I JUST FINISHED reading “Teenage Wasteland,” a recently published book that attempts to examine the circumstances behind teen suicides like the ones in Bergenfield in 1987.
While the author, Donna Gaines, made some valid points concerning alienated youth and the skewed priorities of American culture, I disagreed with her less-than-flattering portrayal of Bergenfield, particularly the high school.
The author is a sociologist. I am not. She spent a month in Bergenfield researching a book. I have spent my life here.
As a student, I did not fit into any of the author’s pigeonholes of high school society. I was not a “burnout,” nor was I scholarship or honor society material. I was just an average student who graduated in the middle of his class.
The two copies of “Teenage Wasteland” at the Bergenfield Public Library seem to be on perpetual reserve. If you want to get in line, you can read the author’s version of Bergenfield High School.
This is my version.
Kurt Vonnegut once said that the noblest of all professions are nursing and teaching. Sad to say, many of us only come to realize this under unfortunate, and sometimes tragic, circumstances.
In the days following the Bergenfield fire that killed William McClain’s family this past spring, I witnessed the struggle of Bergenfield High’s students and faculty to cope with the loss of 16-year-old Bill McClain, a struggle compounded by the tragic death of another 16-year-old student less than a month before, Nakia Wright.
The day before the fire, Bergenfield’s renowned marching band had participated in New York’s welcome-home parade for the Persian Gulf troops. Billy played the French horn in the band. My sister, a senior, was in the color guard.
Sixteen years ago, I played trombone in the band.
So in covering the aftermath of the fire for a local weekly newspaper, I found myself conversing with teachers I had known when I was in school. What came through in these conversations was the love these teachers have for their students. A recurring theme in the conversations was family.
On the day of the fire, several Bergenfield alumni, people who had never met Billy McClain, came to the school to offer assistance, much in the same way relatives gather after the death of a family member.
I spent a good part of that evening talking on the phone with Gloria Pennell. She is married to Kent Pennell, the marching band’s director. She, too, had been in the Bergenfield High School marching band. She now spends a great deal of her time with the band, particularly the color guard.
Gloria Pennell and I reflected on our experiences, which we had taken for granted as students, and how people tend to take what she says about teachers’ sacrifices with a grain of salt because her husband is a teacher.
She spoke about the commitment of the faculty, about the countless extra hours spent by the art department to put on shows; by the athletic department during summer, weeknight, and weekend training; by the music department in extra rehearsals; by the clubs and organizations during their after-school activities; and by the teachers who make the effort for no reason other than they want to do it.
The Pennells consider the band their adopted children. The Saturday before the fire, they had attended the local Eagle Scout presentation, where Billy McClain was recognized for his achievements.
The Pennells have no children of their own, and, like many young couples, are sometimes questioned about it by well-meaning friends and relatives.
Gloria Pennell said that on such occasions, she just smiles and thinks to herself, “You couldn’t buy what we have.”
Claire Quirke, a senior in the band, agreed about the relationship.
“She is band mother,” Claire said. “And we are her children. All 90 of us.”
Frank Levy, the high school’s music director, had known Billy McClain for eight years. He concurred:
“I know these kids from Grade 4 on. Maybe we’re not all father and child, but at least we’re cousins.”
He said the support the faculty had given the students was reciprocal; he had found comfort in being able to talk about his feelings with his students.
Two days after the fire, the high school had its senior awards night. Principal Ross Medlar believed that it was important to resume a normal routine. Each department, as well as civic organizations, presented awards and scholarships to seniors. The auditorium stage was filled with teachers sweating beneath the klieg lights. I recognized every one of them.
An almost reverent lull fell over the audience as the math department teachers came to the podium. Billy McClain had been a math prodigy. Joyce DeSantis, the head of the department, announced the establishment of a scholarship in Billy’s name. The auditorium erupted with sustained, resounding applause.
Some time later, choir director Michael Benard presented a vocal music award to a student he affectionately referred to as “his son.” Faculty and students alike roared with knowing, appreciative laughter. Such are the relationships at Bergenfield High School.
I thought about the things these teachers had given me, lessons that were not in the texts, lessons that did not come out of their plan books but from their example.
I had learned tolerance. I had learned the value of an individual’s contribution to a group effort. I had learned commitment. I had learned compassion.
It was easy to take those things for granted as a student. It is also very easy to take them for granted as a voting member of the community.
I grew up with one of the so-called “burnouts” mentioned in “Teenage Wasteland.” To this day, I do not fully understand the reasons for his death in 1986, or for the suicides of the four teenagers in that Foster Village garage nine months later.
What I do understand is that children are a community’s greatest treasure.
And teachers are the children’s treasure.
Originally published in the August 19, 1991 edition of The Record.