Thursday, April 29, 2010

Where I Went to High School: Poolesville

I did not ever live in Poolesville, MD, but I consider it more my hometown than my real one.

Truth is, that's a somewhat disingenuous thing to say, as I will describe in a moment. It's a little bit appropriate-y. I would never say I'm from Poolesville; I'm from Gaithersburg. But since Gaithersburg is amongst the most boring and unexceptional of all DC suburbs, it has had little influence on me, unlike Poolesville. My wooded neighborhood within Gaithersburg, that has a place in my psyche, with my childhood romps and secretive bonfires in the forest; but not so much Gaithersburg itself. Poolesville, however, is a place with far more character, maybe too much for its own good, and at the same time not enough character whatsoever. It managed to produce a renaissance during the four years I was there, and at the same time it remains a perpetual cul-de-sac for many unhappy souls.

I went to Poolesville High School because it has a magnet program, the Global Ecology Studies Program. I, like everyone else on the planet, was unhappy in middle school, but on getting accepted to a couple magnet high schools I had the opportunity to start over. I chose Poolesville because my best friend at the time would go there too. (We would cease to be particularly close by sophomore year.)

PHS (yes, I'm another Gentleman who went to a PHS) had about 600 students. Each grade of 150 had about 50 of those students in the Global program; of those 50, about 40 were from out of town, and the rest were Poolesville native. (Since I left, Poolesville has gained additional magnet programs.) PHS' attendance net covers the entirety of northwestern Montgomery County. For those who don't know, Montgomery is one of the richest and best educated counties in the nation. The northwestern third of the diamond-shaped area, west of the major highway that is 270 (270 cuts through Gaithersburg) is farmland. When you head west from 270, through that half of Gaithersburg, you quickly leave the DC suburbs that are so intimately connected with the city in character, and so similar to the other Eastern Seaboard suburbs and mini-cities that stretch from DC all the way to Boston. Poolesville is practically in another region, the same way that Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore are. Civil War manuevers are memorialized in the town.

Poolesville's population is around 5000. There are some hundreds or perhaps thousands more people scattered throughout the wide countryside that comprises the school's attendance net. Some of them live in little tiny townships like Barnesville, which consists of a stop sign, a couple churches, and two craft stores; Barnesvillians have to drive a good 20 minutes to get to a grocery store. Poolesville has a grocery store, and a McDonald's, and in the years since I graduated it's gotten a CVS and a Mexican restaurant that if I remember correctly is called Mexican Cafe.

The people that live in and around Poolesville are that strange mix so peculiar to border zones. It's got some wealthy, middle-class people who raise straight-A, clean-cut students, many of whom end up one of those locals in the magnet programs; they're the ones who wanted even more privacy and space than could be afforded in regular suburbs like Gaithersburg, and don't mind a 45-minute rush hour drive to the Metro. It's got hippies and artists; the town has two frame shops, and just to the south there's a really cool Buddhist temple. And it's got rednecks, many of whom are proud to be so. There are many, many horses and young women who love riding them. I went to school with one girl who proudly claimed redneck status (although you probably wouldn't believe her), rode horses, and was at one time a model.

In plenty of ways, the students of PHS that me and my 40 fellow interloping Global students from way out East went to school with from 1998-2002 were not that different than those of any white-bread suburb. (Non-white population of the school: approximately 30, I'd guess. By contrast, the high school I would've attended if I hadn't gone to the magnet was probably minority white. I didn't know this when I chose the school, and I doubt I cared much about race as a shy 14-year old anyways. Disclaimer over.) I'm sure that they're even less different nowadays, what with that newfangled Internet thing and its increased influence.

But in many other ways, Poolesville, in its 20-minute-drive isolation and its everything-closes-at-9pm nothing-to-entertain-a-teenager emptiness, is a very special place. Getting out of Poolesville is hard for many of the kids, at least many of the ones who aren't living in the big houses in the new neighborhoods. If your parents can't afford to give you a car at 16, and you live in Poolesville, or, worse, 20 minutes outside of Poolesville, you may have a rather tough time of it as a teenager. I had a car, and I didn't live there, of course; that's why it was disngenuous to say I think of it as a home, because I was only a tourist, and still am in some ways when I still, regularly, visit.

Drugs in Poolesville are so accepted and common it doesn't register as any sort of scandal or epidemic. I've never heard a word of the town elders calling for crackdowns and only on occasion have I heard of a meth lab getting busted. I have heard of a drug-addled friend-of-a-friend who was raped by some guys in the woods during high school, or maybe that was a rumor; he later became the sort of guy who if he showed up at his friends' houses, they had to very firmly and nervously turn him away, because he'd rob them blind for drug money if he was allowed in.

Certainly drugs are pretty standard nationwide; but the unique thing about Poolesville (or, about Poolesville and thousands of towns like it) is that, being such an isolated little cradle, it doesn't produce drug addicts who spiral down into serious shit like in a city (although some do wander far enough astray they end up in prison or rehab); it mostly just produces dead-ends. Even kids who don't use drugs in Poolesville can get stuck in an endless cycle of not having money for a car, not leaving town for weeks on end, working at the pizza parlor or maybe taking the twice-a-day bus to work the Starbucks in Gaithersburg, and just... staying there. If there's drugs involved, they blow their money on them, never getting in serious legal or health trouble. Poolesville isn't hell for these kids; it's limbo.

