No one could see where the floor began and the rubbish ended. A window down the hall shattered. and I could hear the tinkle and clatter as the last broken pieces hit the ones that had preceded them.

May 21, 1981, was already hot in the Clear Lake suburb of Houston, Texas, an astronaut/engineer-dominated middleclass community adjacent to NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. The main highway into Clear Lake, NASA Road-1, boasted a Texas-sized billboard that proclaimed: “CLEAR LAKE: A GREAT PLACE FOR A KID TO GROW UP.”

The double doors were ajar outside the Clear Creek High classroom where I had taught for two years. A dusty wind funneled down the hallway, rustling layers of torn notebooks, crumpled papers, pop bottles, bars of soap, and tattered clothing. Lockers, colorful and spotless at the beginning of the school year, now gawked from lopsided hinges, their doors covered with obscenities. The bathrooms trickled water under silent doorways.

The school bell squalled like a spoiled brat, and the empty ritual known as “final examinations” began. For it was also Exemption Day—the last day of school, when “qualifying” pupils were free, or not, to take their final exams. The policy, set out in a handbook nobody read, stated that only students who had been absent fewer than three times during the term and who were not failing any subject were exempt from the last day’s exams.

It was one o’clock, 55 minutes to Zero Hour, sandy beaches, and summer fun. A dozen or so students made their way through the nine months of learning that lay on the floor—the “kickers” (drugstore cowboys) in their Western boots, low-riding jeans and exaggerated Texas hats; the “freaks” (or drug set) decked out in hole-filled T-shirts, dirty-billed caps worn backward, and stringy long hair; and the “jocks” with their open-to-the-navel shirts and gold chains.

The loudspeaker kept droning its emergency message: “Principal to ‘B’ Building! Principal to ‘B’ Building, PLEASE!” At last the words became garbled, and the intercom crackled and died. Graduation had taken place over a week before, and grades—at least unofficially—were tallied. Exams were a farce, and more than a few students knew it. And so the Army of the Exempt, like locusts, had come, done their damage, and gone.

I counted my pupils. Six. Three straight-A Vietnamese refugees who had come to the school in the middle of the year speaking practically no English, another straight-A student who had transferred to Clear Creek High at midterm from a school in England, a youngster who had spent three weeks in the hospital, and a disabled Hispanic girl who was barely passing and had come today to make sure she did.

I took a deep breath, forced a smile, shut the door to my classroom, and began explaining the examination to the six stalwart students who had trekked through the muck to get here.

When they had settled down to work, I buried myself in the papers on my desk. A note on the bottom of one caught my eye—a word of thanks conveying best wishes for a fun-filled summer and expressing die hope that I would be the student’s teacher next year.

I felt my eyes sting. I knew I wouldn’t be back.

Unable to concentrate on paperwork, I opened the drawer containing my little stack of treasures—among them essays written by my rhetoric students in their enthusiasm for a class I had piloted, but which the administration later canceled with the excuse that “teachers can no longer be spared for challenging pursuits when so many remedial readers need our help.”

I sighed. Everything would have to be packed or tossed.

Suddenly my eyes fixed on a familiar binding. The title was Annual of the Maret School, 1959, Washington, D.C.

My old school yearbook. I must have forgotten to take it home. I had shown it to a few curious pupils who wanted to see “what Mrs. Eakman looked like when she was little.” I opened the cover and smiled, recalling how my students had hooted when they saw the white bobby socks, oxfords, sport coats and bow ties.

I flipped to my seventh-grade class picture. I used to hate this picture, I mused. I quickly found another page—a class shot of the first-graders: A Laotian boy sat next to a prim little Arab girl, Khalida, one of the Arab ambassador’s seven “little stepping stones,” as we’d called them, because he had one in nearly every grade. Khalida’s hand, like all the other little hands in the room, rested on a sea of open texts and notebooks. But her expression stole the show—huge alert eyes, head cocked to one side.

No one in school that year had spoken Arabic, so the teachers rounded up their best readers to tutor the newcomers. I had been one of them. We all worked in shifts during recess. At the end of a few short weeks, we were amazed to find our charges babbling away in English and French along with the rest of us.

