Freshmen Navigate Way Through Orientation

By MOLLY HITCHINGS

Wednesday, Sept. 3: Freshman Orientation Day at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. It is gray and oppressive outside, the dark sky a harbinger of later months, when yellow buses will gather the Island's teenagers from street corners and the ends of dirt roads before sun-up.

Last week, weather like this would have been a tragedy. But this morning, it's a comfort to the ninth graders: whatever their fate within these walls, no one is missing a beach day.

Inside the school building, the freshmen are on the move. After a presentation by upperclassmen and administrators, the new arrivals find their way through the day, schedules in hand, spending ten minutes with each of their teachers.

"It's a tough place to navigate," says Doug Herr, assistant principal. "But they all get it pretty quick."

Bright murals on the walls serve as landmarks, along with displays of art by former students. But most of the bulletin boards are still blank, awaiting the fruits of another year's labor. To freshmen who didn't absorb the layout of the building during previous visits, and that certainly appears to be most of them, this is still a bewildering labyrinth of peril and promise.

"This map is useless," moans one kid.

"There definitely is no Room 300," another declares. "It goes from 219 to 305, I swear."

At the entrance to the athletic wing, teacher and coach Anne Lemenager is cheerful, at least in part because she knows where everything is. "I love this. After 23 years, it's still a blast," she says, herding students downstream. "I just want to get them acclimated so they'll have a sense of security tomorrow, when there are three times as many kids here."

"I tell them it's a new ball game," says Gene Mahoney, English teacher. "If they don't pass, they don't go forward. It's not the questions that are important, it's the answers," he adds cryptically.

Every ten minutes the doors open, and shell-shocked students fill the hallways with noise and color. All they have to guide them is a room number and a teacher's name, and most of them are too busy to stop and talk. The few who pause to answer questions do so with a tortured expression, straining like leashed animals toward their next destination.

Anna, a pretty cheerleader, doesn't mind lingering for a minute or five. Did she have trouble choosing what to wear on her first day? "I just sort of came" to school, she says. This is a trend which holds steady throughout the morning: no one in the freshman class reports giving any thought whatsoever to his or her appearance today.

Some students are stalled by other, inevitable concerns. "I don't know how to open my locker," says Marissa, grappling with her combination lock.

A small group waits outside a darkened classroom for a teacher who hasn't arrived. Any dreams or omens on this auspicious day? Not a one, say the waiting students. Michael announces, "Today is just about getting lost."

Cole is on the soccer team, but missed hell week because he was sick. "I looked at the warm-up schedule, and it didn't seem that bad," he says, admitting that might be because running laps doesn't burn on paper the way it does on the field. Still, he adds, "I was bummed to miss it."

A moment later, someone consults his map again: "Wait a second. This isn't even the right room." They strike off in a pack.

In one of the high-ceilinged art rooms, kids sit on stools at long tables, listening to teacher Janice Frame describe the plan. "You'll be with me for the first six weeks, drawing and painting. We're going back to basics here: what is a line? How do you care for a line?"

The freshmen listen, rapt. From the hallways, it's hard to tell which classrooms are occupied. This is probably the quietest the class of 2007 will ever be. No fascinating lesson or standardized test will subdue them the way being new does.

Orientation day is when freshmen really pay attention, and teachers know it. "They're very nice and quite mannerly on the first day," says English department head Keith Dodge, who has a freshman homeroom this year. "We're just talking and talking at them today. I took fifteen minutes with my kids this morning to ask them about themselves, just to break things up a little."

In the cafeteria, Kevin Carr and the other vocational teachers address a crew of students entering the introductory vocational program. This year, they'll sample auto mechanics, construction, horticulture and culinary programs before narrowing their focus.

The culinary program is geared toward creating cooks for life. "How many of you like to eat?" asks Enikö DeLisle. "There are so many opportunities in this field, here and elsewhere. Even if you don't become a chef, you'll always be a great cook."

Freshman orientation doesn't necessarily veer so far into the future. These kids started hearing about high school in earnest last year, when eighth grade classes were ushered briefly through the halls. Back then, this must have seemed like a field trip to Felix Neck or to the police station: nice place to visit, might not want to live there. They got a look at the gaping parking lots, the cavernous performing arts center and the airy cafeteria.

Then, last spring, they chose their high school classes. "It's weird for them to even think about high school at that point," says John Fiorito, freshman guidance counselor, whose position was created five years ago to meet the different needs of the younger students.

Three guys from Oak Bluffs explain that having siblings at the high school definitely makes things smoother. "It's gonna be better than elementary school, because it's so much bigger," says Matt.

He and his buddies, Max and D.J., claim to have cracked the code, signing up for classes that interest them. Max is taking a lot of math, and Matt hopes to enter the horticulture program like his older brother.

A few young people are born with an inner compass, but most of these kids will likely shed aspirations as quickly as they can pick up new ones. What happens if last April's budding artist has lost his feel for the paint brush? "We try to be flexible," Mr. Fiorito explains. "They get two weeks at the beginning of the semester to switch out of their electives, and in their main subjects they can move to a different level any time. Teachers are really open to that here."

Seasoned veterans of the student body help the new kids find their way in more ways than one. Stuart Bangs and Duncan Macmullen, seniors and officers in the student government, address the incoming freshmen at the assembly. "We tell them to get involved," says Stuart. "Make the most of your time here, because it's gonna fly. And be wary of the cafeteria food. I'm serious."

After their official duties, the two young men are happy to escort Claudia, a Peruvian exchange student, around and around the building.

By midday, the clouds are beginning to break, and the day to lighten. "Today the kids are being bombarded with facts and rules," admits Mr. Dodge, "but they all get to go home at noon."

One more afternoon of freedom, then, to spend on the beach or in town however they choose. One more afternoon to think not at all about what to wear tomorrow, when the older kids show up.