A History Lesson

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Robert Williamson, 1958

I was given a three ring binder in my first week as principal of San Dieguito filled with a photocopied document titled The History of San Dieguito Union High School District 1936-1981 by Robert Williamson.

Williamson, a retired San Dieguito history teacher, wrote the chronicle in the mid 1990s, choosing to tell the story of the district from its beginnings in the 1930s through the year of his own retirement.

It is awesome.

Typewritten and single spaced, its 133 pages are filled with a historian’s view of the political intrigue and social upheaval of almost a half century of Southern Californian life. He traces the challenges of starting a school and district, and records the names and actions of those who have formed our school and our school district.

photo 5 (3)It was through Williamson that I learned about the challenges faced by the early administrators at San Dieguito: a record 74% growth in the student body in the late 40s, the war protests of the 1960s and 70s, and an ongoing concern about how best to raise kids to be respectable adults, which had a different meaning in 1950 than it did in 1970 or does today.

Through Williamson’s eyes I watched as a polio scare delayed the start of school in 1948, a group of boys from San Dieguio shanghaied a boat at Disneyland in 1959, and the community dealt with overwhelming fears of Communism in the 1960s.

Williamson’s words sent me scrambling to old yearbooks to see images to accompany the descriptions of students who led some concerned parents to look for a law and order principal to deal with “too many unacceptable acts” to describe …in the early 1950s… acts eventually punished with the paddle.

It was also in Williamson’s history that I learned about a “very San Dieguito” twist to that sanctioned paddling:

Mr. Korwin, the principal, kept a list of names of every student who was paddled and then had a drawing at the end of the year and “the student whose name had been drawn was given a chance to give Mr. Korwin a swat with the paddle in front of all the students at the last student assembly of the year.”

photo 2 (4)Only at San Dieguito.

But this chronicle isn’t just a series of facts and anecdotes; Williamson intersperses long passages from board reports, newspaper articles, and letters. He clearly did his research, and did it with the passion of someone who really cares about his subject.

…and then, on page 97, he became part of that subject.

I had to read the passage twice before it clicked for me: Williamson was more than a historian, he was a part of this sweep of San Dieguito history.

Describing the controversy around a piece of student artwork that incorporated an American flag, a daring move in 1969, our historian becomes history, writing:

One day in the Advanced Placement US History class that I taught, a student asked me if he could put up a display he felt expressed his feelings about what was happening in the US.”

The “I” startled me, as The History of San Dieguito Union High School District 1936-1981 took on the feel of the new journalism of Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese. The immediacy was amazing; I felt transported to Williamson’s classroom, and then beyond to the controversy that followed.

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Robert Williamson, 1973

This inclusion helped me understand Williamson’s point of view, and allowed me to see the work as a whole as the wonderfully personal history it was.

As Williamson went on to write about the ways in which the 1970s unfolded on campus, I could picture the students protesting, smoking, and throwing marshmallows at the school board.

I could feel the stress of the principals that sat in this office before me, and also felt the strange camaraderie that came from reading this story in the same office in which much of the story took place. On the wall behind my desk is a button once used to summon the principal’s secretary to take shorthand. Along with the wooden paneling and antiquated back door, every day I’m remind that my office was the office of the first principal, Arthur Main, back in 1937.

When Williamson gets to a particularly rough patch in our nation’s history and the impact it had on the school community, he writes:

It would be nice for the peace of mind and the lack of tension to have schools be quiet places where teachers passed on the wisdom of the past in a civil and respectful manner. However, being a public institution, public schools cannot escape the turmoil going on in the rest of society.”

How true those words were of the time he wrote them, of the decades before he wrote them, and of the decades that have followed. And what an opportunity this truth offers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this opinionated, passionate, and heartfelt history of our school, and found myself wishing to know more about the story of San Dieguito. It left me hungry to talk with alumni, celebrate the students who were so very young so many years ago, and understand our school and its rich history.

I’ll leave the last words of today’s post to Robert Williamson, who summed up his efforts by telling readers:

It is always good to look back to see where we were then and how far from there we are now. We do that, not with sadness or bitterness over the changes that have taken place, but to better help us understand why we are where we are today.”

1936-37 San Dieguito Jr High Cullen School 1936

The first class at San Dieguito Union High School, 1936

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