Last week, some classmates and I headed down to Tacoma to have dinner at a professor's house then hear a lecture at a nearby university. We ended up arriving about 45 minutes head of time, and, not wanting to show up almost an hour early for dinner, we drove back to a building we had passed on the drive in, which one of us (not me) had identified as the high school where "10 Things I Hate About You" was filmed. This may be the only Heath Ledger film that I actually turned off before it was over. I had caught it on TV, years after "Monster's Ball", and really had no interest in the teen flick film that Heath Ledger himself had tried to distance himself from so as not to be pigeonholed. I found the film pretty painful (as I do with all Shakespeare-goes-to-High-School movies, especially if they feature Julia Stiles). Nevertheless, since it was only three weeks since we lost Heath Ledger, it seemed appropriate to take a few steps around the place that solidified his place in popular culture.
Tacoma, in general, surprised me as quite a lovely shorefront town. I had pictured suburban sprawl, but instead, it reminded me much more of the northern coast of England, near the Scottish border. It helped that the building we were wandering around looked like a castle. Stadium High School was originally planned as a luxury hotel late in the 19th century, but economic crashes and building fires left the building unfinished until the city of Tacoma purchased it as the new high school building back around 1910. This building, meant to house visiting millionaires during the Gilded Age, has instead, been occupied by teenagers for almost a century. Needless to say, I was incredibly jealous of the high-schoolers that get to wander these halls and look out bay windows at the breathtaking views. It was about as close to Hogwarts as I've ever felt.
But even though I'd barely watched the movie filmed on this location, I was surprised how much memory I had of the visuals. The school was completely empty, and we just wandered around the stadium at sunset, being buffeted by a freezing cold wind. Honestly, it felt rather holy. It felt like my experiences visiting castles and cathedrals. This place had immense cultural memory, both for the generations of Tacoma residents who have gone here, and for all the people who love this movie and it's star. And here we were, practically in silence, walking around, remembering images and scenes that took place right where we were standing.
I found out that counsellors were brought on campus the day Heath Ledger died, to help students cope with the shock. Like the small towns in Texas that lay claim to having housed James Dean during the filming of "Giant", this high school has embraced a very close relationship to the movie that made it famous, and the actors who wandered the same halls they do. In some ways, it must have been like their mascot died. And i think that's really lovely. I confess, I felt very moved wandering around the castle-like building, doing the "He probably stood right here in that scene" thing in my head. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I'm glad for the chance to take seriously what a sad and tragic loss it is to no longer have Heath Ledger. And for all the love this high school community has for him, I hope he will be remembered as more than a teen idol.