In the middle of Kiser Middle’s recent alumni celebration, as I watched people pore over yearbooks and scrapbooks from long ago, I remembered.
I never really liked middle school.
I came of age in the ‘70s beside the Ashley River in Charleston, S.C., and my elementary school mirrored my innocence.
I rode a Sting Ray bike, played shortstop, watched ‘Jonny Quest” religiously and used the quarters I earned mowing grass to buy the latest Captain America and The Falcon from the comic-book rack a few blocks away at The Book Bag.
Then, I went to Wallace Middle.
I discovered more than acne and striped bell bottoms. I discovered bullying, KISS, girls, Spin the Bottle, the trumpet and the hormonal weirdness of gym class wearing shorts that rode up too high into my crotch.
Smoking marijuana became code for cool, and a girl named Kim told me she’d like me … but my hair was way too short.
I’ll always remember that. And … this.
I encountered it first in second grade when public education in South Carolina became a social experiment and cross-city busing hit my elementary school down the street from my house.
Parents got all wonky and tense about their kids sitting in the same class with someone with skin darker than their own. Back then, I didn’t think much of it. I figured parents would get over their worry about who went where to school.
We kids weren’t hung up on the color of someone’s skin. But my hometown sure was.
Every Sunday after church, my dad would ride us along The Battery on our way home, and I’d look out into the harbor and see Fort Sumter, the forever memory to what local white folks liked to call the “War of Northern Aggression.”
A cannonball shot from Fort Sumter destroyed our church’s organ, and my church’s gym sat within eyesight of a market where thousands of Africans were sold into slavery.
I didn’t think twice about that stretch of concrete and wood where people were once sold as property. See, I thought all that hatred, all that ignorance was behind us.
Then came Wallace.
There, in a school parked at the bottom of a dead-end road, I saw the dangerous power of a slur, the insidious nature of racism and the helplessness teachers and school administrators felt trying to manage a centuries-old problem as prevalent in the South as Spanish moss.
At the same time, though, I muddled into how authentic relationships help.
James Avent Jr. understands that.
James is an alum from Kiser Middle School. He arrived there in 1965 when he was 11, and he made history. He became the school’s first black student.
I wrote about James here. But I didn’t write about his friendship with Howard Samuel Apple. James called him Sammy. Sammy was white.
“He was a big kid, and he was one of the first people I met in my homeroom,” James tells me. “We immediately took to each other, and whenever someone would come down the hallway and call me a nigger, he would take them in the boys’ bathroom.”
And do what?
“He’d beat the hell of out them,” James says, laughing. “No one called me names after that.”
All that got me thinking about Wallace Middle – and basketball.
My favorite spot at Wallace was that stretch of blacktop beside the swings. When the weather stayed rain-free and above freezing, I’d always inhale my lunch and bolt to the blacktop for a game or two of hoops before the bell.
Often, I was the only white kid on the court. We talked about Dr. J and Jimmy Walker and Mrs. Warner on the eighth-grade hall and our undefeated Steelers at the Orange Grove playground.
And Farrah Fawcett. We all could talk about Farrah Fawcett for days.
The ’76 Steelers I remember.
The Farrah Fawcett me and my friends will forever see.
One day during lunch, a guy named Solomon came to play.
He didn’t go to Wallace. From what I remember, he dropped out of high school and hung out in Orleans Woods, the black neighborhood just beyond the clutch of trees beside Wallace.
Solomon covered me, and I scored on him a few times. I took him inside, doing some double-clutch Dr. J move I constantly worked on in my driveway, and Solomon hip-checked me hard and sent me sprawling.
I looked up and saw Solomon standing over me, his fist raised.
The next thing I know, the brothers Washington, Herb and Curtis, raced over and stopped him.
Then there is what local TV called Wallace’s race riot. Well, not quite.
Really, it was a fight that started a day or two before when a white guy hit a black guy over the head with a lunch tray in the cafeteria for … something. I can’t remember what. But I do remember what happened in my class.
I was a sixth-grader in Room 6-27, and I helped tutor two of my classmates, Sylvester and Johnny. They both were black.
On the day of Wallace’s big fight, Johnny came to school stiff-legged. He had an axe handle in his pants. Sylvester came with simply anger and retaliation on his mind. He told me to stay inside 6-27 because he didn’t want me to get hurt.
Then, at an assigned time, he and Johnny raced out the door to join the throng on the playground. Police came. TV cameras came. And the fight ended before it really got started.
When I consider these two middle-school memories today, I’m embarrassed. I realize I was simply an adolescent observer too scared to speak out against racism or stand up to what I believed was wrong.
And yet, my friends Herb, Curtis and Sylvester stood up to protect me.
