Create an archive of memories at your school

Written by Sal DiGerlando

“You know, you should consider being an English teacher,” said Ms. Clara Grey, my English teacher, as she handed back my book report. Of course, I thought at the time, that was not the profession for me.

But here I am, realizing that this year I will have been connected to Barringer High School in Newark, N.J., for 49 years – four years as a student and 45 years as an art teacher. Barringer is the only school in which I have ever taught. This year also is my 40th as adviser to the Athenaeum yearbook, and 25 as adviser to the Acropolis News, the school newspaper.

My history at Barringer is just a drop in the bucket. Opened in 1838 as Newark High School, Barringer is the oldest public secondary school in New Jersey and the third to be established in the United States. This year marks our 172nd year of free public secondary education.

It was because of yearbook that I happened to create our school’s archive, which I believe is the largest collection of historic material related to our school, and to the city of Newark, than any other secondary school in the United States. The formation of our school archive has been an experience in patience and perseverance, but one I think every school should undertake.

This story begins in 1985, three years before the school’s 150th anniversary. I decided to begin researching the school’s history for the 150th edition of the yearbook. My exploration eventually led to the school library, where the disinterested librarians pointed to a dusty, debris-strewn area in the rear of a space that had slowly become the audiovisual storage room. After digging through grimy journals, pictures and yearbooks, I discovered what I considered a windfall: 25 handwritten and illustrated, leather-bound, one-of-a-kind journals dating back to the mid 1800s.

Awestruck by this collection, I found myself visiting this forgotten room daily during my lunch break to peruse through this mesmerizing material. The hand-painted artwork, which, considering the age of the books was in remarkably good condition, particularly moved me.

The subjects in the journals are varied, including an editorial calling for student discipline and respect for teachers, a discourse on the speculation of life on the moon, a newsboy’s view of Newark at dawn and a report on an argument between two boat captains on the Morris Canal, which ran through the heart of Newark. In one journal, student A.E. Dennis recorded his journey to war-torn Washington in the summer of 1862, where he encountered President Abraham Lincoln and witnessed a New Jersey soldier being dismissed from his regiment for threatening to murder another soldier.

This archival collection of books formed the launch of the school’s history that took me three years to write, and was eventually published in the 1988 Barringer High School yearbook.

Noticing my interest in these documents, and needing space for audiovisual equipment, the librarians offered me the entire collection, including the 25 journals. I was dumbstruck, but determined to find a home for this material.

I searched the school and found a little-used room in the art wing. Eventually this area became known as the “Archive’s Room.” Along with these volumes included the dusty collection of hundreds of yearbooks, journals, newspapers, manuscripts and old photos dating back to the mid-1800s.

Over the years I have received yearbooks and other materials donated by the heirs of alumni. We formed an Archive History Club and found student volunteers eager to help organize, record and develop an archive that students and faculty can access. We have accrued every yearbook that Barringer has produced dating back before the Civil War.

I believe each secondary school should develop an archive, and so each year I have introduced the archive collection to my yearbook and newspaper staffs. This has given students an understanding of our school’s rich history and an opportunity to be connected to the life of students who once sat in the same classrooms as they have.

If yearbooks are history books, then begin an archive starting with each edition of yearbooks the school has produced, plus school newspapers and other items. Students may think that high school lasts forever, but today is just a drop in the bucket in the life of your school. Use your yearbook to share that life with future generations of students.

Sal DiGerlando