Back at Burncoat High School, my alma mater

By Rosalie Tirella

A few weeks ago I was back at my old high school – Burncoat Senior High on Burncoat Street. I was there for a few hours sorta on business but the rush of memories (once on the grounds) overwhelmed me. I hadn’t stepped foot in my alma mater since graduating in 1979. The old Burnocat High (recenlty built when I attended classes there) made me feel great about the Worcester I grew up in. The Burncoat High of 2012 wasn’t so reassuring.

Where to begin? The Burncoat Senior High of the late 1970s – the one in which I was an all honors and AP student, along with ton of other Worcester kids – was a place to be proud of. It was (still is!) on the wealthier side of town. When I attended, I was a poor kid living in Green Island. I wasn’t zoned to attend Burncoat, but my mom got special permission from the city to have me attend there (I think I was supposed to go to Doherty) because my Aunt “Mary” (and her family) lived a few streets away from my new high school. My Aunt Mary, whose husband my Uncle Mark was an elementary school principal in a nearby town, was a stay at home mom who would always be there in case of emergency. During the day my mom was stuck across town on Millbury Street working at a local dry cleaners. She worked from sun up to sun down it seemed, and though she was always home for us kids and did the cooking and all the other great mom stuff, during school days she couldn’t really get away from her job (no beneefits, sick days, etc).

Aunt Mary’s two boys – my cousins – atttended Burncoat and loved it. They wanted me – a smart kid – to make BHS my high school too. I would even have some of the teachers my cousins had had. My Uncle Mark had complete faith in Burncoat – he planned on having his two boys become doctors. He felt they would get the education they needed to get into the great pre-med program at Holy Cross. Well, all went according to plan: my cousins graduated from Burnocoat, got into Holy Cross, then med school and today … . Well, today, they are very wealthy doctors! Second generation Polish Americans who achieved the American dream, thanks to the WPS and Burncoat High.

In the 1960s and 1970s Burncoat was home base for the Irish Catholic middle class of the city. The school embodied honor, hard work, friendship and caring. The teachers were good to great. I had lovely (for th emost part Irish-American) gal pals (though my best friend was of French descent)! To this day I think back and marvel: In all the three years that I hung out with my smart, over achieving girlfriends, they never ever mentioned the fact or alluded to the fact that I was from Green Island (poor) and they were from places like Mary Ann Drive or King Phillips Road (middle class). They never made me feel less of a person because I lived in a three decker flat and they lived in comfy homes. In fact, I think, they were extra nice to me. They called me smart. they wanted to see my achieve. I visited their homes – got to know their parents and their si blings. And guess what? I loved them so much (and my mom was such a great mom) that they would hang out at my house, chat with my mom on a Saturday, drive across town in their used cars to pick me up on old lafayette Street so we could go to “Spider gates” cemetary, the movies or even Nantasket Beach together. Their parents were doing something right.

In a way, we were raised the same way: by strict but loving Catholic parents. Parehnts who took no crap. Parents who did not indulge their kids and let them run the household – the way tons of parents do today. We knew: We were kids and that made us second class adults compared to our parents and teachers and other adults in the community. These adults had wisdom, experience – jobs. They were running things – we needed to get out of their way. Study hard, have fun with each other – be kids. NO BS allowed.

Burncoat High back then was a gorgeous school. It is/was what is known as a “campus” high school – a string of buildings – all one level. You would walk outside to get to another building. I loved going out and in all kinds of weather to get to class! The teachers? Well, they were serious and capable. We were in honors classes – Worcester’s future, Worcester’s college applicants. We used text books (boring), we took a ton of tests, we had a ton of homework. We had a few clubs, we had great field trips to Washington DC curtesy of the great Virginia Ryan, everyone’s favorite bio teacher (except me – I was a Mr. LaBelle fan)

I was part of that world wonderful world. I graduated feeling like the world was mine … .

A few days ago, i went back to BHS on business. What I saw depressed me: cracked driveway, busted up walk ways, unpainted speed bumps, ugly side netrances where the brown paint was peeling. The building looked faded. I felt like I was walking into a ghetto school!

What happened, i asked the secretary?

Age, she said.

I will get folks to do the painting of the speed bumps I said.

She said, no! We tried that several times and the union always put the kibosh on our volunteer efforts. And never ever did the work.

Everything looked so dingy (outdoors). In doors it was a bit better. The lockers were new and I was told new bathrooms for the students were installed.

Still, things had changed.

The secretary told me: 50 percent of BHS students are poor – eligible for the federal governtment’s free lunch program. Thirty percent of the BHS students were labeled “special needs.”

I said: This wasn’t the way it was when I was 16 and a student here.

She said: Most of the kids in the neighborhood go to charter, catholic or other private schools. BHS is now filled with poorer kids … .

I felt sad. I wanted the best for these new students. I hope we as a city can nurture the new future. I so want the Burncoat Senior High School of 2012 to be the high school I so loved years ago – and still do!

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