Why didn’t I do anything? I’ve got an idea. I had this fear of being bullied by white acquaintances and strangers. I mean, during my time in middle school, I had been called a race traitor because of my time on the blacktop and my friendship with folks like Sylvester, Herb and Curtis.
But I never heard the euphemism — race traitor. I heard a much uglier two-word phrase. You know what it was. That all made me way cautious and aware that I didn’t want to be subjected to the cruelty of middle school.
See, I was a socially conscious, yet anxious middle-school kid. I was the youngest of three, and my dad was a retired Army sergeant major, and my mom, a homemaker. My family had deep roots in the South, and we never wrestled with the hard questions of race or our country’s racist past. We got along to get along.
Before this month, I’ve never really dug into any of this. That is, until my conversation with James.
The hard realization about my young self came after an innocent conversation involving one of the most innocent of events — the 60th anniversary of Kiser Middle, a school my two kids attended, and its alumni celebration last Saturday.
That’s how I met James. And Lucy Pless.
I spotted Lucy with two of her Kiser friends hovering over a table and guffawing over something they read in a Kiser yearbook from long ago. I asked what set them off, they pointed, and I read.
It was a seven-paragraph memo from January 1970 about girls wearing pants to Kiser. Or as the memo says, girls being “obsessed” with wearing pants to school.
They couldn’t. From the second paragraph, here are two sentences:
“Presently, many of our girls are more concerned with wearing slacks than with their schoolwork. With serious review sessions and exams forthcoming many girls will be affected unless this matter is settled.”
Well … OK.
I followed Lucy into Kiser’s red-brick gym and heard her gasp when she entered. She hadn’t stepped into that place since she slipped into a powder blue dress for a school dance – and that was more than four decades ago.
Lucy found herself immersed in memory. When I left the celebration, I found myself immersed in memory, too.
For the first time in forever, I pulled out my yearbooks from Wallace Middle.
I saw familiar faces, bad haircuts, outlandish fashions, past crushes and a yearbook inscription from my friend Kathy. Like Lucy and her friends, I read it and just laughed. In her balloon cursive, Kathy began:
Hey, your (sic) so sweet and I hope you never change. Thanks for putting up with me during the time with Steve (boy, I’m glad it’s over). Stay cool and keep your hair feathered. Hope you never forget me next year ’cause you’ll be in all those things at Midd. (Middleton High), Good luck next year in JV and band.
I love you always,
Oh, I changed more than my haircut. So did Kathy. So did Lucy Pless.
Lucy is now 59, a mother of two grown daughters. She lives Durham and works at Duke. And yet, she will forever be a visible part of Kiser.
It’s because of her mom.
Lucy’s mom was the school’s PTA president when she and her brother were there. When Lucy was a senior at Grimsley High, her mom died in a boating accident. She was just 43.
This fall, Lucy helped spearhead a fundraising drive to put a pond-less waterfall in front of Kiser in memory of her mom.
A few days ago, Lucy sent me a picture of her and her classmates gathered at the waterfall after Kiser’s alumni celebration. They wanted to remember Lucy’s mom. They also wanted to remember one another, and together, they walked into memory.
Clockwise, left to right: Lucy Pless, Nathan Sykes, Wayne Durham, Carmen Durham.
In a sense, they encouraged me to walk into my own.
I asked Ned McMillan, a retired fifth-grade teacher and one of the organizer’s of Kiser’s alumni celebration, about all that. Like any teacher, he had an answer.
“It’s affirming,” he tells me. “In a sense, we reflect back on our childhood, and we find that most of our memories are good memories, healthy memories.
“My family wasn’t Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, and other kids were in the same boat. We were insecure. But we all connected with each other, we were all in a new situation, and that made it exciting.”
Last Saturday, I watched Ned and scores of adults transform into awkward adolescents. They hugged, laughed, met old teachers, hovered old yearbooks, unearthed old memories, made new memories and sang Kiser’s fight song in a full-throated roar.
James remembered Sammy. Ned remembered Mrs. Hazelman. Lucy remembered her mom. And I went home, opened up my old yearbooks and remembered Kim and Kathy, Sylvester, Curtis and Herb.
I remembered what I missed, what I liked and what I loved. But more importantly, I remembered what I didn’t do and should’ve done. I saw it as a lesson long overdue. Wallace Middle continues to teach.
The Wallace yearbook, and yeah, I still have it.
A few days ago, before I dove into another day of writing on my day job, I ran across this quote from Kathleen McDonald, a Tibetan Buddhist nun. It made me think about what I saw last Saturday and how I now see Wallace Middle.
“When we fall on the ground it hurts us, but we also need to rely on the ground to get back up.”
Then, I remembered “Between The World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I read his book two years ago, and I saw him speak at Wake Forest. What I liked about “Between The World And Me” is how he turned a letter to his son into a book that made me see race and racism through a whole different lens.
Coates wrote: “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”