How had Maret managed, I wondered, without bilingual funding, multicultural programs, and federal grants?

Behind Khalida sat a young man from India—with a name I could no longer pronounce—and in front was the French boy, Luc. All the boys wore coats and ties; all the girls, simple dresses or skirts and blouses. It never had occurred to Maret administrators to establish a dress code. Our parents had sent us to school as though every day were important.

On the next page was a shot of the student body at the annual Christmas pageant—a major event at Maret, always held in a church rented for the occasion. There we all were, looking cherubic, in our white choir robes with those enormous black bows under our chins. To my knowledge, no one ever opted out on religious grounds — or wanted to. We sang about the Christ Child, the Virgin Mary, the Christmas season, in English, in French, a capella, descant, and harmony—feats made all the more remarkable because here we were, an international school of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Catholics, Protestants, and heaven knows what else.

What made it different back then? Christmas was seen as part of the American culture, and respect for religion was a “given,” in any case. To the parents I knew as a child, whatever their native land, religious institutions represented Standards, the kind with a capital S, and Principles, the sort you built your life around. That the creeds and doctrines of our various faiths may have differed was not part of that equation. Children needed Standards, and that was that.

Maret had started out in the early 1920’s as an all-girls international school, founded by three sisters who had immigrated to the United States from France around 1910. Despite early deprivations, they had been blessed with a fine Swiss education, an experience they never forgot. The Maret sisters distinguished themselves in various careers, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Their dreams crystallized in the form of tiny Maret School, which flourished and eventually was moved to the Woodley Estate in Washington, D.C., the summer home of four presidents, where it remains to this day.

The year I turned 12, 1959, happened also to be the year Maret received its first influx of transfers from public schools. Nearly all were promptly placed one to three grade levels back, and many teachers soon questioned the wisdom of having accepted so many at once. Although nearly all were white and middle-to-upper class, there was a decided difference in their academic backgrounds and conduct.

The new transfers and their parents continually pushed for mixed, school-sponsored dances for pre-teenagers and early teens. Most of us old-timers weren’t particularly interested, until we heard we ought to be from the newcomers. The public-school girls came to class in skirts so tight they could barely walk—”hobble skirts,” we called them. Their parents not only permitted, but encouraged, unchaperoned parties, where games such as spin-the-bottle and dark rooms were considered “cute.” The newcomers passed around their red lipsticks in the girls’ bathroom and taunted us less-sophisticated old-timers.

While menstruation and brassieres had never exactly been taboo topics, they took on an obsessive quality in 1959 that hadn’t existed at Maret before. The new students did not talk about sex in terms of love and romance, the way Maret girls had. Instead, they referred to sex by the “f” word, which to us connoted something entirely different, and certainly did not induce passion. Indeed, I remembered being punished by a teacher for saying “shut up” to a classmate; the “f” and “s” words would have been unthinkable.

Peer pressure, off-color language, and sexual preoccupation, of course, were not new to America’s public schools, but they were to Maret, and both our teachers and parents let us know they were not impressed.

Like most Maret old-timers, I was simultaneously thrilled and baffled by the newcomers. We practically fawned over them because they were different, because we had seen the same faces for so many years, and because we’d been taught to—well, make “guests” feel at home. At public schools, I later discovered, all new kids were fair game for ostracism and ridicule.

Pundits today wring their hands over the rash of school violence, the shootings in Littleton, Paducah, Springfield, and Atlanta. But I noticed long ago the thread that runs through extreme demonstrations of hate by seemingly normal children: peer rejection. When did it start turning sadistic? In looking over that old school yearbook, it suddenly occurred to me that those pivotal years in the 1950’s, when early dating was legitimized and normalized through school-sponsored dances for barely pubescent adolescents, wreaked more havoc on tender egos than all the admonishments doled out by strict teachers and protective parents.

