Acclaimed novelist John Steinbeck famously said: “You can’t go home again, because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”
I might have believed that as I turned off 63rd onto Dunham Road, and Downers Grove South came into view. But after two days back at my old high school, being inducted into its Distinguished Alumni Wall of Fame, I no longer do.
I hadn’t returned to DGS since 1981, eschewing class reunions because, well, just because.
I hadn’t any interest in looking back until last year, after writing my mom’s memoir sparked my own curiosity about my back story. So I’d attended my first reunion — 30-year — last fall at my grad school. It was … interesting. Still, I added to my to-do list the 35th-year reunion at my undergrad college.
Beyond that, though, a DGS reunion never entered my mind. My high school clique are my friends to this day. So reliving those angst-filled, insecure years of trying to find your place — in school, community, family, the world? No, thank you.
The letter from Jennifer Martinez, my high school’s student activities director, changed all of that: I’d been nominated for the Wall of Fame and voted by the Distinguished Alumni Committee into the third class of honorees whose likeness and bio would be engraved on a plaque displayed in the front foyer for posterity.
It got me contemplating more fully who I was at DGS and who I’d become, and it all came back.
I remembered. And I started digging through my parents’ papers, the stack gathered and gone through in writing the book. And there it was, a frayed cutout from the defunct Woodridge Progress newspaper: my father’s letter to the editor after incidents of racism in Woodridge.
The small town bordering Downers Grove was just beginning to see black families in the late ’70s. In 1977, my family — relocated from the Near South Side — was the first to move to our block. We were welcomed with bricks thrown through the window and “Go back (N-word)” spray-painted on our garage.
When we enrolled at DGS, there were fewer than 100 minority students out of nearly 3,000. In the courtyard where teens gathered in the morning, at lunch and after school, every high school group had its self-designated area — the jocks, the “burnouts,” the cool kids, the not-so-cool kids, punk rockers in all-black goth. And the black kids.
Black kids all knew each other and stayed together, outside or in the lunchroom. I had lots of white acquaintances but only one white real friend. After my first visit to her home, she informed me her parents didn’t want a black kid in their home. We stayed friends. My late father treated her like one of his own, as he did with all our friends. She thought he was great. I thought he was strict.
As the memories came flooding back, I realized growing up in Woodridge and Downers Grove during that racially turbulent period when more minorities were moving to the suburbs in search of better housing and schools — triggering ugly racial incidents — made me who I am today.
DGS was where I learned to find my place, no matter how out of place I felt. And that you mustn’t squander blessings — in this case stellar college prep education requiring neither tuition nor selective enrollment.
Understanding what DGS had meant spiked the excitement meter. The school had created its Wall of Fame in 2014 to mark its 50th anniversary, inducting some five alum biennially. As Principal Ed Schwartz bade me to lift the veil from my plaque, I felt faint. At the banquet following the ceremony, I, of course, dedicated the honor to my 91-year-old mother, Angelina Ihejirika.
The next day, as I addressed back-to-back assemblies of journalism, English, history and social studies classes in the auditorium, I shared my experiences growing up there and how exciting it was to walk these halls and see such diversity: the student population now 59 percent white, 19 percent Hispanic, 11 percent black and 7 percent Asian.
As I left DGS after riding with the four other inductees on the Wall of Fame float in the homecoming parade, I thought of Steinbeck’s quote. Library Department Chair Kim Pakowski, a member of the Distinguished Alumni Committee, had written to me leading up to the weekend, sharing that she’s also an alum, with two teens at the school, and adding: “DGS is my home.”
I’m of the mind now to agree with her. That plaque of my likeness in the front foyer seems evidence you certainly can go home again, unpack those mothballed memories and be filled with wonder at history’s ebb and flow.