LAST WEEK, on the night my high school was designated for extinction, I found myself humming my alma mater and a refrain from a Janis Joplin song: "Go on, take another little piece of my heart, now, baby."

Germantown High School will close in the spring, a year before its 100th birthday, a year before the 50th anniversary of my graduation. My stomach sank when I heard.

It wasn't a prestigious place - it wasn't Girls High or Central, the revered temples of academia. And the building seemed outdated even then. But it felt imposing and sturdy, built to sustain turbulence and last forever.

Everything I needed to know, I learned - not in kindergarten, as the saying goes - but at Germantown.

I learned politics: After being elected president of my class in 12A, my incumbency ended abruptly in the election for 12B. I got dumped because I apparently had become a snob. Or was it a jerk?

I learned history: I was walking out the side door after school when someone ran by screaming "President Kennedy has been shot!" I stood riveted in numb disbelief, the first time my tears were for something larger than myself. I went home to bed with a radio next to my ear, and soon slumped down to the kitchen to tell my mother, "President Kennedy is dead."

I learned sociology and psychology: The school was largely African-American, and with a few exceptions we kept to our own kind, in a naturally occurring apartheid. When I brought home a black friend one day, my father was so ill at ease that he offered him a cocktail - a cocktail! at 17! - and sat there, in phony friendliness, engaging him in conversation, compensating for his bias. My friend saw through it. Sadly, with great disillusionment, I did, too.

I learned the stuff of poetry: I fell for a classmate and remember vividly the moments in his house, in intense but innocent embrace, kissing with the rapture of first love. He was blond and ethereal, walked around barefoot and read Hemingway. He was a writer. He loved me briefly, I loved him too long.

I learned about the prerogatives of power: I was the yearbook editor and I'm in two-thirds of the photographs in the 1964 Revidere. (OK, I'm sorry.)

I don't blame Superintendent William Hite for closing Germantown. All he did was face the truth revealed in shrinking bar graphs of declining enrollment, the sad statistics of academic failure - by one account, Germantown is ranked 653rd of Pennsylvania's 676 public schools.

My lament is not for me - I got everything that a high school could give: lifelong friends, the thrill of a basketball championship, the enlightening experience of what is now called diversity, the everlasting gift of brilliant teachers like Claire Hirshfield, who captivated us with the her breadth of knowledge and love of teaching.

My lament is for the students at Germantown and everywhere else who'll be dislocated, who don't have the enrichments - the music, the athletics, the after-school activities - we took for granted.

Some savant said recently that, if free public education for all children were proposed today, it would be disdained as a grandiose idea that was far too expensive. At times like this, it seems as if quality public education was a grand experiment that our society, with its warped values and insane inequities, couldn't sustain.

But maybe, in Hite's plan, there is hope. Maybe we have to tear down before we can build anew.

A quote in my yearbook says, "The days that make us happy make us wise."

I was happy at Germantown and I'm sad and sorry to see it close.