It was a time of Seinfeld, X-Files, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and when we were still open to the wonders of computerized special effects in Jurassic Park (they had not yet been abused by George Lucas). Accessing the world outside your computer was predominantly BBS and 14.4 modems. It was a time when I was young – physically, mentally (not that this has improved), and to Calgary itself. Moxy Fruvous said it best: we were stuck in the 90s. Grunge was king (hey, at least they wrote their own music), U2 was riding high on Achtung Baby and Zooropa, and I was in high school in downtown Calgary. Western Canada High School was and is about French Immersion and the IB program. I’ll be honest up front, I am not an overachieving kind of guy, and French Immersion was my entrance ticket to Western. Lucky ticket, though; golden ticket.
For a lot of people, high school is painful, stressful, lonely and difficult: hormones are firing on all cylinders in both sexes, and it’s a time in our lives when average people likely experience the worst in themselves, as a result. For me, though, and quite a few of my friends (Erik, for example), high school presented some of the best years of our lives. From September, 1990 to June, 1994, I called WCHS my home and met many people whom I still consider to be family. Maybe it was my oblivious nature that shielded me, or maybe I was lucky, or maybe it was a deep-down desire to have fun wherever I was (I vote this, and I vote my friends shared this sentiment), but I avoided the bullying and cliques that found painful memories in so many people.
On November 22, 2013, I went back to my home with a few close friends to see just how the old house held up, and man was I impressed.
The halls of my youth.
I have to give full credit for this endeavor to Erik. He took it upon himself to contact the school, and see if they’d be willing to show a small group of us around the a bit, and then show us the tunnels in the place. You see, Western is an old building, and we know it has tunnels and catacombs – we just never saw them. As mature adults, we figured we’d slide in no problem. We got way more than we bargained for. The Principal and Assistant Principal spent over three hours showing us around Western and explaining how things had been renovated or changed. It was clear to us that their love for the school was equal to if not beyond what we had.
We started by walking the halls and visiting some old haunts. The band room, especially, held a lot of nostalgia for the group of us, and we visited to see a Friday afternoon rehearsal being taught by a good friend of mine. The risers of yesteryear were gone, but the place was still the same. It’s a bit of a shock and reality check to see a friend younger than me teaching in the room where I was a student, but that’s what twenty years does. There was still a real energy to the place that impressed.
A trip through time in the catacombs.
We visited the theater, and this is where we started to really get our minds blown. The kids were putting on a Shakespeare production, and when they showed us the booth, we were astounded. Honestly, it’s cooler and higher tech than a lot of the community theater booths my friends have been working with. The kids run it all, too. I knew through my friend that the arts were strong at Western, but this is where they started to tell us just how well supported they actually are.
The principal really impressed on me how important they thought the arts were to the educational development of their students, and I couldn’t agree more. My current job – career – wouldn’t be available to me without the arts. The arts teach you how to think, think critically and creatively, how to communicate effectively… it’s all applicable. If you think about it, music is math – kids who do music have to be good at math. I’ll get off my soap box now, but suffice it to say that the arts are important to me in a school. To see this strength in such an academically focused school is just plain impressive.
Some more Western haunts near the old computer lab.
Back to the tour. We wandered past the gyms, cafeteria and courtyards (complete with BBQs and secure bike parking – wish that was there when I attended!), and everything looked mostly as we remembered it. Our big disappointment in the cafeteria was that the tasty hot fries and gravy no longer existed – we were really hoping for a fix.
We visited the art room, and I wish I’d taken a picture of this. I was blown away. This wasn’t a classroom where they did art, this was a full-on studio. A more welcoming and bright environment I have never seen. A large open space, like a warehouse, one wall fully lined with windows, the ceiling covered with massive skylights. Natural light for everyone, it felt like the space went on forever. A kiln for sculpture work, the walls lined with artwork done by the students. And these kids are good. We met the arts teacher, and man what a lucky lady to be working in such an amazing room. I sound like I’m gushing here, but I was really struck in the gut by walking into this incredible space. This is the studio that professional artists and designers dream of.
Roughly the spot where Daisy and I got to know each other.
