Public Schools: Mirror of Society

Chapter 21 -- Part 4

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Public Schools: Mirror of Society

In Hampton, as elsewhere, the schools and indeed the educational system -- mirror much of what goes on in the outside world. The values and the ideals that are held aloft for students are the values and ideals that society -- or, perhaps more correctly, adults -- has endorsed or applauded as fitting and proper.

At times these values clash, as in the age-old contest between the idealism and impatience of youth and the conservatism and sometimes cynicism or even hypocrisy of some of society's elders.

The schools reflect events outside, not only outwardly (as in war and epidemics and depressions) but also philosophically, on such issues as federal aid and social and economic and political trends.

In some cases, some problems of society have largely disappeared. This includes the great epidemics -- from the flu epidemic of 1918, when Hampton schools were closed, to the dreaded scourge of the 1930s, infantile paralysis (polio). In 1935, school nurse Elizabeth Hay issued a warning about the infantile paralysis epidemic, cautioning children to keep away from crowds, stay in their own towns, and keep away from public gatherings.

Other societal problems reflected in schools have been around for a long time and indeed have become worse. Schools in the 1930s, just as they are today, were waging a battle against drugs. Reporting for the year ending June 30, 1930, for example, the headmaster of Hampton Academy and High School cited the importance for students of developing their "brain power" and the necessity for "a brain refreshed by sufficient sleep and free from the deadening influence of nicotine."

In addition to nicotine, schools continued to battle hard drugs, which were being used at a younger and younger age. By the 1980s, Hampton Academy Junior High School, for example, was participating in a pilot program on drug prevention.

Society's economic problems also affected Hampton's schools. During the 1930s, the Great Depression figured more and more in the annual reports from school administrators. In 1933, in support of a nationwide effort to cut public expenses, Hampton teachers voluntarily cut their wages by 5 percent. During this period, the federal government stepped in to aid the schools and the schoolchildren. The Child Recovery Program, financed by the federal government, distributed free milk to all underweight children and also partially financed hot lunches in the schools.

The wars also had their effect on education and the schools of Hampton. In some cases, as in World War I, when German-Americans were scorned and treated as pariahs, some citizens acted to their discredit. There was even hypocrisy, which youngsters were quick to spot, when the attitude of many townspeople toward a Pennsylvania "Dutchman," with the German name of Bernheisel (George H.), forced him to resign his post as headmaster of the academy during World War I. It was an incident that at least one student, describing it years later, found shameful for some Hampton adults.

Otherwise, both world wars evoked cooperation and a common effort from Hampton's schools, teachers, and administrators. Teachers mobilized to distribute ration books. The annual school report for 1942-43 noted: "The schools arc willingly fulfilling their part in waging a successful war. Teachers and pupils are buying war bonds and stamps -- regularly. Three national registrations, those of sugar, gasoline and oil, have been entrusted to the teachers of the nation."

At the same time, schoolchildren mobilized to collect rubber and scrap metal. Schoolchildren bought, as the school report for 1945 cited, war bonds and stamps to the value of $2,436 during the year. Hampton pupils also organized to collect and process milkweed pods. The seven towns of Supervisory Union 21 contributed 487 bags; it was estimated that two bags of the pods would furnish material for one life jacket.

Wars are fought by young men, mostly those just out of school, and while a town erects bronze street and square memorials to honor its sons and daughters who died serving their country, it is perhaps the schools and their schoolmates that most remember and celebrate their heroism and valor. Hampton, like most towns, has had its share of those who fought and died in overseas wars, from World War I to Vietnam.

After World War II, there was talk of preparing veterans for definite jobs, and so came the idea of offering evening courses in bookkeeping and typing -- the beginnings of an adult education movement that was to become one of the country's most powerful educational forces and is today an important part of Hampton's educational programs.

World War II ended, but the cold war and the threat of nuclear annihilation soon appeared. Students were taught how to hide under their desks in case of nuclear attack. The town's annual report for 1950 referred to the "national situation" and pointed out that teachers "will be trained to protect pupils in case of danger," and that teachers were "receiving directions as to their procedure in case of attack."

The sixties and seventies also saw the rebellion of youth against what they perceived as distorted values among adults, hypocrisy, and, most of all, the support of a war most young people saw as unnecessary, at best, and a crime against humanity, at worst. Students and even teachers protested against the war; at times, the values of the so-called Establishment clashed with the values of a generation less attached to the traditions, pieties, and unquestioning loyalties of the past.

