The Hawthorne School
Washington, D. C.
The Hawthorne School was a small progressive high school in Washington, D. C. which no longer exists as a physical place or an entry in the phone book. But for those of us who studied there or taught there, Hawthorne continues to be a powerful reality in our lives. Every high school affects the lives of those who go there, for good or for ill, but there was a special passion for learning and for understanding that made Hawthorne exceptional. At the same time, Hawthorne was a safe and nurturing place which helped bring out the best in all of us, whether we were brilliant or shy or troubled, or all of the above.
The emphasis on an historical approach to learning, using primary sources where possible, was similar in some ways to St. John's College; this was a stimulating intellectual environment, and it changed our lives forever. After one has studied art with Leonardo, physics with Galileo, Newton, and Count Rumford, chemistry with Priestly, Lavoisier, Dalton, and Mendeleev, and political science with Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, the world is revealed to be a rich and interesting place -- but also a place which we can understand and to which we can make our own contributions.
Hawthorne also included contemporary thought and contemporary issues. Assemblies were times for earnest but friendly debate and discussion, or for special programs. At times, we dropped everything for Art Week or Poetry Week. We were enriched by visits from poets such as Louis Untermeyer, Richard Eberhard, Donald Hall, and Howard Nemerov, artists including Xavier Gonzalez and Jack Levine, and musicians as diverse as Jean Ritchie, Elizabeth Cotton, Duke Ellington, and The English Consort of Viols.
In the early 1970s, Hawthorne students became even more deeply engaged with both music and current events when they persuaded Halim El-Dabh to compose an opera about the Kent State shootings.
Hawthorne was founded in 1956 by Alexander G. Orr and Eleanor Wilson Orr, known to all of us as "Sandy" and "Eleanor" or "E. Orr", who had previously taught at the Georgetown Day School. Hawthorne began in tiny rented quarters at 1914 "N" Street N.W., later moving in 1958 to a wonderful decayed Victorian townhouse at 1221 Massachusetts Avenue N.W. During the 1221 era in the early 1960s, enrollment was approximately 100 students. A paneled front parlor became a classroom, a chapel became a cloak room, and a kitchen became a science lab. Small rooms left over from earlier re-use of the building as a retirement home were consolidated to form an assembly room, a library, and an art room. Former bedrooms became offices, and Howie Mitchell's dulcimer workshop was established in the attic. (See the Hawthorne archives, including the 1961 yearbook excerpt, for more details about the early years, and newspaper clippings for more about the 1221 era. See also the mysterious history of 1221).
With the changing urban landscape of the 1960s, genteel Victorian homes were gradually replaced by higher density modern buildings. We became familiar with the sounds of demolition equipment and pile drivers, and finally in 1964 the time came for Hawthorne to move first to temporary quarters on S Street N.W., then to 501 I Street S.W. This partially recycled and somewhat stark modern building was spacious and thoughtfully laid out, but initially it had little charm for some of us who had been so much in love with 1221. Gradually it became Hawthorne's new home, and we came to appreciate the well-ventilated science lab and bright classrooms. Although the new building did not have a dulcimer workshop, John Shortridge's harpsichord workshop was located in the large music room.
The larger space at 501 allowed enrollment to increase to a peak of 170, but a subsequent decline in enrollment and increasing financial difficulties eventually led in 1972 to the sale of this building, which now houses Southeastern University. Foundation grants were obtained, and a cooperative arrangement was made with the District of Columbia Board of Education which allowed Hawthorne to use space in the historic Sumner School, while Hawthorne accepted tuition-free a certain number of students selected by lottery from the public schools. That led to exciting new challenges, some of which Eleanor describes in her book.
Although the cooperative agreement was renewed by the Board of Education in 1974, foundation grants eventually ran out and Hawthorne was in deep financial trouble by January of 1978. On April 19, 1978 the Board of Education voted to end the cooperative agreement, and Hawthorne was forced to vacate the Sumner School building in June.
Through heroic efforts, Hawthorne continued to operate for four more years in a nearby building at 1919 Rhode Island Avenue N.W., but in the end it proved not to be possible and Hawthorne closed in 1982. Even so, the legacy of Hawthorne continues to shape our lives. The world is a more interesting place than it would have been otherwise, and our friendship with Thomas Jefferson, Leonardo da Vinci, Antoine Lavoisier, and many others continues. Thank you, Sandy and Eleanor, for introducing us.