Down the hall from the art room was where the auto shop used to be. We asked about it, and what it had turned into defied reason. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another fitness center that nice, anywhere. Exercise equipment and weights, spin studio, you name it, this place had it. Remember what I said about the wonderful space in the art room? This place had it, too. Forget World Health Club, I want a membership at Western. These kids were serious too, amazing athletes working hard on a Friday afternoon after school.
Nostalgia: our old yearbooks on the shelf in the archives.
Next door to the fitness center is the dance studio. We didn’t expect to go in as there was a cheer squad practice going on, but we were invited to go in and check it (and the practice) out. The school did not have this when we attended. The kids are good. The room, again, was amazing. A kitted out dance studio, and a full-on dance program with productions put on – again – by the kids. Talk about a school that’s on about pushing kids to succeed. I found myself wishing that my kids were entering high school this year, as I’d be sending them right along to Western and telling them “try everything.”
As you might gather, Western wasn’t always this nice (as much as it might have been in our hearts). It was actually falling apart a few years ago, to the point where several wings were threatened essentially with shutdown. The place dates back to 1903, and after 110 years of constant use, you can expect to see a bit of wear and tear. The school bares the years well, though, and it was allotted millions of dollars to renovate and bring the place back up to snuff. The money was well spent, and while much of it was spent on structure and infrastructure (pulling out dated water heating and running forced air, for example), we could really feel how the school has improved in more ways than just that.
Searching through memories 20 years old in the archives.
Back on tour, in this same amazing fitness, dance and art hallway, we also found the choral studio. Yes, it’s yet another large and beautiful room, but it’s kitted out with a full electronic music production studio! Seriously, the hits just kept on coming on the tour. I wish I’d been taking more photos as I went, here, because there was so much to see, and all of it impressive.
Old trophies and awards abound in the archives.
We visited the electronics lab, computer labs, the wrestling room – which held great memories for one of the folks in our group – the English hallway, other language classrooms (where a couple of us found the neighboring lockers where we met), the food lab where we found kids there after school on a Friday baking muffins to take a homeless shelter. We had fun telling the kids about how much we loved the school, and how they weren’t even born when we were graduating from the place. Probably blew their minds as much as our own.
We found a program that’s very personal to me. They have a design education program, where they are teaching kids about design-type things. Amazing! This is my career, and they have a program in high school for these kids. They have a 3D printer and everything. A couple of us offered up our services to come talk to the kids about design any time they wanted – this stuff is our bread and butter. As if that wasn’t enough, a full on video and photography production lab and setup was down there too. Would that I’d had access to this as a teenager!!
Computer terminals in the library, due for an upgrade to a learning commons.
The library was incredible. They’re very proud of their book collection (a substantial bulk of which was donated by a retiring Calgary judge – it took them professional movers to get the collection, and over a year to catalog it). They computer kiosks (due for replacement) that weren’t even an apple in the eye of the school system when we were there. Research has changed, my friends; Encyclopedia Britannica no longer.
Sufficiently exhausted from the amazing things we’d seen, and conscious of the time of our hosts on a Friday afternoon (who insisted they were having as much fun as we were), we decided to call an end to the tour by heading to the catacombs. I’d thought this was all we were going to see when we came back to western, so I was worried that it’d be a letdown after all we’d seen. It wasn’t, and our tour wasn’t nearly as over as I’d thought. Here’s a video of walking through some of them, and some explanations of the history in the place and what’s been done to it:
Fits… like a glove!!
There is also a ton of history down there. Erik found his old desk (or so he thinks), and we found passages and storage and the archives. We stayed for a while in the archives and looked at things like hundred year old trophies, and yearbooks from our time, still proudly stored on the shelves.
All good things must come to an end, and our tour finally had to as well. I cannot thank the WCHS leadership enough for the tour they extended to us. We wanted a casual walk down memory lane, and ended up with our minds blown. I cannot thank Erik enough for thinking up this crazy adventure on the craziest of Black Friday shopping days. I’m already on deck for going to talk to kids about careers in design and what it’s all about, and I can’t wait for the opportunity. The school is like an old friend that I went back to visit, and man oh man, she welcomed us with open arms.
And we found this sweet car parked outside, to boot:
“Hey bebe, let’s go for a ride!”