illinois.

A warm sun shines on Scammon Garden on the South Side of Chicago. Under the shelter of a tent, a crowd is gathered for a jazz brunch. The men and women enjoy the food, the music and the memories as they talk about old school days. Some of them have not seen each other in fifty years.

The event is part of a reunion of the University of Chicago Laboratory High School. People call it U-High or Lab. This lab was created for experiments with education.

The University of Chicago recently invited alumni to a special weekend where several U-High classes held reunions. These included the class of nineteen fifty-seven. About forty of the one hundred or so graduates attended the reunion. Some came with their husbands and wives.

The former classmates are now in their upper sixties. Some are retired. Others are still working. There are lawyers, professors, writers, social workers, scientists, economists and business people. But on this bright afternoon, their thoughts return to a time when so much of their lives was still ahead.

Ginger Spiegel Lane says there is feeling in the air of being teenagers again. The feeling is so strong, she can almost touch it. Yet something is different. She notices that her former classmates now talk much more openly than they would have as young people.

Some in the class of fifty-seven grew up together. They knew each other as children when they attended other University of Chicago laboratory schools. Some also went on to attend the university.

There are four laboratory schools. These are independent college preparatory schools operated by the University of Chicago.

John Dewey established the first laboratory schools at Chicago in eighteen ninety-six. He was a leading educational theorist. He imagined a place where future teachers could work with young students and test progressive ways of teaching.

Dewey knew that educators traditionally placed the most importance on memorizing and repeating information. In his laboratory schools, Dewey thought that the child should be the most important thing.

In terms of being socially progressive, the Chicago laboratory schools have brought together students from different racial and ethnic groups. In nineteen forty-three a political activist launched a successful campaign to get the laboratory schools to admit black students.

Her name was Marian Alschuler Despres. Several years earlier she had received a doctorate from the University of Chicago.

Marian Alschuler Despres died in January of this year at the age of ninety-seven. She was married to Leon Despres, a well-known politician in Chicago who served for many years on the City Council.

The University of Chicago Magazine, in reporting on her death, noted her efforts to get African-American students into the laboratory schools. Today their population of minority and international students is about forty percent -- still not enough to satisfy some critics, though.

Some members of the U-High class of nineteen fifty-seven still live in the Chicago area. Others have moved away but came for the fiftieth anniversary reunion, including Robert Despres, the son of Marian and Leon.

A number of members from the class of fifty-seven attended a special event honoring a member of the class of nineteen eighty-two. Arne Duncan is chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, the third largest school system in the United States.

Many graduates of the University of Chicago Laboratory High School are in public service. A nineteen seventy-nine graduate, Leslie Hairston, is on the Chicago City Council. A member of the class of nineteen thirty-seven is on the United States Supreme Court. John Paul Stevens is often called the most liberal justice on the court.

One area where members of the class of nineteen fifty-seven have done well is education. Paul Schultz is a nationally known economist at Yale University and the son of a Nobel Prize winner.

Another graduate, Sydney Spiesel, is an expert in children's medicine, also at Yale. Doctor Spiesel also writes for the Internet magazine Slate.

Bert Cohler from the class of fifty-seven is still in the U-High neighborhood. He s a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago.

Mary Deems Howland teaches English literature at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

And Allan Metcalf at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, is an English language expert. His latest book is "Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush." He is now working on a book about the word OK.

Another member of the class of fifty-seven, Tappan Wilder, has become a strong voice for the literature of Thornton Wilder. Thornton was his father's brother. He was a playwright, novelist and short-story writer who won three Pulitzer Prizes. He wrote the classic play "Our Town." Tappan Wilder is responsible for the republication of some of his uncle's work.

A visitor at the reunion commented that the U-High class of nineteen fifty-seven had enough mental energy to light a city.

Many high school reunions are centered on a dance. But the members of the class of fifty-seven made a different choice. They met for a discussion in one of their former classroom buildings.

They talked about good memories of high school. But one man urged them not to glamorize the past too much. He said time often makes days long ago seem happier than they really were.

So the former students also talked about how they sometimes formed social groups that excluded others. Yet one of those who took part in the discussion, Elizabeth Hughes Schneewind, says they still found something good to say. They agreed that at least these cliques did not form along religious, racial or ethnic lines, the way they sometimes do in schools.

Ginger Spiegel Lane says the former students also remembered the many aptitude tests they were given. Graduate students in education administered them. The tests were designed to see what the students might do with their lives. She says that for a number of people the results proved correct.

Gathering classmates from fifty years ago is a big job. But class members Mary Morony of Chicago and John Keohane [koh-HANE] of Austin, Texas, worked hard. Mr. Keohane is a mathematics teacher but one of the people he found called him an excellent detective.

Mary Deems Howland, for example, had moved several times. She had also changed her name when she got married. But John Keohane remembered reading the name of her sister's husband in a University of Chicago publication. He followed that clue and found the brother-in-law, and that led him to his former classmate.

She could not attend the reunion. But she renewed several school friendships because of it. She and classmate Mary Morony held their own reunion -- on the telephone. They talked for an hour.

Allan Metcalf says he came to know classmates he had not really known when they were in school fifty years ago. And he says e-mails and calls are continuing after the reunion.

A former classmate from the University of Chicago Laboratory High School told one woman she looked young for her age. The woman smiled and explained why: the reunion, she said, had taken away fifty years.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. To learn more about American life, and to download transcripts and audio archives of our programs, go to voaspecialenglish.com. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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