Wilson Then Vs Now by Shandra Back

Has the Wilson experience changed since teenagers first began attending in 1956? The current student body will surely look back on their days of high school and reminisce on what it was was like to go here in the 2010s and 20’s, but what did Wilson kids that attended in older generations experience? Alumni teachers of Wilson are here to weigh in on what Wilson was like back in their day.

The social scene at Wilson has seemed to follow the same code of conduct throughout the generations. Mr. Guthrie, science, attended Jackson High School before it was converted to a middle school, but his father worked at Wilson beginning in the early 60’s, so he recalls being a part of the Wilson community from a young age. Guthrie remembers the social dynamics looking very similar to today with a lot of cliques roaming the halls. Mr. Olsen, health, attended Wilson from 1988-91. He also sees a lot of similarities between then and now in terms of social dynamics.“I don’t think it’s intentionally cliquey”, Olsen says. He feels that many of the kids who grew up together, going to the same middle schools, seem to form these unintentional cliques once they reach high school. Schmidt, weight training, agrees. He attended Wilson from 1999-2002, and says, “Wilson’s kind of been cliquey ever since I’ve known it. There’s always been these sort of subgroups that like to hang out together and that really hasn’t changed much.”, It seems that Wilson has always followed a trend toward these social subgroups.

High school relationships are a timeless concept whose details and dynamics are always changing. One word that Guthrie used to describe dating during his time was “vibrant.” Southwest Portland was still a lot of farmland up until the mid to late 70’s, so the options for date nights were minimal. Teenagers would opt to go to the movies together or head downtown for dinner. Olsen remembers the dating scene staying fairly within these social subgroups of Wilson. People didn’t tend to date much outside of their friend circles. Mr. Shetler, math, attended Wilson from 89-92. He looks back to the early nineties; a time where cellphones were completely absent. With no speedy way to communicate, Wilson students would rely on passing notes to flirt and see if their crush liked them back with sly little “check this box” questions. There was no ‘insta-stalking,’ just the old-fashioned ‘getting to know them in person’ tactics. Dates consisted of going to the movies as well as ice and roller skating, or the school dances, which were always well attended. Boys and girls tried to get dates to accompany them because going stag to a dance was not the norm.

In the 60’s, Guthrie remembers diversity at Wilson being near zero. In the early 70’s, PPS began a policy to integrate the neighborhoods all over the district, meaning that teenagers from all over PPS could be bussed to other schools outside of their own neighborhood. Guthrie recalls that this open enrollment helped to increase diversity following the 60’s, though it was still very minimal. Neighborhoods were beginning to integrate, but he recalls that there were still people who were resistant to having any non-white person living in their neighborhood. He remembers a time growing up where “we had a problem with some KKK people complete with a burning cross.” Shetler and Olsen attended Wilson during the latter end of the integration policy where students from outside the district could attend if they could identify with what the school specialty was. Here at Wilson the specialty was business. They both felt that having kids attend from all corners of Portland significantly increased diversity within the school. Shetler explained that Wilson was viewed as one of the safer schools in the district. This persuaded some parents to send their kids here to avoid some PPS schools with a  larger gang presence that had been coming up from California at the time. It seems that once this policy ended, diversity at Wilson decreased significantly. By the late 90’s, Schmidt felt that diversity was again very minimal at Wilson. This opinion is shared by Kirk, math, who attended Wilson a few years later from 2005-2009. She felt that when she attended, Wilson was a very white school and diversity was not commonly discussed. Schmidt states that “we’re much more of a diverse school today. We’ve come a long way in that aspect.”


In the 60’s, when Guthrie was a part of the Wilson community, he recalls that the LGBTQ scene was completely concealed and hidden from sight. A lot of vicious bullying pushed kids to do their best to stay within the mainstream culture. “There were a lot of hateful words and hateful language that you hear today that was used a lot more freely back then” he says. In the days that Olsen attended Wilson over 20 years later, he saw that the presence of LGBTQ was still nonexistent. It wasn’t seen. It wasn’t celebrated. It simply wasn’t talked about at all. He stated that it’s “almost corrosive how underground it was.” Shetler agrees, saying that the LGBTQ community was altogether absent with no same sex relationships out in the open. Moving into the early 2000’s when Schmidt attended Wilson, he explained that there began to be a small presence of the LGBTQ community with their own club that was beginning to grow. A few years later, Kirk saw that kids at Wilson would identify themselves, but there still was no spectrum that they would identify on. O’Loughlin, chemistry, attended Wilson the most recently of any of the alumni teachers, in 2009-2013. She’s noticed that presently LGBTQ has increased quite a bit at Wilson into what it is today, even in the few years since her own graduation.

