Homecoming: A Cultural Fixture of Constant Change Over Time

By Megan Yee, Print Editor in Chief

   A plume of blue powder and excited energy erupted from the Acalanes stands during halftime at the football game on October 10. The messy powder toss was a new addition to Acalanes’ annual homecoming festivities, which are meant to rally school spirit and bring the student and alumni community together.

   However, alumni who graduated before the 2000s were surprised when the night concluded without some of the celebrations that they remember from their own high school years. The football game itself has weathered the decades, but the shape of the Acalanes homecoming experience has shifted and changed with the winds of time, much like the plume of powder did during the toss.

   “We invited all our local friends and kids, and it didn’t seem like a homecoming game whatsoever,” said Kim Wampler, an Acalanes 1990 graduate. “There were no floats, no indication of it being homecoming.”

   Throughout Acalanes’ 75-year history, homecoming traditions have evolved in order to accommodate changing times and tastes. Students and staff members phased out certain traditions and introduced new ones, which has culminated in an array of activities and events that bear only a slight resemblance to those of past homecomings.

   “The tradition itself evolved pretty substantially from the time I was a student in the 80s until I was in charge of Leadership, which took place in the early part of 2002,” said Michael McAlister, a 1983 graduate and former Acalanes teacher and associate principal.

   Whether or not Acalanes has celebrated homecoming since the school’s establishment in 1940 is unclear, as yearbooks from Acalanes’ early years make little, if any, mention of homecoming activities. However, the school held activities of some sort and attended homecoming football games during the 1950s, according to Orlando Chiavini, a 1950 graduate and former Acalanes principal. 

   The Friday night football game remains a cornerstone of homecoming week, but Acalanes alumni remember the games being much more elaborate events than they are today, with students, families, and alumni packing the stands and lining the edges of the field to cheer on their Dons.

   Wampler has fond memories of the marching band playing school spirit songs and watching the other festivities during the game. She recalls working hard to perfect the half-time cheer and being so nervous for the performance that she sweated through her Acalanes polyester sweater.

   In addition to the half-time performance, Wampler recalls working during seventh period on game day to paint a huge banner for the football players.

   “We would climb up onto the goal post and hold the banner down from there,” Wampler said. “Other school members came down on the field and made a big long tunnel, standing on either side of the banner. The whole football team would run through the man-made tunnel and crash through the banner.”

   By the 1960s, activities that are commonly associated with a traditional homecoming experience were in full swing at Acalanes. Students from years past participated in lunchtime activities throughout the week and performed skits at a rally, much like current students do.

   One of the most popular lunchtime activities was powderpuff football. Erin Beaver, class of 1997, remembers around 50 girls from all 4 grades participated in flag football games while the boys stayed on the sidelines and coached. Class rivalry was strong and the upperclassmen usually won, but the girls enjoyed the competition regardless.

   “It gave the guys a chance to sit back on the sidelines while the girls did something more physical,” said Natalie Lane, a 1986 graduate. “It was fun for them to coach the girls, and it was a good role reversal activity.” 

   Besides the Friday night football game, alumni agreed that float building stands out as the most memorable part of homecoming. Every class spent around two weeks working together to conceptualize and build a float that represented their homecoming theme.

   “Float-building was what it was all about,” Wampler said. “Cramming to get that homework done so we could go to float building that night, working hours on end tying those little streamer pieces on, having conversations with people from your class you didn’t get a chance to talk to often.”

   As soon as themes were announced, students rushed to figure out who lived near campus on a street with level ground. Students and parents worked in shifts to construct their floats and enjoyed food and music while they did so.

   “The home where I grew up had this big turn around driveway, so three of the four years the float was built at my house,” said Leslie Hagel, a 1990 graduate. “It was really fun and carefree. Everybody came. We would have up to a hundred kids there on a given night.”

      After long nights of sewing crepe paper flowers and perfecting their floats, students drove their completed masterpieces to Acalanes. Part of the reason why the float building location was so important was that students hoped to avoid unfortunate transportation situations.

   “One year we were driving the float from the person’s house to school, and during the drive over, half the float disappeared in all the wind,” McAlister said.

   Once the floats arrived at Acalanes, they circled around the track as part of the halftime parade. A group of judges evaluated each class’s float based on a certain set of criteria and chose winners.

   “They were these rinky-dink little things rolling around the track, and the coaches were all upset because we were driving cars on their track,” McAlister said. “But we were so proud of that thing, and I think we may have even lost our senior year. We were such horrible float builders.”

   Class competition was intense and winning the float-building competition was always a goal, but memories of the float-building process stand out more strongly in graduates’ minds than the actual results of the competition. None of the graduates recalled specifics about how the floats were judged or what places their classes ranked.

