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As some of you know from recent facebook posts and other writing, I recently visited Wisconsin, my birth state and home until I was about 19. As is always is the case when returning to my roots, I think a lot about what formed me as a person and how I came to think the way I do. This trip was very much a journey of discovery in many ways. Hours alone in a car will do that to you. I had a lot of time to think, always dangerous, and a visit to my old high school really set me to thinking about how good education can be. When it truly is the school’s mission.
To be honest, I went to two fine high schools, Waukesha High School, a school that, by 1968 when I left for University Lake School, had reached an enrollment of well over 1,000 but was still providing an excellent public education. I will never forget the many experiences that helped form my early thinking and the many friends I have reconnected with through facebook and other means. I did all the usual stuff, got in trouble, played sports, was in the plays and generally had great freshman and sophomore years. But, it was a large landscape and I have always craved smaller, more intimate settings. If you know me… go figure!


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Besides that I met a girl. Funny how that can change things, even at 16. She will remain nameless for a number of reasons, mostly because she has forgotten me or I am sure she would rather not be reminded… and then there are the lawyers. Anyway, she went to ULS and I was drawn by that thing that draws all 16 year old males… lust. My Mom taught Theater at ULS and unbeknownst to her I snuck out there, took the entrance exam and amazingly got in. You should have seen her, and my Dad’s, faces when I went home and told Mom that I would be going to school with her on Monday. I think she cried.
University Lake School is not a public school. It is a private country day school in the lake country in western Waukesha County, Wisconsin which is definitely an up scale area. There were, and are, a lot of kids from wealthy families who go to school there, but there were, and are, a lot of us who were scholarship students. I never once saw a distinction made between the two. Part of my high school scholarship was that most days after school I helped the elderly gentleman who was the custodian clean the place after a 135 teens, and younger, had inhabited it for the day. I learned a lot of stuff working for him. I learned at an early age that yes, women’s, or in this case girls, bathrooms are really scary places. And that is all I will say about that!
Now, before ruminating any further, to the meat of what I am rambling on about. I did not know what life had in store for me when I went out to ULS, and I did not know how much it would influence how I think today. ULS, to quote its mission statement; “is a college preparatory school that delivers an incomparable education driven by high standards and a unique approach to learning. Our dynamic and rigorous curriculum challenges the whole student by integrating innovative academic, leadership, athletic, artistic and service learning experience within a vibrant and joyful community.”


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When I was 16 I could have cared less about mission statements. All I cared about was chasing that girl, who by the way wised up about two weeks later and cut me loose. Reverse the numbers and at 61 I realize that they meant what they said then and they mean what they say now. I stopped by the school on a whim and came away with a profound experience.
There are a four core values that the school teaches and puts up on its walls for all to see. Interestingly the symbol of the school is a pine tree which, for those of us in Southwest Virginia, looks an awful lot like the Lonesome Pine. John Fritzke, the Assistant in the Department of Special Events and Alumni Relations, explained that the core values of “Intellectual Curiosity, Original Thinking, Personal Integrity and Character Through Service,” are the four branches of the Pine. His passion for the concepts was evident as was that of the entire staff. 


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It thinking about it, I realized that somehow being exposed to this as a young, and very impressionable, youth somehow got inculcated in my brain. As it turns out, I have pursued these four goals throughout my life, with varying degrees of success. I was also turned on to a love of the study of History and the Socratic method of thought. That mode of thinking has always gotten me in more trouble than not, but I treasure its curiosity with life and getting questions answered, not ignored.
The ability to appreciate diversity was another concept that was first taught me at ULS. Thankfully I learned that it is OK to be different. I was taught that you can be a musician, actor and a jock. Richard Faye, my mentor, opened up the world of History to me and challenged me to dive in. I haven’t come up for air yet. Mr. Davidson taught me statistics but was also the teacher who gave me Socrates as a life-long mentor in thought. Mr. Thornton tried to teach me how to be a rocket scientist in physics but had to admit that was never going to happen. And, other teachers whose names have left my brain gave me gifts that have stood me in good stead all of my life.  In short, the learning environment that I was lucky enough to fall into while chasing a girl fosters creative thinking and acceptance of difference in people as an advantage in life, and always has.


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So, why write about it 42 years later. First of all, I was treated extremely well by all the folks I met who currently work there. They truly seemed to be interested in showing me the now much larger campus and were proud of their mission and its execution. I was made proud of the learning environment I had experienced as a teen, and realized, upon thinking about it back on the road, that ULS had a profound influence on my life and whatever contributions I have made to society and the communities I have lived in. That got me thinking about education and what it can be when given the respect it deserves. I know that University Lake School is a private school populated by youngsters who live a very different life than the kids I now live with in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. Many of its students truly have advantages that our children here may never see. But they might. And, there are those from the Appalachian Mountains that have attained every bit of the success and wealth of the lake country. Unfortunately most of them had to leave which is sad. I looked up per capita spending for public school students in Virginia at it was about $10,000 per kid. ULS’s tuition, which according to John Fritzke, is about $6000 less than the per-year full tuition for a student at ULS. But the actual amount that most student families pay IS closer to the same amount because of the many scholarships the school offers. Most of the children are on scholarships of some kind, as was I 45 years ago. That has not changed even though the school, like everywhere else has suffered in this economy.
Finally, what matters to me is those four branches of the Pine. It doesn’t cost more to truly teach Intellectual Curiosity, Original Thinking, Personal Integrity or Character Through Service. I was lucky enough to fall into that kind of education. Now days it is difficult in the face of a poor economy, to remember what made us such a great nation. One thing that has always made us great is the desire to create educational opportunity. It is those four core values and a lot of hard work on the part of students, parents and teachers that still adds up to great education. I did not get a college degree until I was 42 years old so what I learned at ULS and Waukesha High, had to get me through about 23 years of adventures until I did.  I was very lucky and owe a debt of gratitude to my both old schools. Thank you. 
  

One Final Word.
We can, and have, turned out great students here in Southwest Virginia but have also let budgets, consolidation, rivalries and politics get in the way. The kids at ULS may have some advantages that we may not posses, but that doesn’t mean our kids don’t deserve the same real commitment on the part of administration, boards and parents. Our kids deserve the same opportunities and advantages as those who may have more financial support. All it takes is a return to the great years of education here. In the immortal words of Rob Schneider in The Waterboy… “You Can Do It.”


 
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    Life 
    On 
    A Twisted Trail,
    A Blog
    By H W. "Bill" Smith

    Writing is something that I have always loved doing and anyone  who knows me knows that I have more than my share of opinions on a variety of subjects. 
    My goal is to write about the history, music, culture, life and events that shape the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains where I live... and anything else that tickles my fancy. Join me on this ride down "A Twisted Trail."

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