Reminiscences of life at Cody High School Detroit
I was awarded an American Field Service Scholarship (AFS) in 1958 when in the 3rd year 6th, following in the footsteps of Robin Miller who had won one 2 years before.
The AFS started life during World War 1 as the American Ambulance Field Service when Americans living in Paris volunteered to drive ambulances. The AFS was reactivated at the start of the Second World War. The student programme was started in 1946 as a way of fostering better understanding between nations by exchanging students between countries. The year I went to Detroit there were over 1170 foreign students sent to the USA, of which 30 were from the UK. 900 American students were sent abroad.
The European students all gathered at the Hook of Holland, where we boarded the ss Iohan Van Oldenbarnevelt. With some 800 students on board it was lively trip! On arrival at Hoboken, New Jersey we were separated into groups and sent on Greyhound buses to our destinations. Arriving in Detroit, Michigan I was introduced to the Pelletier family with whom I would live. They had one son, John, so I would be known by my second name Yates. We spent the weeks before school started staying at a family cottage at Lake Higgins and visiting ‘local’ attractions – such as the Niagara Falls!
The school year was divided into 2 semesters with an intake at the beginning of each. ‘Brother’ John was in the second half of his year and would graduate in January, so we only saw each other on the journey to and from school. Cody High School was built in 1955 so was quite new when I arrived. It was designed for 2,500 students but had about 4,000! The students were therefore split into 2 sessions, one starting at 8 and finishing at 1 and the other starting then and finishing at 6. We were in the 12th grade (final year) on the early ‘shift’ and had to be up at 6.30 to be ready in time. We lived in the suburb of Southfield about 13 miles away. Normally schools only took students from within a small radius, but the Pelletier family had recently moved house and John wanted to finish his studies there before going to university. The school itself has facilities not dreamt of at DHS! The auditorium and stage was a large as a London theatre. There was a broadcasting studio and a large outdoor area laid out with roads to provide driver training. The workshops were fitted out with all the latest equipment so that a student could leave school on Friday and start work, say, at Fords on Monday and be using the same tools. Of course the biggest difference between DHS was that about 60% of the students were girls! A welcome change!
Although I continued with Physics classes, intending at that time to read that subject at university, the teacher thought that the standard I had reached at A level was 2 years ahead of that he was teaching. I tried to take as many ‘American’ courses as I could, American Literature, American History, Civics, Public Speaking, and speed reading (with the help of a machine!). Some classes were taught by television. Classes were streamed according to academic ability. The American History class was amusing when we were on the subject of the War of 1812 – as both the teacher and I realised that we had different understandings of the topic! Several of the examinations were multiple choice and a requirement to answer only a some of the questions. By answering more one could achieve marks of over 100%!
Outside of classes we had a Student Council, of which I was a member, to liaise with the staff and deal with minor student issues. Woe betide anyone who was late for school or a class. Students were stationed as Hall Guards to intercept both late-comers, and visitors. I
was on the school debating team and on one occasion the topic was devoted to the premise that education in the UK was better that that in the US. I was also drafted into the school play – to play a Cockney. Thank goodness there were none in the audience! I was also a member of the school tennis team. One of the advantages of being on the early shift was that afternoons were free to practice. Another difference from the UK is that all teams practiced every day during their season! I was due to join the American Football squad as a kicker but John was injured and couldn’t play. As I depended upon him for transport to and from school that was that.
Continuing with the sporting theme, of course there was football and baseball field alongside the school with a stand to accommodate 2000. We had a sports hall with a baseball court and an indoor running track at first floor level. There was an indoor competition-size swimming pool. This latter had an interesting feature – large doors which could divide the pool in two to separate the sexes!
After John graduated in January he left for Purdue University so it was felt best for me to move close to school and stay with another family – the Sterns. They had no children, but Emily Stern was a Latin teacher and Counsellor at Cody. Counsellors provided guidance to students and helped resolve their problems. Whilst with the Sterns I was able to keep up with my Bridge as they were quite keen. Although not a member, Edwin had played with members of the American Bridge team.
There was a good social life attached to the school, with parties, a snow trip to Kalamazoo, and a variety of trips to local attractions. As quite a few students had their own cars transport wasn’t much of a problem – although I had a bike and cycled the mile or two to school from the Sterns. A highlight of the year was the school Prom. A grand affair, for which we had to hire evening dress and buy a corsage for our partner. Great fun but probably more restrained than nowadays, even though most of the music was rock ‘n roll.
From time to time the other AFS students in the area (all at different schools) got together to compare notes and have fun. I vividly remember one occasion when the foreign students were invited to play soccer against a local private school (attended by no other than Mitt Romney who I believe was on the team). We duly arrived – all 11 of us, as one did in those days, to be confronted by a squad of 40 opponents. I don’t recall the score but I do know that we were all exhausted by the end of the game, they having rotated their players to give them the opportunity of playing against us!
At the end of the year we had the graduation ceremony for which we all hired mortar boards and gowns and were presented with our scrolls. I was fortunate to be awarded the highest classification, Summa Cum Laude, based upon all the marks received during the year. The tradition was that, prior to receiving the scroll, the tassel on the mortar board hung on the right, but afterwards it was transferred to the left – or maybe it was the other way round. Also at the end of the year the school (edited by the students) produced a Year Book. This was over 1” thick with padded covers and gave details of all group and sporting activities for the year. It also contained photographs of all the 12th grade students – those who graduated in January as well as those who had done so in June. A very useful record to refresh the memory of those days! It was the custom for friends to write messages in each other’s books. Many students also produced ‘business’ cards which they passed round in the hope of keeping in contact with their classmates.
t was then time to leave Detroit. The AFS students were given a 4 week bus tour around the NE of the USA, Pennsylvania, New York state, and various New England states culminating in a visit to Washington DC where we were addressed by President Eisenhower. On the trip we were billeted with local families at each stop, so we gained more knowledge of American life. One drawback from my point of view is that our hosts invariably said “let’s have a typical American meal – barbeque chicken”. 27 chickens in 28 days puts one off the bird for life!
We returned home from Montreal aboard the SS Seven Seas. It was not as large a ship as the one on which we had sailed to the US, but again, filled with students, it was lively Atlantic crossing. Everyone now spoke English (of a sort!) so communication was no problem, as it had been with some on the outward trip.
Over the years I have been very grateful for having had the chance to experience a year at school in America. It has served me in good stead, particularly in doing business there. Only by living in a country can one appreciate the customs and attitudes of its people. I can thoroughly recommend the AFS programme, although I appreciate that it might cause problems to those wanting to go to university these days. It was normal for students to be awarded the scholarship at the end of the first year 6th, but being young I had completed my UK schooling so I had my offer of a place before I left – albeit in Physics rather than Civil Engineering. I changed to the latter while in Detroit for reasons that escape me, but which I don’t regret!
the ‘class of 59’ hold regular reunions to which I am invited but have been unable to attend – although I am still in touch with some of my classmates. Sad to say the school’s fortunes have mirrored those of Detroit and some years ago the demographics of the area had changed and it was classed as failing and closed. I am glad to say that last year it re-opened as the Detroit Institute of Technology College.
John Yates Williams (1950-8)