   “I remember how it really brought our class together,” Natalie Lane, a 1986 graduate said. “Spending time in the evening working on our floats were some of the best bonding times.”

   Friday night traditions also included homecoming royalty riding around the track during the parade. Students voted for members of the homecoming court, who eventually got to dress up and participate in the parade.

   “I remember running to the bathroom to quickly change into my iridescent dress and fluff my hair even bigger before getting into a convertible with the senior class president,” Wampler said.

   Although students who were nominated to be king or queen were flattered by their royal titles, they didn’t always see the point of the tradition.

   “I was humbled and flattered by it, but I felt it was kind of silly,” McAlister said. “I remember sitting with a group of guys, going ‘it’s nice to get dressed up in this tuxedo and everything but what is this about?’”

    Although homecoming royalty is often perceived as somewhat of a superficial popularity competition, alumni said that this was not the case.

   “It tended to be people really involved in the school and people who just had a good reputation of being involved and really nice to people,” Wampler said. “So it wasn’t like a beauty pageant by any means and it wasn’t a total popularity contest because if people were mean or rude or snotty then they weren’t on it.”

   Wampler also has fond memories of “chalking the hill” during homecoming week. Students bought bags of chalk from the local hardware store, drove up Deer Hill under the cover of darkness, and wrote their class’s graduating year on the hill. Technically, the students were trespassing, so they had to take precautions to avoid getting caught.

  “I had blonde hair and I remember the homecoming queen actually made me wear a dark brown hat,” Wampler said. “She thought our hair was going to glow and we didn’t want to get caught.”

   These homecoming traditions remained largely unchanged through the early 90s, but major changes came into play around the late 90s into the early 2000s.

   Administrators moved float-building on campus in the late 90s due to issues with students sabotaging each other’s floats. 

   “There were kids that would drive up to another class’s float-building home and they would throw water balloons, and it eventually got to the point where they would fire potato guns, which are flaming potatoes,” said former Acalanes teacher Gordon Finn.

  According to English teacher Liz Cusick, who was the Leadership teacher from fall of 2000 through spring 2002, float building had become anti-climatic by 2000 because floats could not be driven around the expensive new track and were parked in between the gyms instead.

   Students built floats for the final time in 2000, but the mayor of Lafayette would not support shutting down portions of Mt. Diablo Boulevard for the parade. Only students with convertibles could participate in the parade, as walking was not allowed.

   The combination of the issues with the track and the exclusive nature of the parade led to a joint decision to eliminate the floats and cancel the parade for the fall 2001 homecoming.

   “I made a proposal along with the support of the class and the principal, and we all voted that we were going to cancel the parade and do something different,” Cusick said.

    Soon after they made the decision, the 9/11 attacks occurred which cemented plans to do away with the floats and parade. Students were uncomfortable holding major festivities in light of the tragedy.

   “In the midst of all the planning, 9/11 happened,” Cusick said. “It suddenly became this opportunity to make a statement about community service. We had a carnival instead in fall of 2001.”

   For the carnival, each grade built booths using leftover float-building material, such as chicken wire and crepe paper. Students and community members enjoyed food, games, and other activities at the carnival and raised $5,000 in the process. Leadership donated all of the carnival money to the Red Cross.

  According to Acalanes’ registrar, Emily Finn, the carnivals continued for a few years after 2001, but they were eventually phased out because they were not making enough money to cover the costs of putting on the event.

   One year after floats were replaced, powder-puff football was also eliminated due to unhealthy levels of class rivalry and a game that ended with a hospitalized student. The activity that was supposed to build school spirit became vicious, according to Cusick.

   “Powder-puff took place in 2002, and it was a really ugly situation with violence and conflict between classes, injury, and even racial tension,” said John Nickerson, Acalanes Union High School District superintendent and former Acalanes principal.

   All of these changes, along with the elimination of royalty, eventually formed the homecoming week that students celebrate today. Although there are no floats or royalty, students still decorate hallways, participate in dress-up days and lunchtime activities, and attend a dance.   

    “I like Acalanes’ homecoming traditions, especially hallway theme decorating,” junior Leeann Wang said. “It can be boring to walk the same familiar halls all the time, so changing things up once a year is great.”

   Although students enjoy the current activities, some expressed interest in bringing back powder-puff and float building. Students were less in favor of homecoming royalty because they see it as a tradition that could become a popularity contest.

   Whether or not students will see the return of floats and other traditional homecoming activities is uncertain. Leadership teacher Linda Gog said that there has been some discussion about bringing back floats, but it is just an idea on the board at this point.

  Those who have fond memories of past homecomings are in full support of reintroducing some of the activities because they feel that those traditions helped unify and strengthen the school.

   “It was like Friday Night Lights,” Hagel said. I would love to see some of it come back. It was fun for not just the students, but for the parents and the community.”

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