Orleans American High School. OHS. I graduated with the class of 1957, having arrived in Orleans in the early winter of 1954. We came back to the States on the USS United States in July of 1957.
There were essentially two OHS schools in the span of years from its opening until it closed in 1967: the old school and the new. It became the new OHS after it moved to an actual high school building. The old OHS, the only school I knew, was on the second story of an office building. The library was one room, math was another room, etc. There were outside stairs to the main entry.
We voted to choose the school song (new lyrics set to the tune of “Army Blue”), the mascot (Trojan), and the school colors (blue & white) in that academic year of 1954-55.
We had the expected curriculum of any American high school in the 1950s, including home economics where we learned to make biscuits because there were no scary slam-it-on-the-counter tubes of them in the commissary. We sewed what the teacher called “dickies” in different colors to wear in gym class so we could differentiate teams. I don’t remember what we played or where; I just remember having to make the silly things which were like bibs covering front and back. Today I am a quiltmaker, and I suppose I have those dickies to thank for that. Sex education was nonexistent, other than some embarrassed moments in that same home economics class with a blushing teacher. Funny what little bits and pieces a person remembers, isn’t it?
Mr. Johnson, our English teacher, would stop a class and demand, in a voice not to be argued with, that a gum-chewer put the offending substance in the trash can. But on the very last day of class, there was a paper-wrapped piece of pink bubble gum waiting on every desk. He often read pages and pages to us from the books and poems we were studying. Without embarrassment, he brought words to life. He has always been the teacher I remember with the most gratitude.
Basketball was the big sport, and home games were played at the gym in the caserne. Our cheerleading uniforms consisted of long-sleeved blue sweaters, white corduroy skirts (what were we thinking!) which reached our knees, and, of course, white bucks from the Sears catalog. There were a few football games with teams that did not number eleven, but any memory of football played on a field in France has faded past anything meaningful.
A band was formed in that first year. There was baton twirling that started with Dianna Vaughan, and soon there were several twirlers who were a part of pep rallies and games.
There were various clubs, like any American school at that time, science club, chess club and astronomy club. There was a school newspaper with its mimeographed legal-sized stapled pages and a yearbook staff. There were essay contests and a student council with elected officers. There were assemblies and awards. All of those ordinary things were there for us in that odd little school on the second story of an office building.
We all tried to dress and cut our hair to match the pictures in “Seventeen” magazine and the catalogs we pored over. Our favorite movies were the grand musicals of the 1950s. Ours were the days of crinolines and skirts that twirled, silk scarves tied around our necks. Boys had their hair slicked back and the sleeves of their white T-shirts rolled up. Everybody wore white bobbysocks. Those things weren’t just in “Grease.” We lived them, did them.
Our social lives, like those of today’s teenagers, were woven through with music. The beginnings of Elvis, the continued bounce and joy of rock ‘n’ roll. Any one of us who had a new record from the States, or an especially wonderful find at the PX, became an instant hero. We memorized lyrics as quickly as we could so that we could sing along and appear “cool,” and we said “holy cow” to things that surprised us. We “went steady,” evidenced by an ID bracelet engraved with a name, or a ring hanging on a chain around a neck. There were breakups and new romances — all fodder for the gossip column in the school paper. We created our own excitement, but isn’t that what teenagers of every generation do.
One of our mothers, Mrs. DeGarmo, was our best advocate. With her encouragement, after explaining to us what a homecoming game was all about, we had a homecoming dance. And a Sadie Hawkins dance. And a senior prom in the springtime. We took over the bowling alley on Saturday mornings with our leagues. Thank you, Mrs. DeGarmo.
I truly believe that the faculty of that little high school so long ago tried their very best to replicate a normal American school in order to give us all the experiences that we were missing by being overseas. It had to be a gigantic task for them, finding all the bits and pieces needed to create an American high school. Sadly, there were no regularly organized trips to the chateaus, cathedrals, and museums which were available to us at every turn. Trying so hard to mimic American teenage life for us, they missed the opportunity to educate us in the rich history and art that were our everyday existence. My senior class took a trip to London, which sounds exotic but truly was only a 45-minute plane ride. We did the usual sightseeing, watched one of Shakespeare’s plays, and fed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square — but mostly we were American teenagers behaving as such, and nobody directed us onto more meaningful paths.
This is not meant as criticism, simply commentary on a segment of time blurred through the lens of a retro spectroscope. The regrets of “if only” came later. The faculty was doing what they thought were the right things for our futures. We responded by enjoying life in Orleans, France, mercifully oblivious to what was lacking. We probably did very, very well on the standardized tests that were put in front of us. We became West Point educated generals, MDs, PhDs with expertise in physics and literature and economics, college presidents, writers, homemakers, nursers, pilots, mathematicians, editorialist, artists, baseball players, lawyers, and haute couture fashion models. Almost certainly our high school teachers saw potential in us, and they encouraged it.
I am trying very hard to not infuse these memories with sentimentality, but the truth is those were wonderful years to grow up in, and it is hard not to say that too. Maybe sentiment should be a part of history. We were good kids. My dad, Col. Henry Britt, was the CO of ORIN, the Orleans Installation, for the last couple of years we were there, and he often told my brother, Pete, and me that he was proud of all of us. There might have been some resentment by the French people of “the Americans” because of the politics of the time, but other than being told to keep our arms and heads inside the bus and not stick them out the windows, those things didn’t touch us. We were allowed to just be kids.
With no teen club, we lived in each other’s’ homes. There was a “party” almost every weekend when one family or another would roll up the rug and give us the living room. We would play 45 RPM records for a few hours and dance and talk. It was almost like the parents had a meeting and decided to do that for us — and all these years later, I think maybe that’s exactly what happened. We had no telephones. Not many of us were allowed to drive. TV was only in the French language. Armed Forces Radio was wonderful, but we wanted music and not all that talking. What kinds of mischief would we have gotten into, had we not had a place to go on Saturday nights. After all, wine was cheap, we were allowed to buy it, and the river with its bridge to temptation was only a short walk away. It was surely our parents who deserved the A+ in social studies.
Some years after I graduated and left Orleans, the school moved to its own building and took on a new personality, a new character, but that is a different story and one I cannot tell.
In those long-ago years in that far-away place, I was Sally Latitia Britt and my days were exceptional, unique. Memorable. Now I am Tish Douglas, and I live an ordinary life in Cary, NC.