Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fifty Years Ago. . .

...I was a young teacher with four classes of tenth grade English and one class of Spanish in the original building housing Central High School in Jackson, MS. The half century class reunion of 1959 held its gathering last evening in Jackson at a site that was a wooded area fifty years ago. Those posing for a photo showed that despite the number of deceased, there were a large number still living. They are now retired or nearly so, have contributed much to their community, and only twelve years younger than I.

Today I wish I had begun my teaching at Central. I had chosen to "learn the ropes" in two small Delta towns before tackling a large school in the capitol city. Blessed is what I call my years at Central, a school being torn apart by progress--new high schools in the northern and western ends of town. Soon Central High would be an empty building with its wide hallways, creaking wood stairs, stalwart lockers lining the walls like sentinels, dark basement rooms, empty patios. Silent but for the echoes of the once-heard marching of ROTC students outside and the commands of their drill instructors, locker doors slamming between classes, and the thousands of feet pounding the wood floors only to quieten when the bells clanged to warn of classes beginning or ending. With little trouble I can transform myself mentally into those hallways just left or right of the auditorium. As I progress through the hallways,I hear teachers explaining the history lesson, the math problem, the rules of grammar. No school was like Central High, and I was in a bit of heaven last night as I saw and talked with many of my former students, my mind reeling with photos of them as seventeen-year olds.

There were five of us teachers out of ten who attended. At our table we talked about the meaning of this school and declared that our time at Central High was the best of any school where we had worked. We were family. What better way to explain the warmth we still hold in our hearts for these students and faculty with whom we worked?

Friday, April 03, 2009

I Could Have Had the Best Mentor. . .

Now that I'm retired I have time to reflect on those with whom I've been in contact who could have changed my life had my decision at the time been opposite. I seem to have floated through life making a few bad ones. Here's one example.

Fresh out of college I took a summer job with a suburban newspaper. My goal was to teach a few years and then to enroll in journalism school. My new position was to work with the owner and his wife. Marlene covered the business side and dipped into the social scene with her reporting. When I was hired I reported just about every angle until Sam decided I could write features. I interviewed the kid who won a monkey, the award-winning rose grower, the prim antique collector, the college trekker. Then I began to cover the evening parties with a photographer, getting names of the posed. That was par for the course, I suspected. I had spent four years writing for a community college newspaper, covering every aspect of putting out a papers except printing.

One day an imposing lady wearing a hat whose brim was as wide as an umbrella and as springlike as daffodils entered the doorway. She wanted to see Sam. Later Sam exclaimed she was the owner of two small newspapers. Her name was Mrs. Smith. Uh, yea, Mrs. Smith in disguise I said to myself.

However, she came in often, always sporting a different wide-brimmed hat. I thought by then that she was interested in buying Sam's newspaper. In early August I received a letter from her asking me to join her staff in Lexington, just north of Jackson. That request sent me into the struggle of "Should I or Should I Not?" Already I was preparing to teach in a Delta school. I had learned in college -- YOU DON'T BREAK CONTRACTS. Here was my opportunity to work full time at what I truly loved. I leaned towards staying with my contract, regretfully. By the following year I was ready togive my body a hundred lashes for the mistake.

Little did I know Hazel Brannon Smith and her zeal for values. As a staff member of the Lexington Advertiser, I would have become embroiled in civil rights with Hazel. Her complete bio is found online at www.journal of Mississippi History written by Newman, Mark, “Hazel Brannon Smith and Holmes County, Mississippi, 1936-1964: The Making of a Pulitzer Prize Winner,” Journal of Mississippi History 54 (February 1992), pp. 59-87.

The summer I received the invitation was 1954 and during the following year as I struggled with 150 students Hazel Brannon Smith struggled with the Supreme Court's decision to desegregate public schools. She stood alone while white merchants and citizens boycotted her newspaper.

By 1964, ten years after my invitation to join her staff, Hazel Brannon Smith became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her editorials expressing her strong opinions. The last edition of the Lexington Advertiser was printed in 1983. She won the Fannie Lou Hamer award in 1993 and died May 1994.

I often think of the exciting and dangerous ride I would have had with Hazel Brannon Smith. Would I have stayed and fought alongside her? Could I have coped with the burning cross in her yard? The anger and meanness of the citizens? I had no strong political opinions but I agreed with many of her beliefs. I would have witnessed zeal and heartbreak and courage in one woman. I would have had the best mentor anyone could have wished for.

Now the Mississippi Legislature has honored Hazel Brannon Smith with Resolution 83 for her courage in the heat of adversity. Look online at the Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, MS, March 31, 2009 for an article by Emily Wagster Pettus reporting the honor and giving some background. I can see Hazel now, standing on a cloud wearing one of her wide-brimmed hats, smiling down on all of us.