The protests that disrupted Hampton education or occupied the attention of Hampton educators took several forms. In 1968, Robert J. Cushing, Jr., a popular 16-year-old Winnacunnet High School junior, a high-honor-roll student, president of his freshman class, and member of the school's football team, was suspended for his failure to comply with the school dress code. Cushing had appeared in school with sideburns an inch longer than allowed after Principal Eugene Hawley had told him to trim the sideburns or be suspended.

According to a contemporary newspaper account, Cushing appeared "to have received the support of the majority of the student body at Winnacunnet." Cushing later dropped his civil suit against the school, shaved his sideburns, and returned to school.

The Cushing case was followed by a much more protracted case -- and one much more expensive for the town of Hampton. In 1969, a Winnacunnet High School teacher named James C. Pechewlys, who taught a course called "Problems of Democracy," decided to protest the Vietnam war in his own way. He thereupon attached to the trunk of his car a sign that read "Vietnam Sucks," a sentiment easily visible on his car in the school parking lot. Someone also tried to set the car afire, an incident that also drew wide publicity to his sign.

Regarding whether or not the words on the sign were obscene -- as some thought -- Pechewlys countered that obscenity was in the eyes of the beholder; the word sucks was in wide use among younger people to indicate something despised or despicable. Be that as it may, the sign set off an uproar that led to a vote by the Winnacunnet High School Board, on August 18, 1969, to dismiss Pechewlys from his teaching post.

Pechewlys filed suit against the Winnacunnet Cooperative High School Board, Principal Eugene Hawley, and Supervisory Union 21 Superintendent Paul O'Neil. At the same time, members of the Winnacunnet High School Teachers Organization voted to take the case of James C. Pechewlys to the New Hampshire Education Association to test New Hampshire's antiquated tenure laws.

In the end, in what was termed a "compromise settlement," the Winnacunnet High School Board agreed to rescind the vote that dismissed Pechewlys; to reinstate him; to accept his letter of resignation effective June 30, 1972, with the interim period to be treated as a leave of absence without pay; to provide Pechewlys with a reference; and to give the former WHS teacher a lump-sum payment of $19,757, which included two years' pay minus deductions, plus damages of $2,750.

Other problems that affected society and were reflected in the schools were resolved more amicably. And Hampton schools led the way in their treatment of handicapped pupils. In 1963, showing society's increasing concern for the handicapped and also the greater initiative of handicapped people, Judy Cammett, a blind youth, enrolled in Hampton Academy Junior High School. According to a contemporary account, Judy was believed to be the first blind girl in the state to attend public school on a daily basis.

In the sixties, the frenetic pace of society, new standards in sexual behavior, and the use of drugs were all reflected in Hampton schools. Family planning became an elective late in that decade, and in the early 1970s, concern grew over the lack of instruction in the areas of sexuality and drugs. Concern over the use of drugs by students, as well as the implications of new sexual viewpoints, continued to increase through the 1980s as Hampton schools grappled with these issues.

At the end of 1980, a "sexuality session" took place at Hampton Academy Junior High to help parents and professionals initiate and maintain communication with members of the 9-to-18 age group. The seminar instructor, Jacquelyn G. Sowers, stated that today's youth had been inundated with pressures from a sex-saturated society. Meanwhile, drug education programs were held at both the academy and Winnacunnet High School.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, Hampton schools continued to reflect changes in society. One of these changes was the ruling by the United States Supreme Court that reciting the Lord's Prayer in public schools is unconstitutional. At the same time, a New Hampshire state law, RSA 194:15, provided that a school district may authorize voluntary recitation of the Lord's Prayer in public elementary schools.

This confusing situation came to a head in Hampton at the annual school district meeting on March 4, 1976, when it was voted 119-69 on an amended article to allow recitation of prayers in the public schools. "Their action," according to an article in the Hampton Union, "may have placed the school board in a touchy legal situation."

The issue was resolved when the School Board voted 3 to 1 to accept a motion by board member Daniel Bryant to postpone "indefinitely any action to institute prayer in the Hampton schools."

Another religious issue concerned the use of public funds to aid private schools. The issue arose over a Supreme Court decision in 1975 ruling that some portions of child benefit service aid to parochial schools were unconstitutional. The ruling affected Hampton because of the Sacred Heart School, a Roman Catholic elementary school, and the vote to provide the school with a measure of aid from public funds. This was resolved with a vote to provide limited funds to the school under the child benefit services section.

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