Earlier this year, the Portland School District tore down the building that housed my high school, Adams High, from 1969-81. The building also housed Whitaker Middle School for 20 years, from 1981-2001, before being evacuated by the district due to concerns about radon and toxic mold that had built up in the 1960s-era facility.
Fortunately for Adams alumni, images of the school survive online, in at least two YouTube videos. One or more are from clips from Gus Van Sant's 2003 film Elephant, which was filmed on the Adams/Whitaker campus. Imagine a teenage Greg walking the halls of the school building, full of youthful vim and vigah. Or, okay, don't.
And below is what's so far the only appearance of my image on YouTube, in a video tribute to the school done by an Adams grad. (There are some shots of the building demolition in there as well.) I'm at 2:59, in a picture with the speech team. A shot of my 16-year-old self is not the pic I'd have chosen to present to the YouTube world, but I don't have much control in the matter.
Adams was a high school borne of 1960s intellectual adventurism. It was an open and liberal-minded campus, with "schools within a school" that served the individual education needs of students.
During the school's early years there were problems in integrating with the community, and in seeming too politically radical to both Portland school adminstrators and parents in the Adams neighborhood. When I arrived there as a freshman in 1976-77, a lot of the sense of liberal experimentalism had died down, but there was still enough for me to personally find refreshing. If you came there to learn responsibly, the teachers treated you pretty much like an adult, and gave you a solid base of knowledge to work from.
There's not been a school before or since where I flourished more, and I even got to be a central figure in what was probably Adams' last politically radical moment, in 1979: I wrote an editorial in the school newspaper wondering why the Portland Rose Festival, to that point, had never chosen a black Rose Festival queen.
The editorial drew written condemnation from the Festival, but the Adams staff voted to stand by what I wrote. The controversy was covered by The Oregonian newspaper and local TV newscasts in June '79; the next year, the city's first African-American Rose Festival queen was chosen. It was tempting to take some credit, but really I'll never be able to say for sure how much influence that I, or the then-emerging "Black United Front" activist movement in the city, had on the choice. In any event, those were heady times.
Due to problems with redistricting and the lingering effects of bad feeling from the early years, the school's enrollment dwindled to the point where, when I graduated in 1980, it had one of the lowest enrollments of any "big" high school in Oregon. Adams closed in 1981, not long after being the subject of a Newsweek story with the headline: "The School That Flunked."
I'm grateful to Gus Van Sant for filming Elephant there, and think it apropos that a building which began as a part of the educational avant garde ended in what you might call the cinema avant garde. Particularly because of the film's subject matter: what lurks in the mysterious souls of students, prior to a Columbine-like massacre on campus. That's a topic the original braintrust who formed Adams (some who were Harvard-trained educators) would likely find fascinating. And maybe a bit depressing, in that the '60s utopian vision of a progressive curriculum didn't make enough of a difference to keep high school culture from drifting toward moments of violent chaos.