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Wednesday, December 12 News

Woog’s World / Once again, I’m betting that Staples students will do the right thing

Just about the only good news to follow last month’s horrific massacre at Parkland High School was the reaction of countless students. In that prosperous town, across Florida and then around the country, teenagers stood up, spoke up and walked out. They raised their voices loudly, articulately and passionately for one simple cause: the right to feel safe in school.

Westport students did not have that chance. They were on February break. No one is yet sure if they’ll heed calls for national action on March 14, or April 20 (the anniversary of Columbine). As they returned to school this week, many were still figuring out how they could do their part in the battle against gun violence.

If they do something — and I bet they will — they’ll follow a long tradition of student activism at Staples. For decades, Westport high schoolers have been on the front lines of a variety of social justice causes. From civil rights to the environment, teens here have broken out of their suburban bubble, and engaged with the world around.

One of the most convulsive times was exactly 40 years ago. In 1968, the communist Tet offensive turned the tide of the Vietnam War. In April, student riots and general strikes terrorized France, a week-long student takeover paralyzed Columbia University, and Martin Luther King was assassinated. Two months later, Bobby Kennedy was dead.

Staples High School suffered no violence. Nobody tried to take over a building, no tear gas was fired, and no one was killed. Yet the 1967-68 school year was one of the most convulsive in the school’s then-eight-decade history.

It began with a new vice principal, Fermino Spencer, challenging students. A Brown University graduate, former Peace Corps worker and social activist, he was a rarity at Staples: a black man. In a September interview with the school newspaper Inklings, he asked, “How many students have ever bothered to examine the Vietnam situation from a historical perspective? How many students have been to the slums of Bridgeport and Norwalk, and are aware of their troubles and needs? It’s very easy to give money, but it is difficult to give of your time and energy.” He urged Stapleites to extend their learning outside the classroom, and become “the responsible generation.”

Principal Jim Calkins — a strong proponent of student power — replaced study halls with “student option periods.” Options included the student lounge (no adults allowed), library, cafeteria or auditorium (for “reading, meditating or just sleeping”). He modified the dress code: Girls could wear culottes and slacks; blue jeans were okay for boys. Then came an even more radical change: Seniors could leave campus during any free period. Staples High School was changing fast.

In the fall of 1967, Players — the award-winning dramatic company — took center stage with a radical piece of theater. Guided by director Craig Matheson, they wrote their own show. Using pieces from war literature — “Trojan Women,” “War and Peace,” “Catch-22” — and their own original scenes, they created an evening of theater that said, powerfully and provocatively: War is bad. They called it “War and Pieces.”

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Pro-Vietnam War students ripped down posters. Matheson received a threatening phone call. Yet most audiences loved it. The production galvanized the town.

Players took the show on the road. They became the first high school group ever to win the Moss Hart Memorial Award for Plays of a Free World. They donated posters, scripts and other materials to the United Nations, for a special exhibit.

On April 5 — the day after Martin Luther King was murdered — 600 students held a silent lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Vice principal Spencer spoke movingly of his own experiences as an African American. No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

More speakers came. Several teachers — led by Joe Duggan, Marue English, Gerry Kuroghlian and Rich Bradley — organized a summer day camp for youngsters in Bridgeport, Norwalk, Westport and Weston. Over 100 Staples students and many teachers signed up to work with 120 kids. There would be swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, camping, creative writing, filmmaking and art.

A contentious public meeting provoked raw emotions, about the wisdom of bringing outside kids to Westport. Yet senior Margaret Knapp said, “People have heard a great deal about student power as violence. But I feel that we can attain true power through silence and unity.”

A few weeks later, the Intercommunity Camp opened. For over a decade, it ran successfully — and changed lives.

Forty years later, our world is just as fraught. Once again, I’m betting that Staples students will do the right thing.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.