About this site
The intent of this site is to provide a repository and point of
reference for information about Hawthorne and its alumni -- for the
purposes of this site, "alumni" definitely include faculty and
staff. The site has been expanded to include Cibola, a summer camp run by the
Orrs in New
Mexico. This is very much a work in progress, and probably will
always remain so; if you have memories, thoughts, news,
or other material on Hawthorne
or Cibola to contribute, please contact Dana
Sawyer. If you have a web page, let me know if I may add a link
Because my own experience with Hawthorne was limited to the years
from 1960 to 1965, stories and pictures from the years before and after
that are especially welcome. That would include most of the years
at 501 and all years at the Sumner School -- not to mention "N" street
and Rhode Island Avenue! The Archives
section now has special sections about 1221 Massachusetts Avenue, 501 I
Street, and the Sumner School years; stories and pictures from the
other two locations would be a great addition.
Our registry of Hawthorne and Cibola
alumni is free; we believe it is well on its way to
becoming the most useful and comprehensive online list of Hawthorne
people, backed by an even larger Master List. At times there have
been as many as a half-dozen new
listings in one week, so be
sure to check the Alumni
Directory from time to time. Note however that being listed
online is optional; the most important reason to register is so we can let you know about
upcoming events such as the Grand Reunion
being planned for August 2005.
A fair number of Hawthorne alumni have registered with classmates.com under "Hawthorne
High School", so you may wish to check out that site. Basic
membership in classmates.com is free, but a "Gold membership", which
allows you to contact other alumni, is about $30 per year.
The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne yearbook; title varies). Excerpts from the 1961, 1969 and 1976 editions are available on this site, and more will be coming in the near future.
Twice as Less: Black English and the Performance of Black Students in Mathematics and Science, by Eleanor Wilson Orr (Norton, 1997), also available from Amazon. This thoughtful study based on the later years of Hawthorne will especially interest alumni from the earlier era. In it, we see how Eleanor combined insights from linguistics with her experience and observations as a gifted teacher to create a radically different way to teach math and science -- yet a way that all Hawthorne alumni will recognize. Eleanor's passion to ensure that we really really understood was one of her great gifts to all of us, and it shines through the pages of this book.
The Mountain Dulcimer: How to make and play it -- (after a fashion), by Howard W. Mitchell (Folk Legacy Records BK-29, 1966). This wonderful little book is still in print; with its help you can build your own dulcimer and learn to play it "after a fashion" or perhaps even better than that. It's well worth getting the accompanying cassette (C-29 or BK-29SET for both). Howie's dedication to the experimental method, which we remember so well from science class, is also evident here.
Songs and Ballads, Howie Mitchell (Folk Legacy Records custom cassette C-5). An album of songs that many of us will remember.
The Golden Ring: A gathering of friends for making music, George and Gerry Armstrong, Ed Trickett, Howie Mitchell, Win Stracke, and others (Folk Legacy Records CD-16). This will bring back memories for many of us.
The New Golden Ring, or Five Days Singing (Folk Legacy Records CD-41, CD-42). Howie and others continue the celebration of friendship and music.
Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical
by Oliver W. Sacks (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
2001). With encouragement from his parents and other relatives,
Oliver Sacks taught himself chemistry from used books, many published
the 19th century -- thus experiencing the whole remarkable journey from
phlogiston to the Periodic Table. In the process, he developed
not only a deep
appreciation of the science, but also of its history and of the people
who developed its theory and practice. Hawthorne alumni will
recognize many people and ideas he encountered along the way.
Many classic texts in chemistry are now available on the web.
Carmen Guinta's Classic
Chemistry site is a good place to begin. Be sure to follow
links to related sites.
For the works of Lavoisier, and pictures of some of his apparatus,
see Panopticon Lavoisier.
Washington Post articles (these are available online at the Washington Post web site; there is a fee for access but free access may be available at some public and college libraries):
"Public-Private School Exchange is in Jeopardy", by Lawrence Feinberg, January 26, 1978; page B1.
"Kindergarten Program Voted at Raucous Board Meeting", by Lawrence Feinberg, April 21, 1978; page B3.
"Razing of Historic School Contested by D.C. Board", by Mark Sager, October 4, 1979, page B1.
"Board Hears Plan to Save Sumner School", by Joann Stevens, January 17, 1980; page C1.
"School Founded for Freed Slaves Rededicated as a D.C. Museum", by Lawrence Feinberg, November 11, 1986, page C01.
