Help them “Howl” in high school
The Louvre, the Getty, Tate Modern, Musée d’Orsay, The Sofia…Coco-gey.
I have visited over 15 upper secondary schools in Norway thus far. They have all been similarly memorable for dissimilar reasons: Persbråten was my first, Langhaugen necessitated a flight, Byåsen welcomed me for a week, and the list goes on.
After three months of “Roving” I thought I had seen a representative sample of what Norway had to offer; i.e., no more big surprises. Wrong! Last week I wasn’t surprised, I was shocked with joy and amazement. Last week I taught at Kristiansand Katedralskole Gimle.
Kristiansand is a fascinating town in its own right, meriting its own posting but this post is about a giant sliver of that city, the upper secondary Cathedral School. It seems like the important and historic cities of Norway all have a Cathedral school. As a land where church and state were one, it should come as no surprise. A Cathedral school was the location to prepare elite teenagers for admittance to university and high positions in society.
While church and state have been more or less cleaved in Norway, and public schools operate under a mandate to educate all in a folkelighet paradigm, Cathedral schools still are elite institutions with long histories that make for unique stories. KKG is one such school.
The locals call Kristiansand Katedralskole Gimle, “KKG.” You would pronounce those three letters, “Coco-gey.” Across the road from KKG is a church surrounded by pollard-style trees. The simple form shrouds its history – it dates to the 12th Century. That is the neighborhood.
I arrived early and found my way to the Personal Room, the faculty and staff area. Norwegian Personal Rooms are large, light-filled, and usually bedecked with art. They are places where teachers actually want to gather and talk and practice their collegiality like it has always been done rather than in some prescribed manner. This Personal Room was no exception.
My cooperating teacher found me deep into paperwork scattered across an entire table, acting as if I owned the joint. She asked if I would like a tour of the school. My reaction was to pass because I have had many a tour, but mostly I had a heck of a mess going on. But I did the opposite, I said yes, I would love a tour. She said she was pleased that I said yes, I came to mirror that sentiment.
We ascended the stairs to the newest structure. It was a large and open exposition like area for students to gather and eat as well as perform, a stage with professional rigging and lighting was integrated into the design. Large original paintings overlooked with hall from positions on the walls. This structure united the two former buildings of the bifurcated campus. Both were mid-century modern in brick: efficient, utilitarian, and underwhelming. Little did I know that these books ought not to be judged by their covers.
Up the second level, our first stop was the reason for the school’s fame, Dr. Reidar Wennesland. Wennesland, a local boy and alumnus of the school, spent his adult life in San Francisco and was an important part of the bohemian scene in the Post-War Years. An eclectic man, he was a friend to the artists and vagabonds. And for those who needed medical care or a place to crash, Dr. Wennesland was a harbor.
Given that poverty was the lingua franca of bohemia, gifts of art were the currency. Wennesland’s guests and patients repaid their host in artworks of all manners and born of materials both humble and hasty. The heir for the collection – the world’s largest assemblage of West Coast Beat Art outside the US – was to be KKG and the nearby Agder University College; henceforth the Wennesland Collection.
Wennesland wanted the art to be displayed prominently and with great accessibility in the schools, to be a intimate point of interaction and inspiration to young people. The doctor believed that art should surround people, be part and parcel of daily life rather than reserved for stoic galleries and special occasions.
Frankly, that priceless works of art were hanging on the walls and at arms length of hundreds of teens was thrilling to me, what trust the curators and school put on the students! Some of the pieces did have modest levels of protection owing to their fragile states (penniless Beat artists worked with materials at hand, quality canvas and frames were unthinkable).
The school also had a rare book collection, visible and accessible with permission but behind locked glass. There were several bibles dating back to the 16th Century – some of the earliest years for the press. The curator had even pulled out a couple of especially remarkable works for a presentation, and I got to see up-close-and-personal a first edition of, “The Wild Duck,” by Henrik Ibsen!
KKG had a partner school for business training before the merger about a decade ago. In the lower level was a professionally curated collection of historical business and accounting machines. American made machines dominated the collection. Several of the machines bore tags noting them as gifts under the Marshal Plan. More inspiration and wonderment.
Teens get a bad rap. Too often the adult world thinks of them as hopeless and unfit for fine things and then constructs for them worlds that fit that adult paradigm, the results are predictable. At KKG I saw a vision of a more interesting and trustworthy world for teens to inhabit, to mature in. My home school’s motto is now, “Inspire, Unlock, Empower.” It is an admirable goal. At KKG they have no motto, I don’t think they need one.
Author’s note: The featured image is a picture of a book about the Wennesland Collection.
Forsgren, Frida. (2008). San Francisco Beat Art in Norway. Press Publishing. Oslo, Norway.