By Kate Barcellos
“It’s leaving the school, rather than leaving the people,” said Fair Haven Union High School senior Glenn Wilcox. “There’s passion in this school. It’s heartwarming to know it’s not just an empty space filled by a few hundred people. The school hasn’t changed … the people have.”
On the last day of school last Thursday, the halls flooded with students scrambling to get outside to enjoy the first days of summer.
Groups of despondent teenagers sniffled their goodbyes from the doorways and scribbled frantically in yearbooks, memorializing their friendships in ballpoint forever.
“We’re all excited to get out and start lives, but its also sort of nerve-wracking because we’re not going to have the everyday here come September,” Wilcox said. “It’s going to be different. We’re ready to leave, but … it’s going to be different.”
Aside from the teary-eyed gazes of faculty on the backs of their students as they strode confidently out the FHUHS doors for the last time, the day had been a fairly normal one.
But this year at FHUHS has been far from normal.
“This senior class … out of the 14 years that I’ve been here, have had to deal with the most changes,” said Administration Assistant Jackie Phillips.
“This was a very complicated year,” said Principal Jason Rasco. “There were myriad things that took place, and I’m afraid that people will make this about what ‘happened.’ It’s crazy unfortunate that we even have drills for active shooters. We didn’t even think about proficiency-based learning or the merger that changes everything.”
There was a massive shift in administration: Principal Brett Blanchard resigned, and Vice Principal Jason Rasco stepped in as acting principal.
“There were a lot of uncertainties with him leaving at the beginning of the school year,” Phillips said. “He’s who I worked under since 2009. He was loved by a lot of students and faculty. I didn’t have control over him leaving. It was sad. When the head of the whole place leaves … who’s doing what?”
And then, in February, former FHUHS student Jack Sawyer was arrested for an alleged plot to commit mass violence at the school, an event that made Fair Haven international news.
“When Sawyer happened, there were a lot of emotions shown,” said senior Adam Stewart. “I was shocked, because I went to school with him. I never thought, in this community, in a place where everyone is so close, I never thought this would happen. You hear about it on the news, but to me, when we found out about this, it was (a) shock. Being a Slater is like being a part of a family: a family all its own.”
The event rocked the entire community, but couldn’t shake the Slater spirit.
“In my mind, I’ve never been afraid here,” Phillips said. “Even though we’re the first people you see at the front desk, I’ve never been afraid. I’ve been stressed out because others have been afraid, but our security officer here is amazing, and people stepped up. Others stepped in. We had 14 cops here the day after it happened; who’s going to come in here with 14 cops?”
Phillips said she and the other teachers were forced to clamp down on policies, but the students didn’t miss a beat. Seniors continued on with their studies and planned for after graduation, never letting their dreams take a back seat to the panic many feared might consume them.
“That day, I sat here in the office thinking ‘if this happens, he’s not going down without a fight,’” Wilcox said. “I love this school. I love this community, and there are people here I’d be willing to die for. Because I love them. And I know there are people who would die for this school. This place is our second home, five days a week, from 8:10 to 3:10.”
And now, poised to finally graduate and leave the slate floors of their beloved high school behind them, the seniors looked fondly back at the year that brought with it change, evolution and a sense of collective victory.
“Yeah, it may have ruined the year, but there were so many other things that happened,” Stewart said. “We had the football state title, and the basketball championship. And the softball team, they’re going to the championships tomorrow.
Stewart was a linebacker for the Slaters when they played the Bellows Falls Terriers for the state title Nov. 11.
“We won, 46-20,” he said. “It was pretty great.”
Wilcox looks back fondly on the senior trip to Elfin Lake in Wallingford recently, playing the baritone saxophone in band, singing bass in the school choirs, and being an announcer for the Pledge of Allegiance and sports events.
“I’ve been involved in every ensemble at this school,” Wilcox said. “There were nights that we didn’t go home until 4 a.m. because we had to build all of the drama sets from scratch. I have lots of good memories from this place.”
Despite all of the changes that hit FHUHS and the struggles that the community was forced to overcome, the school has continued to be a center of the community and a beacon through dark times, providing a place for state legislators to meet with parents when they feared for their children’s safety.
The shadows of those times couldn’t be found on the seniors’ final day.
“When you talk to any one of the seniors, people are just smiling,” Rasco said. “This was my first role as principal, and we went through some big changes here. Everyone is emotional: those changes, we went through them together.”
Stewart, who will be haying for most of the summer, said he plans to pursue a career as a sheriff, and hopes to travel as a professional sport fisherman.
“I’m not sure where I’ll end up,” he said. “But when they ask where I’m from, it’s going to be Benson.”