Saturday, June 22

What I know about high school from reading what they’re writing today | Commentary

I was always the last one picked for teams in high school. I didn’t go on a date until the last month of my senior year. I was chess champion of my ninth-grade class. My favorite merit badge in Boy Scouts was for coin collecting. I made “Star Trek” spacecraft models for fun in my room at home after school. I can still hear my mom calling from somewhere in the house, “Mark, please, get out of your room!

I could go on. I haven’t even mentioned the cream-colored leisure suit with bell bottoms I wore to my National Honor Society yearbook photo shoot. (Did I mention my dating status?)

What could I know about what it’s like to be in high school today when I didn’t know much about what it was like when I was in high school? I ask because I recently judged the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s high school column and commentary writing contest for students in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Maybe because, in addition to my early interests in coin collecting, chess and “Star Trek,” I was also on the staff of the school newspaper. Barely. (I was last to be picked for that, too.) Maybe because I’m still on the staff of a newspaper. (Barely).

“Ecology-Minded Person Speaks Up About Garbage on School Campus” was the headline on the first column I ever wrote, for The Madison Drumbeat on March 8, 1973. Just did the math — never my strongest subject, despite the chess trophy — approximately 51 graduating classes ago.

I was on a tear to change the world back then. As long as I didn’t have to leave my room.

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“I think a lot of things could be done to improve the eyesore of trash around school,” I wrote in my first column, sorely tempting retaliation from the trash-tossing, unecological-minded bullies who regarded collecting coins, playing chess and making plastic “Star Trek” models alone in one’s room as uncool or even “nerdy.” (Imagine.)

“I have seen nice empty trash cans all over the school with piles of trash arrayed around it displaying the sheer ignorance of some people,” I wrote.

Yeah, some people. Take that!

Even now, more than 51 years later, I can almost hear the sheerly ignorant, trash-tossing people on campus warning, “We’re gonna get YOU after class for writing THAT!” I would look pretty funny with that chess trophy stuffed down the back of my pants.

But my school was a trash heap — and somebody had to say it. Even if it meant taking a stand against some people who littered. Even if it meant hiding in my room for the rest of my school life after the column was published. Which was pretty much my school life anyway. Just ask my mom.


Mark Gauert’s first column, published in The Madison Drumbeat on March 8, 1973. (Mark Gauert/Courtesy)

Surely high school kids today would be writing about different things than I was 50 years ago, I thought as I started judging this year’s entries. And, sure enough, not one among the dozens of entries from 12 Broward and Palm Beach county schools concerned the issue of garbage on campus. Which, naturally, I assumed was because I had solved that problem in 1973. (You’re welcome, kids!)

This year’s high school columnists and commentators were writing about weightier issues such as “The Social Media Effects on Teen Girls” and “Rethinking the Future of Standardized Testing’’ and “Compromised Student Safety” — the latter about an uptick in hate crimes here and abroad.

“Standing up against individual instances of bigoted and hateful behavior whenever it is seen, no matter how small, is yet another thing individuals can do to combat such behavior,” wrote the editorial staff of the Eagle Eye News at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.

I was proud of them. Of their bravery. Somebody had to say that. No garbage on the school campus here.

“This thoughtful, well-researched and engaging editorial effectively connects the lives of students with the larger world — and makes clear how events far from home matter to the future,” I wrote in my judge’s comments, awarding first place to the Eagle Eye News.


Pines Charter adviser Faren Fagen with The CHAT award-winning journalistsDaniel Morrison andJaneyliz Baez. (Faren Fagen/Courtesy)

A close second-place award went to Daniel Morrison, pictured above, and Kara Warren of Pembroke Pines Charter High School, pictured below, for “Rethinking the Future of Standardized Testing: the Digital SAT.”


Kara Warren (Courtesy)

Natalia Vasquez and Savannah Ghibaudy, from Spanish River High in Boca Raton, took third for their charming “Movies vs. Books” faceoff, in which Savannah wrote, “It’s crucial that we always remember to appreciate what literature has brought to us as a society and aim to keep the art alive!”

I was proud of them — all of them — again. I wished I’d written that. Me and my 18-year-old, leisure-suit-with-bell-bottoms wearing self.

What do I know about what it’s like to be in high school today?

Only that they’re still trying to make the world a better place, somebody’s still saying it, and the art of commentary and column writing is alive.

Mark Gauert is the editor of City & Shore magazine, which is published by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached at






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