As I reflect on my time at Highlands, a central image comes to mind: The Big Rock. When I told my dad I was writing this, his initial response was: “You gotta talk about The Big Rock!” So, indulge me, as I transport you to the Highlands playground, circa 1996. Each day around 4:00, as the number of kids in after-school care dwindled to a select group, a handful of us made a discrete pilgrimage to The Big Rock. This meant sneaking our way to the playground’s forested edge, which was, naturally, off-limits. But about 15 feet beyond the entrance of the woods was a rock formation so awe-inspiring that we took it upon ourselves to deem it decidedly on-limits. We crouched in the shade of its sharp overhang. We helped one another scale its sides. Eventually, we made our way to the top and surveyed the now-distant playground. We also took the opportunity to hurl chunks of moss at each other without teacher intervention. After a while—only when we decided our absence from the playground was becoming suspicious— we emerged from the woods, giggling and sprinting in all directions. When my dad’s Toyota Corolla finally pulled up around 5:00, I would hop in the back seat and impishly yammer all the way home about The Big Rock: It’s probably the biggest rock in Alabama, Dad! And no one knows about it!
In hindsight, The Big Rock was more of A Small Boulder. But that’s the thing about being a kid—everything around you, in one way or another, is Big. Everything has the power to transform. That playground was a blank canvas onto which we transposed our imaginations and classroom lessons. After learning about the various layers of the earth, my friends and I were thrilled when we dug all the way to the Earth’s Mantle! during a single recess period (we were only 1,700 miles off).
I have many tender memories of Highlands: Blue Devils soccer. Field Day Tug-O-War. The Halloween Parade. Making rain sticks with Ms. Arn. Competing in the spelling bee. Burying a time capsule in 1998. Learning about the geography of Africa and then informing my teacher, with impressive conviction, that our family was going to Lake Victoria for Spring Break. We were not, but it made for interesting conversation at the next Parent-Teacher conference.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Highlands’ class plays here, as they were not like plays at other schools. As testament to their cult status, I share the following: I recently hosted an engagement party, at which several Highlands alumnae were in attendance. When they realized I had both a working VCR and a catalogue of Highlands class plays, it was only a matter of time before my guests, including a confused bride and groom, were subjected to lyrics like “dairy foods are gouda for you—just edam and brie!” That particular play, Feelin’ Your Oats— described by the Shawnee Press as a “captivating musical about good nutrition”— holds a fond place in my heart because my costume was a novelty-size foam Packers Cheesehead strung around my neck with a shoelace. And I felt like a million bucks wearing it.
On a more serious note, I never would have experienced any of this if it were not for Ms. Jan Gentle, with whom you all are probably familiar. She didn’t know it at the time, but there was a lot riding on my Highlands entrance exam. I had previously been declined admission to at least two other elementary schools because my birthday (September 24) was past the cut-off date for my grade, and I was told I would have had to wait another year to start Kindergarten, while my friends from pre-school moved on into the world. I was aware of this pressure, and so my memory of the Highlands “testing” experience is rather vivid: I liked Ms. Gentle’s big, curly brown hair and the soft way she spoke to me. She had a son who was my age, Winston. We were going to review some flash cards in the cafeteria and I could have some lemonade if I wanted. During the test, I remember getting hung up on one of the flash cards—was it a worm or a snake?! I’m sorry, I don’t know! Ms. Gentle put me at ease and reassured me I was doing fine. We spent a few more minutes chatting in the empty cafeteria, until she walked me back to my parents and gave us all good news: she would be thrilled to have such a smart young girl at Highlands! It was my very first self-esteem boost, and it set the tone for the rest of my time at Highlands.
In the last year, I got married, bought a house, and adopted a dog. In April, I finished graduate school with Master’s degrees in Public Health and Public Administration. It’s hard not to get caught up in the rat race, but I have never lost the sense of wonderment and possibility I felt at The Big Rock. Some experiences in life are truly formative: The Big Rock, the interview with Ms. Gentle, the class play. The values they taught me (go exploring, have compassion, be proud of who you are) will stay with me forever. Highlands let me be the precocious, oddball girl that I was, and I am so grateful for that.
When we’re young, we can’t yet appreciate that time is fleeting and the world, while full of magic, is also rife with injustice. At Highlands, I learned to ask questions, to make mistakes, to celebrate the people around me, to dream big, to apologize, to ask more questions, and to wear a foam Cheesehead and Umbros with the swagger of a senior-level executive. I also learned later that I was very lucky—yes, privileged—to attend a school like Highlands. So, at the end of the day, this blog isn’t so much about me, but about what Highlands taught me to value—how vital it is to foster individualism from a young age, how our early education is at the core of community, and how every child deserves to feel the same wonderment and possibility that I did. I hope we all feel called to make that a priority and a reality. And, in the not too distant future, I look forward to being the 5:00 parent, picking my kid up from Highlands, listening to her impishly yammer all the way home.
Dana Ullrich, MPA MPH