Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Sunday, October 16, 2005
 
Happy Birthday Athenian!

Yesterday my school celebrated its 40th birthday. It was a beautiful day at one of my favorite spots on earth--the clouds wrestled with the sun, flocks of birds and lone birds of prey circled and swooped overhead, and the hills and the oak trees glowed gold and green about us. We applauded Dyke Brown, who abandoned his successful career at the Ford Foundation to found our school. He was inspired by a vision that had been planted in his heart when he was an exchange student under the inspired eye of Kurt Hahn, creator of Outward Bound and founder of the Salem School in Germany and the Gordonstoun School in Scotland. Athenian is one of the original Round Square schools, and it is built on Round Square educational principles: internationalism, education for democracy, stewardship of the earth, community service, and outdoor adventure. To that foundation Dyke added a vision of education where students and teachers were entwined like family, working together for both accomplishment and learning. We called our teachers by their first names, watched their children, and played with their pets. While I've probably spent far more time at UC Berkeley over the years, Athenian is probably still the single most influential institution in my life--the gusto and tenacity with which I dove into Cal fed directly upon an education in constantly imagining, and in endeavoring to make the visions real. Here's Dyke telling us about the trustees who so trusted in his vision that they pledged to keep the struggling young school afloat:



Click Here to Continue Reading . . .
I started a garden, a young authors association, and a newspaper at Athenian. I had the principles of the First Amendment drilled into me by the newspaper adviser, Carl Fredricksen, who would stuff my mailbox with articles extolling student publishers for pushing boundaries. Most faculty advisors reign their charges in, Carl always encouraged us to explore our freedom. I wanted a film class, and so I roped in some friends and we had one. I wanted to study Latin, so Spanish teacher Don Lindenau set aside time to tutor me in Latin. I wasn't satisfied with the way Indian culture was presented in the freshman world cultures class, so I was invited to TA that section of the class every year after. I wanted fish in the biology room, so my biology/physics teacher Bruce put me in charge of the biology room, and I learned to keep an aquarium. We didn't exactly run the school, but there were many things that were left to us, and we debated over them cantankerously. Somehow Eleanor Dase, the epitome of kind and gracious leadership, put up with us:


She's been heading the school for 13 years now, and keeping it true to its founding principles. She was also the best math teacher I had. Exchange students and international boarding students gave me friends from Germany, Thailand, Scotland, Australia, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore. There was the yearly allowance of community service, the Community Action Board, the trips to put a garden in a domestic abuse shelter, serve soup to the homeless, or maintain the trails at glorious Point Reyes. And there were so very many performances. Dancing, jazz, rock n' roll, chorale medleys, chamber music, and lots and lots of theater. We loved Shakespeare--"Bestir the Athenian Youth Unto Merriment"-- and despite the general lack of decorum, we absorbed the etiquette of being a respectul, attentive audience. No wonder--some of my schoolmates sang with astonishing beauty, including these three:


They are Margaret Valeriano '95, Juliana Prater '97, and Adrian Valeriano '92, and wow, their voices have only gotten better and better with age, having started out golden when we were students.

My physics and biology teacher Bruce Hamren gave me a picture he recently found of me. Ten years ago, fulfiling the Athenian Wilderness Experience (AWE) graduation requirement, I spent a month and a 100 miles backpacking in the High Sierras. We didn't have tents, only tarps, and we carried everything as a group. We went through this country, though it was considerably more snow-covered our year, climbing the California Matterhorn and hiking around the Sierra's Iceberg Lake. I recently reminisced to some friends how I ended up defending my food against a bear during the solo part of the course. The school year at Athenian was effectively started with a little ritual involving the AWE homecoming. When they brought us home they didn't even bring us all the way home--instead they dropped us off ten miles away and we had to "run-in." Well, running a flat ten miles empty-handed is not so tough when you've spent days climbing mountains carrying a pack that weighs half as much as you do. Besides--the path was lined with stations of fresh cold water, and signs cheerfully announced it to be iodine free. So here I am at the end of all that:



What you can't see are the crowd of my family and friends and gallons of gatorade and ice that await me.

Melissa Barry '85 reminded us of how very lucky we were, as she recounted the ways her Athenian education inspires her in her inner-city second grade class room, and how Athenian still helps her open up the world for her students. I remember helping some of these students get into a swimming pool for the very first time, and showing them water bottle rockets and chemistry tricks with pennies. Former head of the school Steve Davenport told a story about how, when he was just starting out, two dripping wet Germans mysteriously showed up at his door with suitcases on a stormy night--his daughter's 21st birthday party--how he confusedly welcomed them, eventually to find out they were the heads of the Salem school and the Berkelhof school in Germany, visiting amid miscommunication. He realized he had incorrectly been thinking of the school's internationalism as an outer ring, to be tacked on when everything else was done: "There are no outer rings. They all partake of each other and they're all at the center, and they all can be life changing." The Honorable Andy Wistrich capped it off with this quote from Albert Schweitzer about the Sleeping Sickness of the Soul:
You know of the disease in Central Africa called sleeping sicknessā€¦. There also exists a sleeping sickness of the soul. Its most dangerous aspect is that one is unaware of its coming. That is why you have to be careful. As soon as you notice the slightest sign of indifference, the moment you become aware of the loss of a certain seriousness, of longing, of enthusiasm and zest, take it as a warning. You should realize that your soul suffers if you live superficially.
Greg Cohelan '69, affectionately known as The KQED Pledge Guy when I was in school, properly incited us to buy the newly bound oral histories "while supplies last" and then sent us off to mingle.

Allison Fletcher '96 has been doing a lot of organizing of our generation of alumni, and it was good to see her again. She was one of my patrolmates on the Wilderness Experience, and our catching up reminded me of how these reunion type events are never completely joyous--there is always news of deaths and divorces and departures, always disappointments and abandoned projects to reveal. It can be easy to forget, amid all the nostalgia, that we were still adolescents who could be cruel and shallow. There were times, on my second or third hour of commuting of the day, when all I wanted to do was sleep, and never see the campus again. My parents had to work very hard to keep me in the school, even with generous scholarships. It was particularly demanding on my mother, who had to deal with the bills, hours of driving, and late nights at Kinko's for the newspaper. AWE was difficult in less than obvious ways. But they were still some of the happiest days of my life, and I find myself always returning to them when I need to muster up hope and imagination, or find myself losing faith in community. Here's to 400 more such lovely years!

Some more pictures:
My dear photography and English teacher Tom Swope, ever intent on his craft:



My accomplished younger brother Ben and I:


My friends, Megan Leich '94 and physics and biology teacher Bruce Hamren:



Another shot of the campus:



 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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