See also some Washington Post and Washington Star articles from 1962.Top
Most of us had never met Jean Ritchie before, but when she came to Hawthorne, she seemed just like an old friend who had dropped in to visit. She told us some wonderful stories and shared some beautiful and haunting songs. She had in fact known Howie Mitchell for a long time, but I think it is just her nature to treat everyone as a friend.
For more about Jean Ritchie, see Mountain Born: The Jean
Ritchie Story, study guide for a PBS special.
When Elizabeth Cotton visited Hawthorne, she told us how she had as a child taught herself to play the guitar. She sometimes played it horizontally, much as others might play a dulcimer, and had invented her own technique -- since nobody would teach her -- and composed her own songs.
A photograph taken some years later shows her playing the guitar, fretting the strings with her right hand, and there is also a biographical note on the web.
English Consort of Viols
This group is apparently still active, though somewhat obscure. They have recorded on Musicaphon records; a sample from Musicaphon 56815 can be heard here. To see the program which they played for Hawthorne, click here.
See Xavier Gonzalez biographical notes on U.S. Bureau of Reclamation web site and the Handbook of Texas Online. Samples of his murals in Texas and Louisiana are also online. A very different aspect of his work can be seen in a picture of Olympus Dam which he painted for the Bureau of Reclamation; the dam itself seems like a relatively unimportant element in this somewhat atmospheric landscape, yet in accordance with the principles which he taught us, the composition has strong lines in the foreground leading us to the otherwise understated structure in the distance. Other examples of his paintings online include a more literal depiction of Olympus Dam and a haunting evocation of cotton harvesters in Texas twilight; these only begin to show the range of this multifaceted artist. See also the Owl Gallery.
Many pictures of Levine's work can be found on the web; for example, in this selection of works recently shown in galleries. According to reviews, a documentary by David Sutherland provides a compelling portrait of the artist, his view of art, and his passion for social justice.
An audio recording on CD or MP3 of "The Osiris Ritual" as performed at Hawthorne is now available from cdbaby, and recordings of the other two operas are planned. Alumni interested in more information may contact Deborah Eldabh.
For more about Halim El-Dabh and his other works, see his web site.
Musical World of Halim El-Dabh, by Denise Seachrist (Kent State
2003), sheds some light on the relationship between Halim El-Dabh
and Hawthorne. The book is available from Amazon.
Even so, there is probably much more that could be said about the
collaboration between Hawthorne students and El-Dabh on "Opera Flies"
and other works; the Hawthorne part of the story is largely still
waiting to be written. Please contact
Sawyer if you would like to write the story for this site or to share
any information and recollections you may have about Halim El-Dabh,
Hawthorne's performances of his works, or of The Hawthorne Players.
After Hawthorne moved out, 501 I Street SW became the campus of Southeastern University; despite some interior changes, the building looks much like it always did. Unfortunately, it appears that SEU may now have suffered a fate similar to Hawthorne (see Wikipedia article).
The Sumner School was dedicated in 1872 as a school for freed slaves, and later served as the District's first black high school. In September 1979, more than a year after Hawthorne left, part of the roof collapsed and the building was threatened with immediate demolition. The efforts of many public-spirited people led to the eventual restoration of the Sumner School as a museum and conference center. See the Bibliography for related Washington Post articles.
The page about Cibola, the Orr's summer camp in New Mexico, has now become a small web site of its own. Please send us recollections and pictures. How did going to Cibola affect your life?
As far as we know, nobody has a complete collection of Hawthorne
yearbooks (1960-c.1979). In fact, it turns out some years, such
1971, didn't have yearbooks. It's going to take a long time, but
we are gradually digitizing yearbooks, beginning with the 1960
edition. When completed, each book will be available as an image
on CD-ROM for about $5 postpaid. If there is sufficient interest,
it may also be possible to produce copies on paper (loose or bound),
at a higher cost. Meanwhile, excerpts of the 1961, 1969
and 1976 yearbooks are
available on this site, with more coming soon.
For photocopies of the 1968 yearbook, contact Valerie
Other Mysteries and Queries
Jennifer Woods has a query about Geometry with Gething Miller.
If you are seeking to solve a Hawthorne mystery or a have a query about Hawthorne, please let us know.
News, suggestions, corrections, recollections, photographs, mysteries, queries, and answers are always welcome.
Click on the address below to send e-mail to webmaster Dana Sawyer.
If that doesn't work (do you have Java script enabled?), jot down
the e-mail address shown below and type it into your e-mail program:
The best way to send us digitized photographs is to attach them to
an e-mail message. If you have photographs on paper to send us,
please ask for shipping information.
Last updated December 12, 2009