Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Returnee aims to form Aiken alumni group

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ellen Layne gives as good as she gets. She believes Aiken High School gave her a great education. So she wants to give it a better future.

        Ellen teaches English with a fervor at her alma mater. And she's zealously spearheading a drive to form the school's first alumni association.

        “We call it the Aiken Alumni and Friends Association,” Ellen told me as she spread out a flier announcing the association's first get-together, a reunion of students and teachers in the school's lunchroom April 30.

        We sat at opposite desks inside her windowless classroom in Aiken's vocational building. School had just let out for the day. Unseen doors slammed. Kids whooped, free for another day.

        Ever the teacher, Ellen took the flier from my desk and underlined the words Alumni and Friends in red ink. She worked with the same pen she uses to grade her English students in Room 815.

        “We chose this name very carefully,” she explained. “The group is open to alumni, retired teachers, staff, parents, people in the community and students who didn't graduate.”

        As high schools go, Aiken is approaching middle age. The school opened in 1962 and graduated its first senior class in 1964. Since then, Aiken has issued 15,000 diplomas.

        But until now, the College Hill high school never had an alumni association. Ellen blames that lapse on the times. “Aiken opened in the '60s, when students were concerned with social issues. No one wanted any of that rah-rah stuff.”

        One of Aiken's 15,000 diplomas went to Ellen Lay in 1968. She went on to become Ellen Layne, a mother of two and a teacher for 27 years.

        After doing her student teaching at Aiken, she wrote on chalkboards and handed out homework assignments at schools named Dater, Taft, Western Hills and Gamble. Ellen returned to her alma mater in 1996.

        “I want to retire from here,” she said, spreading her arms and grabbing the air.

        “This feels like home. Aiken is just down the street from where I grew up. I would walk to school with my best friend. Everywhere I go, I have a memory about this building.”

        We took a walk down the school's deserted hallways. She pointed out her old locker, No. 8506, and showed how her old boyfriend used to flirt as he leaned against the locker's door.

        With every classroom we passed, Ellen named a former teacher and a lesson she learned.

        “Mr. Braun — my English teacher. He taught me to love literature, to look at a phrase and a sentence and treasure what they hold.”

        “Mr. Hays — history. He treated me like I was somebody who could really do something. "Give the job to Ellen; she'll get it done.'”

        Ellen hopes to get the job done as she helps set up Aiken's alumni association. She hopes the association can “act as an advocate” and find ways to repair Aiken's crumbling concrete and replace the missing tiles on the lunchroom floor. “And get rid of the decrepit curtain in the auditorium, which is the original, and put up a new one.”

        The association of friends and alumni plans to establish an achievement hall of fame. Students could see for themselves, Ellen told me, that you can go to Aiken and become a doctor or a stockbroker. “It would give kids a sense of future.”

        A sense of future might help stem the school's high dropout rate. When Ellen went to Aiken, “we graduated 400 students a year.” Since she returned as a teacher, “some years we've been lucky to graduate 200.”

        Ellen's walking tour ended where it began, outside Room 815, where she's teaching her class the novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

        As we stood there, I imagined one of her students stopping here, too, telling a friend, or maybe their own child:

        That was Ms. Layne's room. She went to school here and came back to teach. She wanted us to be proud of Aiken. She hoped we would pass on what we learned to the next students. As she did.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.