Throughout these decades of Wilson kids, the main presence of drugs always seemed to lean towards alcohol and marijuana. Guthrie described the 70’s drug scene as “pretty hardcore.” Weed was beginning to become very popular at this time, although it wasn’t nearly the level of strength and variety that we see today. Potestio, History, attended Wilson 1976-1980. She agrees that weed was the big deal at the time. “It’s the 70’s right?” She remembers that lots of teenagers also smoked cigarettes, their main scene to smoke on campus being the bus stop on Vermont. Alcohol has always seemed to have a presence at Wilson. Guthrie remembers that the alcohol at the time was quite distasteful. He recalls that “MD2020 would be high shelf.” This was a type of wine that was notoriously known for its high alcohol content and disgustingly fruity flavors and was often referred to by its nickname “Mad Dog.” In Olsen and Shetler’s day, there still wasn’t a large appearance of pharmaceuticals and much less variety than the drugs teens are experimenting with nowadays. Alcohol seemed to be the predominant drug, mainly because it was easier to obtain than weed, which was still not legalized. Shetler mentioned a tactic for obtaining alcohol that was used by students called “shoulder taps.” Underage teenagers would idly stand outside of stores to ask random adults who were entering to purchase alcoholic drinks for them. Potestio remembers high school parties being very standard in the time she attended. “It was a Friday, Saturday thing for sure.” As Olsen remembers it, “there used to be big locations in the city that people knew about that were places to go.” The locations that he recalled were Council Crest, Powers Park, and certain known spots in Gabriel Park, which were the party scenes. There were more than just Wilson Kids at these party spots, too, where kids from Lincoln or Lake Oswego would also regularly attend.

It seems that the Wilson schedule has significantly changed several times over the years. Guthrie looks back on a time in the 70’s when the school structure was incredibly different than what students at Wilson are experiencing today. This system was called the “MOD” system. It allowed classes to be different sizes with many blockable 15 minute MOD’s in a day. Students could plan their own day complete with long lunches, late arrivals, early releases, and even on rare occasions plan days with no classes at all. This MOD schedule continued into the days when Olsen and Shetler attended as well. Olsen recalls that this scheduling had a very similar feel to a community college campus. He remembers that it was “really like a free flowing campus back then, which had its benefits, but it also had its drawbacks like kids could skip school. It put a lot of ownership on the students to go to school.” The hallways were always bustling with students, and the courtyard was used as a place to relax during free MOD’s playing frisbee and eating lunch with friends. During lunch MOD’s, Shelter remembers most students eating in the cafeteria, which was open two hours a day since the halls were off limits as class was always in session. The campus was closed back then, meaning no-one was permitted to leave during school hours. This arena scheduling lasted up until the mid 1990’s when state laws became stricter. Students were required to be kept track of at all times, and there was increased mandatory in-class time for students. Kirk remembers having six classes overall each day with longer blocks on Wednesdays and Thursdays. O’Loughlin recalls, during her freshman and sophomore years, going to all eight periods each day.

The various styles teenagers wore in high school throughout the decades will always be iconic in some way or another. Wilson was no exception to the trends. In the 70’s, Guthrie remembers very exaggerated bell bottom flare jeans to be all the rage. Teenage boys would wear wide collar nylon shirts adorned with lots of loud, crazy colors and extremely thick corduroy pants. The girls wore peasant dresses and clogs that echoed loudly through the hallways as they walked from class to class. A word Potestio used to describe the fashion in the mid-70s was, “preppy wear.” Men’s Polo shirts and button downs were always to be tucked in and belted. The look was finished off with leather boat shoes. Olsen recalls wearing a lot of big puffy sweatshirts and his personal favorite fashion item: rugby shirts. Shelter remembers seeing lots of flannels, polos, and Hard Rock Cafe shirts. Concert tees, letterman jackets and backwards hats were what most of the teens were wearing at Wilson in late 80’s, early 90’s. Jumping to the 2010’s, O’Loughlin recalls the popular trends being pencil skirts paired with chunky cardigans and skinny jeans ranging in all sorts of vibrant colors. One trend that has remained a fashion staple for Wilson teens throughout all of these generations: Levi Jeans.

Looking back at Wilson then and now we see a lot of similarities and differences in what has made this school unique throughout the generations. Unanimously, all of the alumni teachers agreed that Wilson has always been a high achieving academic school. When asked what has remained the same at Wilson, Schmidt responded without hesitation, “the hallway. When you walk into Wilson, you know this is the same place it was back when it was built in 1956. The paint jobs might change, the technology, the newness of a lot of equipment has changed, but the basic structure has always stayed the same.”

Although Potestio feels that the lack of resources currently provided from the district has minimized our school upkeep and class offerings, it seems that the overall climate of the Wilson community has changed for the better. Now more than ever, there seems to be much more acceptance and a wider celebration of uniqueness and voice at Wilson. Guthrie remembers that the Wilson dress code previously banned lots of clothing that girls wore, adding that back then slut shaming was pretty standard. Shetler recalls others putting someone “in their place” for various reasons, remembering fear and shame in day to day life. Guthrie feels that now “there’s less anger and more togetherness” within the community. The hidden LGBTQ scene finally coming proudly to light as well as a slow, steadying increase in diversity is what is propelling Wilson into its bright future for the many future generations to come.