Granite State of Mind, #110: Exeter AREA Junior High School, Exeter
With the sad news yesterday of the passing of Mr. Meehan, this seems an appropriate time to reflect on the school that only knew two principals in its thirty-year history. The doors of the junior high (a true junior high, not a middle school, with only classes 7 and 8 in attendance) on Linden Street opened in 1967. Frank Kozacka was the principal for the first ten years, followed for the next two decades by Mr. Thomas Meehan. In an age when school administrators in town seem to last as long as snowballs in July, I look back with some astonishment that each of the three schools I attended only had one principal throughout my time there: Mr. Michaud for six years at Stratham Memorial, Mr. Meehan for two at EAJHS, and Mr. Borkowski for four years at Exeter High.
I can't say I knew Mr. Meehan well - junior high is a time when many youngsters find themselves in need of disciplinary attention, and I managed to largely stay out of his office on that score, less from any inherent purity of purpose than from a lack of adventurous spirit. I was a dorky kid (shocking, I know), more interested in books and grades than in testing the boundaries of parental or administrative patience. Junior high can be a brutal experience for many, as childhood stumbles and gropes into adolescence, cute kids becoming gawky, pimply, smelly teenagers with mouths smarter than their minds, bubbling vats of hormones and confusion. The social spaces can be dangerous or even impossible to navigate, full of cliques and self-preserving mean-spiritedness and the scary, sudden awareness of sexuality. It's a wonder anyone survives, though I suspect it's harder now that everything is photographed and shared in real time. I shudder to think of a comprehensive digital archive of 1988. To his credit, Mr. Meehan managed all of this turbulence with calm competence and gentle authority, aided in part by his assistant principal, the intimidating, no-nonsense McGonagallesque Joan Eustis.
The school itself was not a place for the architectural awards show, a utilitarian late-60s warehouse for juvenile sometime-students. Across the street from a cemetery, the school could sometimes feel like a prison camp, the cafeteria full of the full-throated guidance of exasperated staff and the locker rooms full of terrified students experiencing their first group showers. As if it weren't tough enough finding your way from class to locker to class, let's introduce the element of hurried nudity. Sigh.
As bewildering as it could be, I have fond memories of the old, torn-down place, surely burnished by nostalgia more than accurate recollection. I started playing football in eighth grade (the Exeter Seahawks!), got to hang out with Mr. Bethel and the jumpin' band, and even managed to learn a few things from Flo Condran in history, Donna Cronin in math, and a host of other underpaid teachers. Most importantly, I met some people who would become and remain my dearest friends (Nate Oxnard, with whom I began a five-year locker-sharing arrangement; Jason Oechsle and Ken Winchenbach Walden, and many, many more). This is where Stratham and Brentwood and East Kingston and Newfields and Kensington joined Exeter for the first time in the great smelting pool, where our horizons, often haltingly, expanded.