Why all the negativity?
Why all the negativity?
PAWTUCKET - When Shea High School seniors graduate on Thursday evening, they'll hear inspirational messages about living life to its fullest, staying true to themselves, and making a difference in the world.
It's a fairly safe assumption that the words that have stood watch over these students as they've entered the doors of Shea some 700 times over the past four years will be nowhere in sight at the 2013 commencement ceremonies...unless used as a warning.
An infrequent but observant visitor to Shea High this month did a double-take as he was coming around the side of the school. He immediately noticed these big bold letters near the roof: Failure.
Strange, thought the city resident, especially given the school's academic struggles over the years, that such a word would be so prominently displayed in stone, with no other words in the immediate vicinity to soften or explain the message.
But there were more, several hidden behind overspreading tree branches: Ignorance, insolence, disaster, fear, carelessness and lawlessness, all words with negative connotations in big bold letters just beneath the roofline. Most of the negative words are on the left side of the school, when facing it, though a second "Failure" can be found opposite the first on the other side of the school.
Shea Principal Don Miller said he's not sure why the negative words were used on his school, originally West High School, but said his curiosity has been piqued enough to look into it. Local history buffs, including Pawtucket Library Director Susan Reed, were also unsure what the original motivation behind the words was.
Do you know why words like "insolence" and "failure" were chosen for the walls of Shea? Email Pawtucket@valleybreeze.com if you recall the reasoning behind the words.
A review of the Shea files from the Pawtucket History Research Center sheds little light on why such words would be chosen to adorn the school. Sure, there are plenty of positive words, like achievement, determination, endurance, activity, effort and ambition, but why all the negative ones?
The logical answer might be that the words were meant as a warning to students of what to avoid. After all, the words from the Bible's Proverbs, a book that tells young people to run away from such downfalls, are inscribed just above Shea's main door.
"Take fast hold of instruction, for she is thy life," states the abbreviated version of Proverbs 4:13.
A Providence Journal story written in 1980 states that when the former West High School was built in 1938-40, "a committee of city officials, educators and community leaders selected the sayings for inscription, drawing mainly from the works of famous writers like Shakespeare and Chaucer."
Like Pawtucket City Hall a few years earlier, the school was built as a project of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era agency that put millions of people back to work on public works projects.
Both Pawtucket West and Pawtucket City Hall were designed in the art deco style by architect John F. O'Malley, according to The Journal story, "but O'Malley carried forward the neo-classical practice of inscribing facades with uplifting expressions..."
New buildings of that time often featured "a strong social context," as O'Malley once put it. The inscriptions call on "the youthful members of society to strive for greatness, embody that context."
A 1940 Pawtucket Times story on the dedication of what was then a junior and senior high school describes a celebratory scene, but does not explain the reasoning behind adding the negative words. According to the story, Mayor Thomas McCoy praised President Roosevelt for making construction of the school possible.
Graduates of West High, "as those from every other Pawtucket school, will be comparable in intelligence and knowledge to those of any in these United States," said McCoy in his speech. He praised the architecture of the building as "modernistic and affording sunshine, so conserving the health of teachers and pupils."
Tim McDuff, technical services librarian at the Pawtucket Library, pointed out a story by architecture expert Will Morgan on the website www.iloveprovidence.org. Morgan calls Shea High School an "educational canvas." Inspirational quotations and virtues are everywhere, according to Morgan, and the effort at moral instruction is "further forced" by having the vices as well.
"It seems unlikely that many of today's high schools even notice the bromides and wisdom that must have seemed like such a good idea to (city) fathers, school teachers, and librarians seven decades ago," he writes.