Saturday, May 29, 2010

My Old Schools

So tonight I was coming back from where I had been and that great old Steely Dan song in which they sing “I’m never going back to my old school” came on the radio and I thought, “In three out of four cases, me neither.”

Allow me to explain.

My educational career began in 1963 at Gordon Grammar School in my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia. Gordon was a 1st-8th grade school that consisted of three buildings: the “new” building (I have no idea how old it was but it was newer than the “old” building) that was a single story structure housing the 1st and 2nd grades, the “old” building (I don’t know how old it was but it sure seemed old) that was a two-story building housing the 3rd-8th grades, and the building in between those buildings that doubled as the lunchroom and the auditorium. There was no gymnasium; all of our recreational activities took place outside.

Gordon Grammar was more or less the city elementary school where the white kids who lived in town attended; I say “more or less” because there were some white children from out in the county who attended and there were a few black students whose parents sent them there under the old “freedom of choice” policy. There was also an elementary school in the Aldora Mills community and a school at Milner, including a high school, where mainly white children went. And there was the Booker School where 99% of the black children in the city and county attended; I think that Booker housed 1st through 12th grades but I’m not sure about that; the unfortunate nature of things in those days was that there may well have been other black schools but if there were I didn't know about them.

I learned a lot at Gordon Grammar School; I will always be indebted to teachers like Mrs. Light, Mrs. Elliott, Mrs. Pitts, Mrs. Tenney, Mrs. Fambro, Mrs. Heinz, Mrs. Ruffin (she was married to my father’s cousin), Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Branch and Miss Vescey for the solid educational foundation they gave me.

(The "old building" at Gordon Grammar School)

Integration and consolidation happened in 1970, the year that I went into the 7th grade, and the Gordon Grammar School that I had known and even loved ceased to exist so I can’t go back to that old school. In fact, that’s literally true, since all the buildings were eventually torn down. There is a very nice public library on the site now, which is good.

I don’t know if our community leaders thought that somehow Lamar County would be the only place in Georgia that would not have to integrate; I do know that we were not prepared in any way, shape, or form for the changes that came. While I don’t remember all the details of how students were assigned, I do know that what it pretty much boiled down to was that the girls were sent to Milner, which I think was renamed Birch Street School, and the boys were sent to Booker, which was renamed Forsyth Road School. That was how things remained for the next four years and so those were the conditions under which I went to school from 7th-10th grades.

In retrospect I see into what an interesting situation we sheltered Gordon Grammar students had been thrust, given that we went from our small school with its small classes (I had gone to school for six years with pretty much the same small group of friends) to a much larger school with the vast majority of our fellow students being people we not only did not know but had never seen before. But not all of my Gordon Grammar classmates participated in the great experiment; some immediately or eventually went to private schools and others were able to attend schools in neighboring counties. It was only in the fifth year of consolidation, my eleventh grade year, that the girls and boys began attending school together again.

As you can imagine, little cohesion or camaraderie developed in my class; we graduated in 1976 and so far as I know we have never had a class reunion.

Somewhere along the way a bond referendum passed and construction began on a brand new high school. Lamar County Comprehensive High School opened in the fall of 1975, my senior year, but I opted to forego my senior year in order to enroll early at Mercer University and so I never attended classes at the new school. My graduating class had the honor of being the first class to graduate from and in the new school and I had the honor of being the valedictorian of that class; I did participate in the graduation ceremony but I felt awkward and out of place.

Anyway, I never attended Lamar County Comprehensive High School, my alma mater, and I’m not sure if the Forsyth Road School property is still in use; I know that at one time it served as a National Guard Armory. So, when it comes to high school, in one sense my old school was never my school at all and in another sense my old school is not a school anymore. I can’t go back to those old schools.

Mercer University in Macon, Georgia is my one old school to which I can and do go back; every building that was significant to me when I was a student there from 1975-1978 is still there and still in use: Roberts Hall, Shorter Hall, Knight Hall, the Administration Building, Newton Hall, Willingham Chapel, the Student Center—and of course Freshman Women’s Dorm (I think they call it Plunkett Hall now) where Debra lived when I pursued and courted and visited and fell in love with her and Mary Erin Porter (MEP) where she lived during that glorious year when not only was I a college senior but also was engaged to Debra Kay Johnson.

Sometimes Mercer leaders like to compare the Mercer of the present, which has grown by leaps and bounds in every way including reputation in the thirty-two years since I graduated, to the “small liberal arts college with a law school attached to it” that it was back then. While I am proud of Mercer’s growth and of its standing, I will always be grateful for the way that “small liberal arts college” changed my life.

And I am glad that, in the case of Mercer, I can still go back to my old school.

(Knight Hall at Mercer University, home then and now of the Christianity Department)

After Debra graduated from Mercer in 1979 we moved to Louisville, Kentucky so I could attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; we stayed there seven years while I earned both the M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees. As I have written of elsewhere and so won’t go into here, in subsequent years the character of SBTS changed so completely that I do not think of it as “my” seminary; I made one visit to the campus a few years after finishing there and I have no intention of ever going there again. (I realize that my attitude seems harsh to some people, including some friends of mine, who have gone to SBTS in the years since the changes took place, and I don’t ask them to understand but rather just to accept that to me the “old” Southern was a better place while to them the “new” Southern is a better place.)

(Boyce Library at SBTS)

I’m never going back to that old school because while the buildings where I went to class and studied are still there the school I attended does not exist anymore.

I guess that the old Steely Dan song is not really what got me thinking about these things; rather, it is an effort by two old friends to put together two very different reunions.

My old Gordon Grammar School classmate and Little League baseball teammate Wade Head has been hard at work organizing a reunion of our Gordon Grammar friends. Wade, along with other of my Gordon classmates, graduated from Barnesville Academy in 1976 and as they began talking about having a reunion of their graduating class they decided to include, among others, the kids (we’re all in our fifties now!) with whom they had gone to Gordon Grammar. So in June we’ll be getting together; I am so excited about seeing those folks, most of whom I have not seen in over thirty years and some of whom I have not seen since 6th grade.

And my fellow Mercerian Keith Alderman is trying to put together a reunion of folks who attended Mercer and who were active in the Baptist Student Union in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Again, I’m excited about this possible reunion because the BSU folks were my family during my time at Mercer and, while I have seen and kept up with a good many of them, it will be good to see many more and to catch up on each other’s lives.

Thank you, Wade and Keith. In three out of four cases, I’m never going back to my old schools. But it sure will be good to get back with my old friends.


Drew Hill said...

Thanks, Michael. I know exactly how you feel. I feel like the seminary where I graduated twice is now spread to the wind, sprinkled throughout the country in various quality divinity schools. The old location holds no attraction to me.

Frank Stainback said...

Very good story. I too lived in Barnesville and went to Gordon Grammar. I completed thru the 7th grade before having to move to Tennessee. I think my final year was 1966. We lived on Pine Street next door to the Tuttles. I am looking forward to the upcoming reunion and hope to see some friends from the past. Thanks again, Frank Stainback

Frank Stainback said...

Very good story. I too lived in Barnesville and went to Gordon Grammar. I completed thru the 7th grade before having to move to Tennessee. I think my final year was 1966. We lived on Pine Street next door to the Tuttles. I am looking forward to the upcoming reunion and hope to see some friends from the past. Thanks again, Frank Stainback