Today, the popular term for ending a youthful relationship is “dumping.” One party unceremoniously ignores the former object of his or her affections, without explanation. At a time when children are still forming concepts about compassion, “dumping” is devastating, akin to the death or disappearance of a family member. Few children of 10 to 15 are emotionally capable of handling that level of rejection. Pervasive anger and self-hate are among the more longterm destructive responses. Before the 1950’s, parents in Europe, Latin America, and the United States must have sensed somehow that it wasn’t healthy for young children to spend long periods of time together, left to their own devices. The tendency toward cliques was discouraged, and children spent more time with their parents than with each other. After-school activities, when there were any, were taken up with individual learning experiences, not team sports—ballet, horseback riding, music, or merely working in the family store.

Parents of the 1950’s came of age in an era when adults actually enjoyed the company of young children, a time when stores didn’t place signs in their windows admonishing parents to supervise their offspring or, worse, barring children altogether. Maître d’s didn’t recoil in horror at the sight of parents with youngsters in tow, and people didn’t put away their better knickknacks just because children were accompanying their parents to dinner. In my parents’ day, children were made to feel a part of adult life instead of being shuttled off to their own activities. This was both unconscious and deliberate. Our parents and teachers wanted us to be comfortable with civilized behavior, but they also were guarding against our tormenting one another.

At Maret, one teacher stood out from the others—Mlle. Anne Marie Picard. Mlle. Picard seemed to us stern, intimidating, and unapproachable. She always meant business. We actually called her just “Mam’selle”—no other designation was necessary. Everyone knew whom you meant. I used to fix my attention on what I supposed to be a wart beside her nose as I was being lectured for my manifold sins and wickedness. I have since learned that it takes roughly 25 years to turn a wart into a beauty mark.

My most vivid memory of Mam’selle was her standing in front of the class, scolding us in her thick, accented English, her profuse gray curls bobbing: “Someday you weel t’ank me for dees,” she would reiterate, wagging a chastising finger. “You weel come back to dees school when you are old and you weel say, ‘Merci, mademoiselle, merci,’ just like all dee ones before you.” It was her favorite speech.

All the kids knew what Mam’selle stood for and what to expect from her, no matter what else we may have thought about her at the time. Oddly, there was a comfort in that—even while she was fishing the crusts of our sandwich out of the garbage can and handing them back to us in the cafeteria, admonishing us not to waste food, and confiscating the purses we had gotten for Christmas, because we were “spending too much time showing off.” Mam’selle stood for Standards. She didn’t humor us or try to be our pal. She couldn’t be conned, and there was no appeal from her pronouncements.

At Maret, there was no place for phony praise of the ego-boosting kind. It was only after I started teaching in the late 1960’s that I heard patronizing comments such as, “Pretty good for no practice.” In Mam’selle’s view, you might become “pretty good” if you practiced . . . and, then again, you might not. When you were not good at something, you continued to practice. Then you would appreciate those who excelled. That was how we learned to discern a polished performance from one that was merely technically correct, how we came to tell the difference between an exceptional piece of music and less sophisticated pieces, how we eventually recognized an authentic Parisian, and how we distinguished between a Monet and a Renoir. Today, such cultural knowledge has been abandoned. Youngsters scribble graffiti on the walls, and we tell them they are wonderful artists.

Our parents never had to wonder what was going on in our heads or at school. Like my mother, who held a full-time job, many parents avoided the school bus and ferried their own children to and from school, even if it meant using public transportation. Unlike our public school counterparts, who began their days virtually without supervision, jockeying all day for popularity points beginning on the school bus, most Maret youngsters came to school hand in hand with Mother or via the family car with Father. By the middle-school years, we congregated every morning under the school portico to see who was coming next up the driveway. Although our parents probably didn’t think about it, this exercise gave our elders an unembellished view of the children with whom their offspring would be spending the day. The frequent opportunity to observe, however unconsciously, the student body when everyone was off-guard actually enabled parents to relate more fully to the lives of their youngsters and to make wiser decisions on their behalf.

Of course, the down side, at least for me at the time, was that every day at five o’clock (school ran from 9:00 A.M. until 4:30 P.M.) my mother got an unsolicited report on my behavior. Had I thrown my sandwich in the cafeteria trash can again? Failed to turn in my homework? Excused myself from study hall to giggle in the bathroom with my best friend? Worn lipstick to class? Well, it would all come out at 5:00 P.M.

