A Few Notes on Education Including the High School History

Lowell High School has an interesting and erroneous history.  It was not formed in 1831 and it did not locate itself first on Middlesex Street.  Take out the School Committee Minutes from 1834 to 1838.  It is available in the Memorial Library Research Room.  It is my opinion, bound by fact, that the High School did not exist until 1834.   That is when the State Department of Education recognized it.  The school would come to be known as being something special.  Of the first eleven graduates, one would be a special surgeon, there would be one Governor of Massachusetts in it, and one Governor of New Hampshire.

There was a three year high school educational program in 1834 that might help to explain the mistaken date of inception as 1831.  In 1834 there was a graduation.  Where those students, which included Benjamin Butler, came from is a mystery.  It does help to explain the 1831 date though.  There was a three year program that existed and that Butler and his 10 fellow students might have been following.  However, the State Certficate for the high school did not exist until 1834.

At the time, a high school education  was “frosting on the cake.”  A college education was very attractive, but not really  heard of at the time.  Even lawyers, like Abraham Lincoln, were not required to go to college.  Lincoln had no degree.  Neither did many other lawyers.  They studied as apprentices to or under other lawyers.  It might be said that we have come a long way.

The high school would become a major educational magnet in certain circles.  It was noted by the Board that Lowell had seventeen schools requiring twenty-eight instructors.  In comparison Charlestown  had 9,400 inhabitants, whereas Lowell had 14,000 inhabitants.  Charlestown had 1,581 students to Lowell’s 2,300 students.

Lowell petitioned in early 1834 with the state to certify that their new high school would be located in the Concert Hall on Merrimack Street.  Massive work was done to the Concert Hall at the incredible price of ninety-five dollars, to make it a high school.  At one point, the School Committee was forced to admit that the “High School has been has been closed since January last for lack of funds.”  It was their goal “…to open the High School as soon as they should be able to save money enough to carry it through the year.”  The High School was closed intermittently during bad weather.  Often the closings were for a year or  so.  (John W. Graves – Secretary of the Lowell School Committee, July 23, 1834).

At the time, all you needed to become a teacher was a seventh grade education.  High school teachers had tougher requirements, but could become teachers with a less than stellar education.   They were not to require a college education.

A long, long time ago, as Don McClean says in his iconic “American Pie,” I was born to a teacher who made sure that his family was adhered to education.  My father, at the time,  was getting himself in educational trouble for writing against Joseph McCarthy’s views on Commies in the government.  It did not endear my father to his professors.  This was at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.  It was a very brave stand to take at the time.

After obtaining his Master’s Degree in Administrative Education, he became the youngest Superintendent in Iowa.  He was twenty-six years of age.  He took over the rural school in Cosgrove, Iowa.   Cosgrove was mostly a town which catered to the surrounding farms.  There were twenty-six people populating the town.  Television was a brand new invention so it did not cover a small Iowan school district.  We had a television which was basically useless, and because we were so far away from the station, I grew up without television.  It has never been my favorite thing to watch.

I learned a lot from my father.  He made special wooden toys for us, and we greatly admired him.  He even taught me how to properly clap my hands to make the loudest  noise.  He used to cup his hands to make a louder clap.  His was louder than the other men’s claps in Cosgrove.  I was a young boy there in Cosgrove, and enjoyed the idea that among the population were eight nuns and one priest.  They were part of the twenty-eight.  I was very proud of my father when he brought home a rowboat that he had built himself.  I thought it was beautiful, and it was.

Growing up was kind of difficult with the Superintendent of Schools as my father.  Every new idea that he learned at the University of Iowa doctoral program was practiced on me.  When he got his Ph.D. we had the best party I have ever been to; it was monumental.  During the party one of my friends stole a cigarette from his father.  I learned how not to smoke that  night.  One neighbor, a psychiatrist, burst into laughter as we burned ourselves trying to light up.  Fortunately I never did learn how to inhale, or smoke cigarettes.  It was one of the lessons of my young life.   It happened on the day my father became Dr. Wayne R. Peters.  It was quite an accomplishment for a man whose father had always been a blacksmith.  And, one of his sons wrote, “a damned fine one.”

I was very proud of my father.  He was neat.  He gained a reputation as a reformer.   He instituted many changes in his school district(s).  They were exciting.  Years after Cosgrove, he made a big difference near Chicago, in Harvey, Illinois.  That was a diverse community and I learned there that there were people I had nothing in common with but I had to adapt.  I still do adapt.  When Lowell got its Cambodian influx, a local hardware owner posted in his door “No Cambodians here.”  I was excited to see the Cambodians and even today they are many of my best friends.

The high school became a major winner of the downtown area.  It carried heavily in the vote on its location.  The fact is, that Lowell High School will always be at the core of education in the city.  And, its location is at the core.  That should come as no surprise to anyone.  It is the same mindset that first located the high school on Merrimack Street in the downtown.

This is an invigorating school and it will always direct the city.  It is possible for a pre-K student to start school and go on to his or her doctorate while just being in Lowell for life.  There are, of course, other reasons for living your life in Lowell.  Some people do it.  Some of us will always be blow-ins.

Lowell’s population is always fluid.  We are basically conservative, but Democratic.  There are some Republicans, but we try not to let them bother us too much.  Our major political fights are for  City Council or the School Committee.  Both are difficult to ascend to.  State Representative, State Senate, and Congressional seats are won by those who Paul Tsongas categorized as “the luckiest.”  I used to ask him how he did so well and his response was always, “I was lucky.”  That assessment is what I take from Lowell.  I will be buried here.