Funny how a 20-minute removal from the rest of society can be sufficient to trap people. Even the ones who regularly travel to Gaithersburg or College Park to visit people seem to stay trapped and unhappy and depressed if their home base is Poolesville.

I mentioned a renaissance earlier, didn't I?

When I got to PHS in 1998, so did a new teacher, an art teacher named Walter Bartman III; the prior to Walt Bartmans were also artists and art teachers. Mr. Bartman isn't a modernist or progressive artist; he believes in artmaking for its own sake, and in the act of creating; appraise his work for yourself here: Whether or not you are a fan of his creamy style, I can assure you he was an excellent teacher. He emphasized creation and practice. Before his arrival - and after he left, in 2002, the same year I graduated - the art program at PHS was, like so many stereotypical ones, focused on making this random pot for Project Number One and now drawing a picture in Pastels for Project Number Two. But Bartman gave the students serious freedom; if you produced artwork, he simply let you work. He helped spark a little renaissance in art at PHS. Two of his students, kids in my year, got Presidential-level awards. Several of my friends, under his influence, went to art school, some on scholarships, and many are still doing art.

Concurrently with the visual arts renaissance came a smaller, outside one, that perhaps only a small percentage of the school actually experienced. I think of it as the four-year punk renaissance. A little too late as far as the larger trend-following world was probably concerned, and definitely too early for the punk-descended emo scene, punk came to Poolesville largely thanks to the efforts of my friend Jenny, the handed-down influence of some older students, and the musical stylings of Poolesville's very own frequently horrible but enthusiastically rebellious punk band, Poindexter (chorus of their hit song: "GO! YOUTH! GO! GO YOUTH GO YEAH"). Poindexter operated in a very Poolesville-specific place, mixed of actual anger and ennui, intellectual appreciation for the DIY punk ethic, and a kind of ironic irony. When shouting along to "Go Youth," we weren't being strictly serious, but we weren't being ironic in the way modern hipsters are; it was sort of like we were being ironically defiant in how serious we were being.

Analysis aside, the punk scene - the smaller local one within Poolesville, and the larger suburban-Maryland continuum that Poolesville punks became attached to - was all about community, of course. Jenny threw parties at her house, and punk bands from Sterling, VA and West Virginia and Frederick came and played. We broke a china cabinet, so the next party CAUTION tape was strung everywhere; and if you're completely unfamiliar with punk, of course whenever someone fell moshing they were picked right up. For these Poolesville kids trapped out in Poolesville, it was everything they needed, along with Bartman's artistic encouragement. There was, of course, significant crossover; Jenny, the punk-party thrower, was also the number one artist. Punk and art provided many kids a rebellious outlet, a sense of greater purpose (punk shows led to protests against the war), a feeling of being part of something beyond the small town. Poolesville students became political anarchists and straight edgers who refused drugs.

Of course, most of that didn't last; the majority of the millenial PHS punks left the music, the anarchism, the straight edge, and some of them even the artmaking behind. But I don't think that's really important. I'm trying extremely hard not to wax nostalgic (calling it a renaissance probably gives me away, though), but I do believe these alternative influences created a very curious and original social cocoon for those four years. As far as I'm aware, after Bartman, Jenny, and the kids from Poindexter all moved on, the school ceased to have that pocket society which could nurture that third of its population. The serious redneck-y types, they never went for it, and the serious suburban-well-off straight-A types, they never went for it either, but probably neither group really needed it; it was the artsy kids who needed a home within their hometown, a place to recognize that they fit a paradigm of (youthful, burgeoning) free thought and (youthful, burgeoning) political awareness and (youthful, burgeoning) art and community. I'm not sure if PHS, nowadays, has that. Heck, I'm not even sure, when I try and cut through the nostalgia, just how much the art-punk scene helped in the long run (as I check Facebook to find out whether that one fellow punk made it out of rehab or not); but for lack of knowledge of anything else, and for the influence it had on me, that community-within-a-small town is where I consider myself to have gone to high school.


B.Graham said...

art will save the world. of that i am sure.

Agent Double O 6 said...

I just got accepted into Poolesville Global Ecology and into Science, Math and Computer Sciece.
I was googling poolesville high school and i came on to your blog.
anyway, Did you like the school?
How were the teachers? What was the curriculum?
It most likely has changed but still it would be nice to learn about the school before i go to the meeting.
I would rather do Global but my parents want me to go into smcs.
What do you think?
please email me at

(Im going into ninth grade if you couldnt tell)

Aniruddha said...

Nice article. Last week my son got admission into the PHS Global Ecology and Science/Math programs and we are trying to decide which program he should join. I came across your article while searching for information on Google. Given a chance which program ( Global Ecology or Science / SMACS) would you join? We are talking to students who currently attend these programs but I would like to hear it from someone like you who has gone through the program. If possible, can you list the pros and cons of these programs? Would really appreciate your response. My email address is anisathe AT hotmail DOT com.