I had the chance today to interview one of my high school classmates for a story for our hometown paper.
It’s been about 30 years since we were in seventh grade together, but as soon as I heard him laugh, it took me right back to seventh grade in Ms. Michael’s language arts class.
All of a sudden, I was a squirming, wild-haired kid in dingy Pro Wings, agonizing over the neatness of my margins and the proper placement of my commas.
In a lot of ways, middle school was pretty hellish for me (see reference above about Pro Wings during an era when the brand of shoes you wore was everything). And yet, it also was the time in life that made me who I am today. It was, somehow, perfect even in its imperfection.
I’ve been thinking a lot about middle school and high school lately, in part because my own kids are in seventh and eighth grades and have a lot of questions about how I went from the awkward, alienated looking kid in the eighth grade Photography Club photo to who I am today.
I’ve also been thinking about those years because of a book I am writing and publishing with help from some of my classmates – who may or may not have hassled me about those scuffed up, no-brand tennis shoes of mine. (I will never tell and doubt they will, either.)
The idea is that the book will feature about 15 or so of our classmates, what they appreciated about the contributions of our public school system, and how it’s made them who they are today. Proceeds from the book will be used to fund a scholarship from the Meridian High School Class of 1992.
Being responsible for the foreword of the book, I have been thinking a lot about what made our class so remarkable.
And one of the things I think about most often is the diversity represented in our classes. I was lucky to go to integrated schools in Mississippi. We hit third grade there about 15 years after Mississippi’s schools were integrated. In fact, several of my teachers had started their careers teaching at Meridian’s all-black schools.
We were – and are – an interesting and diverse crew. Trailer park kids. Kids who lived in one of several housing projects in our city. The children of hospital administrators and doctors, teachers and nurses. Some of our parents were drug addicted, others were pillars of the community.
And we all rubbed shoulders and backpacks in the halls each day, slamming lockers, taking Algebra tests, putting out the school newspaper, arguing about the theme for prom (ours was one of the first to take place after integration because for years after integration, there was no public school prom – just a private dance for white students and another for students who were black.)
Telling the story of the collective experiences of our class is going to be a challenge. We all had our own individual experiences, but also collective experiences that shaped us all.
Meridian High School – and the elementary, middle and junior high schools that fed into it – were far from perfect. But the impact that they had on our lives? Well, they feel close to it.
We had teachers that were STUNNINGLY demanding of us, pushing us to learn and grow. No matter where we were from, there were no excuses. We would achieve and be accountable. Period. Their high expectations for us permeated our lives, and I believe it’s one of the reasons that so many of us have done so incredibly well, both professionally and personally.
Our public school experience also equipped us to be culturally proficient in a way that has paid huge dividends. Most of us move quite comfortably between different circles of people, and we have our public schools to thank for it.
I’m really excited about this project and am humbled to think that we could use our collective resources to extend our legacy, making college even a little bit more accessible for those students coming behind us.
And thanks for taking the time to talk and laugh with me today, classmate. It made me thankful all over again to be a part of such a beautiful, messy, crazy, empowering public school experience.