Memory is a flimsy thing. We are likely to romanticize the past. Institutional memory is frequently as slippery.

With all of the recent changes on campus – an MIT Fabrications Lab, a four day academic week, Exploration Fridays, the departure of several beloved teachers, the dropping of the “St.” in “St. Gregory” – it is understandable that students might conclude that The Gregory School of today isn’t the same school as it was ten years ago or twenty years ago, much less as it was at its inception in 1980.

A range of vague apprehensions among students, caused largely by these recent changes, includes a sense of a decline in academic rigor, a sense of a drift from the Humanities-based core the school is justly known for, and a sense that school spirit has declined over time. But how accurate are these perceptions? How much has the school really changed?

In 1979, founders Bazy Tankersley, Margaret Modine, and Jane Ivankovich came together to form what a 1990 yearbook refers to as “a good school in the Christian faith.” Susan Heinz, former STG math teacher and, later, Upper School Head, who began working at St. Gregory in the fall of 1981, and left in 2013, explained that “the School was originally founded to meet the need for an independent college preparatory high school in Tucson, probably based on the model of some of the stronger East-coast independent schools.”

In the spring of 1980, the first Head of School, Reverend Russ Ingersoll, was hired. Teachers were recruited from around the country. The property north of the current parking circle was purchased to start the construction of something resembling St. Gregory. The school opened with fifty students in grades nine through eleven.

Old photographs of The Gregory School of thirty some years ago reveal a campus that looks very little like the modern, expansive campus of 2016. Mismatched buildings, trailers, and outdoor prayer areas lent the school a rustic feel. The facilities we have come to take for granted, including high-ceilinged science laboratories and large-windowed English classrooms, weren’t built until much later. The library originally served as a multipurpose space for drama performances, as well as aerobics classes taught by Ms. Mount, among other things.

Academically, standards at The Gregory School have always been high. Heinz, whose career spanned most of the school’s history, offered her view of the school’s academics: “The curriculum was rigorous, admissions were selective, and academic standards were high; students found their classes much more challenging than they had in their previous schools. They were proud of what they were able to achieve in an environment with high expectations.”

“There was,” she added, “a major emphasis on writing across the curriculum.”

Alum James Martin ‘01 said of his academic experience, “I never went anywhere else for high school, of course, but St. Gregory always felt different.” He continued, “I struggled a bit at first. I remember having a lot of homework, and for the first time ever, it was something that had to be done at home and not just before class.”

Although consistently rigorous, The Gregory School has maintained a core philosophy of intellectual development that has historically involved a holistic approach to learning. As alum Alexandria Armstrong ‘13 noted, “I definitely felt academically challenged, but I also felt more academically free. I wasn’t really bound down by your traditional courses. I was able to take drama, art, and I was able to participate in a circus group.”

“Intensive Weeks,” as they used to be called, are an example of The Gregory School’s commitment to alternative ways of learning. The concept lasted, said Heinz, into “the late 1990s or early 2000s,” during which time, for one week each spring, the regular curriculum was suspended, and teachers planned together and offered specialized courses, and students chose their favorite courses to take.

“There were academic and non-academic offerings,” Heinz explained.  “Another teacher and I had a group that landscaped the front of the building that is Ms. Heald’s room and spread gravel to make the driveway east of that; one group built a shed for athletic equipment; the Head led a group of bicyclists around southern Arizona to raise money for scholarships; a group studied the history of the Ft. Lowell Park area; basic computer classes.”

As time passed, Intensive Weeks turned into “Humanities Terms,” during which time, for anywhere from one to three weeks, the entire upper school studied one topic. Heinz said, “They were divided in groups; there were reading and writing assignments, field trips, speakers. The topics varied: Shakespeare, a meaningful life, capital punishment, theater, water issues, Tucson neighborhoods, to name a few.” This later morphed back into individual teacher offerings with topics ranging from quiltmaking to the Vietnam War.

Sound familiar?

In the late 1990s, St. Gregory received the gift of a high and low ropes course, which made it possible for students to practice experiential life skills such as cooperation, leadership, and problem solving. Heinz said, “At its peak, the Experiential Ed program had a component at every grade level. For about 15 years, it was a significant aspect of the St. Gregory experience.”

For several years now, the high ropes course has been unused due to aging equipment and concerns over the safety of the facilities. The low ropes course behind the middle school is still usable, but it is no longer integrated into the school curriculum as an essential part of a Gregory School education. (Middle schoolers continue to take advantage of experiential learning opportunities off-campus at the U of A ropes course.)

The extracurricular culture of The Gregory School has fluctuated over time. Heinz recalled the popularity of Model U.N., Spanish Club, Creative Writing, Math Club, Chess, Debate, Newspaper, Studio Art, Chorus, and Yearbook. Both Martin ‘01 and Armstrong ‘13 remember dazzling productions from St. Gregory’s drama department, as well as a high level of participation in sports, even if attendance at sporting events was never all that high. Unlike today, St. Gregory for many years fielded an intramural lacrosse team with quite a winning record and a very active Outdoor Club organized frequent local hikes and even overnight hiking trips.

Many traditions remain. The student lounge has always been chaotic – photos from a 1986 yearbook record an event in which a student crashed his car into it. The typically over-scheduled Gregory School student never follows the same school schedule for more than a year in a row: Heinz recalls that in the first 22 years of her career, the school had 22 different schedules, much like today. And St. Gregory Day, one of the oldest school traditions – while it has evolved from class and faculty competitions like sack races, egg toss, and softball – still thrives.

Sure, The Gregory School has changed. Students and faculty have come and gone. The school name has dropped its “St.” But it sometimes seems, paradoxically, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

After exploring the history of the school we all think we know so well, I am left pondering the following questions: How can we miss something – a school, a student body, an academic culture – that we never really experienced? How can we sense that something has changed even if that something is intangible and impossible to pinpoint? How is institutional memory communicated and sustained?  Memory is indeed a flimsy thing.