I have always been a Little Panther. Because my father was a NUHS football coach and math teacher, my family began taking me to football games, concerts and proms dressed in orange and black apparel before I could walk. There is, in fact, no building in which I spent more time in my life than MPLS. From my first day of preschool with Dr. Kirkland until graduation I spent every week at the school and clocked extra hours on weekends and summers while my father corrected papers or watched hours of film reel from the previous Friday night's football game. My sister and I "played school" in the math classrooms, or if it was summer, we took turns hiding in the empty lockers waiting to be discovered. For years Price Lab was not only my school but my playground.
Throughout the history of MPLS, the School gave to its students – through its outstanding faculty, innovative pedagogy and myriad extracurricular opportunities – and we gave back to the school. One beautiful aspect of MPLS was that it asked you to create and to become. And we did. We were yearbook editors, flutists, linebackers, sopranos, sprinters, dual-enrolled university students, speechwriters, sound engineers, cheerleaders, and poets.
It wasn't uncommon that the first chair violinist moonlighted as a magic-wristed three-point shooter for the basketball team. MPLS's unspoken commandment seemed to be "Thou Shalt Not be Pigeonholed." The fiercely entrenched American high school cliques depicted in John Hughes movies, for example, didn't seem to exist at NU High. Or if they did, you could pledge membership to multiple groups. In hindsight, this was a real gift. MPLS students could try on many hats to see where their talents lay before specializing in college. And often this exposure to life's many options came at a very young age.
When I was in 5th grade, Les Hale – Chair of the Music Department, Choral Director and head of the Les Hale Chorale for years - tried out primary school students for high-school productions. I was barely able to see over the piano but he was already breeding young talent for the big-scale plays he undertook with Ken Butzier. During private lessons he disclosed the first building blocks to "divahood" – war hooping – and played me arias. "Do you like this?" he asked at a time when my musical sensibilities didn't range far beyond Debbie Gibson. It's in few small Iowa schools that kids are exposed to Maria Callas at age 10 and asked to imitate her. The Hale / Butzier duo brought big city glamour and prestige to a school with a graduating class size of 60.
It was precisely this small class size and low teacher/student ratio that allowed us to get to know some of the best teachers the state had to offer, providing us with strong mentorship. Among the many NU High teachers that students looked up to was Lowell Hoeft, who many would claim has contributed significantly to increasing American emigration to France over the past two decades. A French grammar fanatic able to instill just enough fear in us to never neglect French homework, he managed to churn out classes of Francophiles who ultimately ended up studying in France or living there (myself included), or at least making us dream of doing so.
To simply say I attended Malcolm Price Laboratory School doesn't sum up the way it has profoundly impacted my life thus far and the visceral loyalty I feel toward it. I've attended and worked for high schools and universities since then, without feeling a fraction of the devotion, belongingness, and community that I feel towards MPLS.
I realized my degree of loyalty to the School in the summer between 10th and 11th grade. I remember watching helplessly as our gym, home of countless homecoming rallies, basketball and track workouts and PE classes, went up in flames. Several of us stood on 19th street watching the flames progressively envelop more and more of the gym until it was a charred gaping hole. In keeping with NU spirit, though, we all rallied and adapted to life without a gym for two years. We woke up at 5 o'clock to practice basketball on the Hill (it was 1994, the first year for girls 5-on-5) or ran laps inside the school, up and down the Social Studies hallways. The gym was gone but the school still stood. And we were still proud Panthers.
I stopped by MPLS last summer on a quick trip back to Iowa. While most of the doors were locked, I managed to get in near the new gym and found that the women's locker room was open. I slipped in. Nothing much had changed over the past 30 years. There were the same wooden hooks on which thousands of elementary kids had hung their clothes over the years before going swimming. It still smelled of chlorine and dampness. I remembered the number of times I'd put on my NUHS uniform in this room, surrounded by teammates, laughing and joking before running out single file to the sounds of Dr. Upham's pep band playing Land of a Thousand Dances.
I returned back outside under the bright August sun, turned my back to the school and walked away. Yet I couldn't shake off a sudden feeling of sadness and foreboding. It was the sadness that comes from knowing that you had been part of something really great that is gone.