Yet, such frequent communication between our parents and our teachers kept us youngsters from becoming morbidly peer-oriented, to the point of being uncomfortable around adults. The so called generation gap didn’t sprout fullblown with the emergence of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, or Betty Friedan. It emerged gradually—on the school bus; in increasingly large, noisy, and impersonal classrooms; and in the school gym, where ten-year-olds were told to select their teammates for dodgeball instead of being directed to a team by the gym teacher. It was too much socialization, not too little, that eventually produced today’s Lord of the Flies kiddie subculture, leaving young people in a semi-permanent state of adolescence.

The move toward a “child-centered curriculum,” which I’d studied in college as a prospective educator, had come full-circle by the 1980’s. Teachers dressed like their students and used teenage expressions in the classroom—which, predictably, failed to impress the kids. Textbooks had shifted away from classical themes—adult themes without the “X”-rating—to concentrate on the problems of adolescence. This meant that the social issues explored in works such as Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist were replaced with supposedly relevant fare about drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and racial prejudice. On one level, some of it might have been appropriate. But the extreme to which it was carried shut out anything that had lasting value, a moral, or a memorable line, such as “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” The newer literature, replete with vulgarisms, was hard to hold up as a model of prose. Most of it contained depressing and pointless trivia. Some stories were downright inappropriate for the classroom—like the one about a father who deliberately set his son on fire, and the short piece about a troubled youth who strangles a helpless animal. Even my students chorused, “Ugh!”

Gradually, social adjustment took the place of academics, and “coping skills” became the new focus of learning. The scheme seemed to be self-perpetuating. The less time educators devoted to fundamental skills and substantive learning, the more students looked around for challenges to fill the void. These included drugs, promiscuity, and vandalism. The situation could be remedied, of course, only by spending more time on social adjustment.

It seemed that each new crop of youngsters I saw was less able—and less disposed—than the last to read first-rate literature, even as an in-class project. They absorbed little or nothing about their cultural roots. The only allusions most high-schoolers recognized related to the bathroom, drugs, sex, or mental illness. By 1981, I noticed a new kind of segregation emerging in America: adults versus kids. Neither seemed to want the other around. Remembering the Maret School in the 50’s, I saw this as an enormous departure from earlier eras. Societal changes of that magnitude just didn’t occur naturally in a 25-year time frame.

I now realize that the mademoiselles and monsieurs at Maret in the 50’s had found the key to unlock the mystery of a child’s thinking processes, while in recent times clinical-minded Ph.D’s have somehow lost it. Even though my mademoiselles’ standards had been impossibly high, their objectives (“outcomes,” in modern parlance) had been limited and specific. They didn’t try to teach us everything from sewing a blouse to driving a car. They didn’t pry into our family affairs and try to settle the disputes. They didn’t attempt to alter our religious beliefs. They didn’t examine our budding sexual feelings.

What our teachers did give us were boundaries and benchmarks. They gave us “tough love.” They honed, chiseled, reminded, scolded, and smoothed out the rough edges. They were visible and consistent. They taught us what to expect from society and provided the guidelines that would stay with us the rest of our lives.

In 1983, I returned to Washington, D.C., with my husband after a 20-year absence. One of my first stops was my alma mater. I knew from old friends that the mademoiselles, mesdames, and monsieurs we knew were gone, along with the international flavor of the school. Like its counterparts nationwide, the price tag had become astronomical as the demand for what such schools offered continued to outstrip the supply. For all these reasons, I didn’t expect my return to be such a sentimental journey.

Ironically, my visit fell on May 21, exactly three years to the day after I left Clear Creek High School and the teaching profession forever. After touring the Maret campus on Cathedral Avenue, I hailed a taxi to “T” Street, where I found myself knocking nervously at the door of a garden- wreathed brick home with planter boxes in the windows. I nervously rehearsed what I was going to say, wondered whether I would sound “polished,” and worried that perhaps I wouldn’t be welcome, considering all the trouble I’d been.

But when I saw the now-white curls atop her head, the familiar beauty mark and half-smile, the library shelves covered with Mother’s Day cards from all the children she’d never had—dozens of old students like me—I forgot my chagrin, threw my arms around her, and croaked, “Merci, Mam’selle. Merci beaucoup.”