This graduation season is bitter-sweet for me as my daughter is part of the Class of 2017. It seems like just yesterday that she entered the little red door at Miss Jan’s Montessori School on Alexander Street and now she has exited Golden Valley High School.
I was wondering what high school life was like for her since she has been such a quiet and studious student concerned with her classes and competitions. Her valedictorian try-out speech entitled, “Life is too Important to be Taken Seriously,” (quote by the Irish author and playwright Oscar Wilde), surprised me as I learned that her fond memories of high school life were simply the aroma of junk food at the food fair, the cute lambs and ponies at FFA petting zoo, and the comical performances on the quad.
She is not alone in expressing Oscar Wilde’s philosophy about life. This sentiment was often rooted in the commencement speeches of Merced Union High School in the early 20th century. According to some of these speeches about class history, freshman initiation was part of the tradition. In 1916, freshmen were hazed in many ways including hard labor, boxing matches, wearing coats inside out, and going shoeless. After the hazing, the freshmen were given a reception which marked their formal entrance to high school society.
Then, pulling pranks was another part of high school life. The late Merced County Surveyor, Bill Bedesen (Class of 1903), told of several pranks including a kid who climbed to the top of school and put a porcelain chamber pot on top of a 20-ft. flagpole. Another time, a student sprinkled a smelly white crystal in the chalk tray and the odor was so strong that the school had to be closed for 3 days.
These mischievous shenanigans, while often condemned by school administration, showed the students’ light-hearted nature.
On a more serious note, the focus of student life took a dramatic turn during World War I, but new clubs like Cadet Company and the Junior Red Cross were organized to rally students together and express their patriotic spirit.
In 1918, spearheaded by Mr. B. G. Nason, Merced Union High School organized two Cadet Companies to meet the physical education requirement for boys. Companies 75th and 76th of California High School Cadet’s muster roll listed 65 members in the 1918 academic year and 85 members in the 1919 academic year. The cadets were required to train three times a week. As part of the drilling exercises, a Cadet Battalion was organized to take part in parades and patriotic celebrations.
On April 12, 1918, the Cadet Battalion honored the sacrifice of Guy Cardwell, a Le Grand resident who became one of the first Merced County men to die in service. In 1919, the Cadet Battalion entered the drilling competition on Raisin Day in Fresno and walked off with the cup for their outstanding demonstration.
For the girls, there was a different avenue to demonstrate their commitment to the war effort. In the summer of 1917, thirty Merced Union High School girls organized a fruit canning club under the direction of their domestic science teacher, Florence Eckman. To alleviate the burden of the food shortage due to the war, the girls decided to can perishable foods during the summer and planned to exhibit their can goods in the fall.
The Junior Red Cross was organized by the Merced Union High School Student Body in 1918 in which both the boys and girls were able to do their part in the Belgian Relief Fund effort from fundraising to item collections. Some girls decided to devote one afternoon a week in making garments for the Belgians, some organized the Belgian Relief Money Class for collections, and others gave benefit dances and movies to raise funds.
Although life was difficult during the war years, clubs like these provided security and hope which, in turn, made high school experience more memorable. As the students tried to strike a balance between academic work and the reality of life, they were able to participate in activities that channeled their energy.
Indeed, high school experience is more than getting that perfect GPA or SAT scores or athletic scholarship. It is also about growing up, balancing life and work, and developing friendships and relationships.
So, Class of 2017, as you are about to embark on a new journey, borrowing my daughter’s words, “Remember that while you are working hard to achieve your goals, you should also ease up at times and have fun. No matter where you are and what you are doing, you should keep in touch, stay true to yourselves and your friends, and most of all enjoy your life by not taking it so seriously.”
Best of Luck, Class of 2017!
On a separate note, our museum family has lost a dedicated member and beloved friend. Herb Wood passed away on May 10 at the age of 78. Our prayers and thoughts go to his wife Kathy and sons Herb and Mike.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at email@example.com.