Arizona Memories: Finding the American Dream at Cortez High

February 27, 2012

As we continue to celebrate Arizona's centennial, we reached out to you to share your favorite Arizona memories. Judith Dorffi Sadre told us how a public education in Arizona changed her life.


Judith Dorffi Sadre The author of this commentary, Judith Dorffi Sadre. (Photo courtesy Judith Dorffi Sadre)
Picture this: Flagstaff, Arizona, July, 1963. A navy blue 1960 Ford Galaxy turns onto Black Canyon Highway and begins its descent to the valley. Three teenagers, in various stages of angst, toss and turn in the back seat after four agonizing days on the road from Detroit. At the helm are my parents, leading the charge to the promised land: Phoenix, Arizona. I'm the one in the middle of the back seat, listening to rock 'n' roll on a radio through an earpiece, trying to drown out my parents' bluegrass music. Pots and pans and clothes trail behind us in a four-by-six U-Haul. Like most Arizona migrants, we are in search of the American Dream. As hot air blasts through the window, I’m thinking, “We must be going to hell...we've never seen this place before!”  Little did I know how my life would unfold at Cortez High School that year.

Mom got a job at General Electric as an electronics assembler, and Dad started in construction. When he came home at night to our rental on West Vista, she wouldn't let him in the house until she hosed him down outside. We slept on mattresses on the floor and sat in lawn chairs around a kitchen table.  In August, my sister and I registered at Cortez.

One day in late November I returned from lunch to the band room. The band director, Mr. Baxter, opened the door with a grave look on his face. “President Kennedy has been shot dead,” he said. We were sent home at midday and spent the next four days glued to our little black and white TV, watching the tragic events unfold. Back at school on Monday, a gloom hung over the Cortez campus, for we had lost a leader who symbolized inspiration and hope for our generation.

In February my friend, Sally, and I threw ourselves an "anti-prom," since we didn't have dates to the real one.  We secured a bottle of champagne and a pack of cigarettes. We spoke in fractured high school French while we blew smoke rings into the evening in her bedroom. We disparaged the herd mentality at Cortez and gossiped about the teachers. Then we got all existential. By 5 a.m. the champagne and the cigarettes were gone, so we declared ourselves atheists and went to sleep.

In the spring, my counselor encouraged me to apply for scholarships and loans to go to a state university. Because of my academic record, I was awarded enough money to start ASU in the fall. I earned a BA degree in English, and I later got a Masters at Kent State University.

So it was at Cortez High School in 1964 that I realized the American Dream, one year after my parents dragged us to Arizona from the Midwest. Although I came from the working class, I was able to expand my horizons beyond what I thought possible because I had access to a top public school education. I wonder sometimes what happened to those better days. Today, we are witnessing the shrinking of the middle class and the downgrading of our schools. We Arizonans must renew our commitment to provide a quality education to all citizens in order to preserve the democratic values of our society and continue the American Dream.

We met Judith through the Public Insight Network. Click here to find out more.