Old Friends Gather on Memory Lane
If there were ever any 38 people who know me — outside of my family who are all prejudiced about it — it would be the members of the Southern Pines Class of 1957, the one group in all the world who can see right through me, and catch every lie, every brag.
Last weekend’s reunion was another reminder of how much we have all come to mean to each other over the years.
Maybe others feel that way; George Little (class of 1960) sure seems to, and he was three years behind us. Of course, he passed us long ago and has been way ahead for years. Thirty years ago he launched these reunions, and they are still going strong. My sister (class of 1962) had a wonderful time with her old pals. I can only testify to my experience, my memories and my love for those who spent hours together, every school day, from primary grades through graduation.
Our group followed the great class of 1956 for 12 years, hearing each year from a different teacher how wonderful they were — and no doubt they really were that wonderful — but nevertheless, each year seemed to begin with more and more familiar looks of disappointment mingled with resignation on our teachers’ faces.
So we thought at the time, anyway. I suppose we all just accepted second-rate status the way children accept such things. We figured we were ordinary — back then for sure, for we were just kids planning to grow up someday.
Our family moved down from Robbins to Southern Pines in 1945, just in time for me to start first grade. Mrs. Boyd came over from Weymouth to visit us and recruit Mom and Dad to block the paving of Ridge Street. That was so it would be better turf for horses. She was unsuccessful. I liked that sandy dirt, myself, having come from mud and clay to the super sand pile of the southern section. I saw another boy playing in the bank and made my first friend in our new town. That was Mac Mills, my first magic act partner the following year.
I didn’t get to join our class until the third grade, after two years over at Notre Dame Academy, where we had started right out with ink and cursive writing. We never learned to print our letters. Shortly after entering the third grade our class was given one of the new IQ tests, and we were told there were no right or wrong answers — an incitement to mischief if there ever was one, so I had fun with that test. Not long afterward I got to spend most of the day playing in the terrarium.
I thought it was because the rest were just learning cursive, which I knew already. What I didn’t know was that my score on the IQ test had been about 85. Of course, I could not print very well ... Mama made them test me again. I suppose I did all right, but I have never entirely trusted any IQ test or any other purported measurement of a human being again.
The remarkable achievements in character and accomplishment of my classmates taught me otherwise. I’d entered as a sublevel member of an ordinary class … but learned right away how easily even teachers can fall prey to prejudice and lower their expectations when there is not real reason to do so.
We might have been ordinary, but we had extraordinary teachers. Of course we didn’t know that our principals and superintendents, Phil Weaver and A.C. “Ace” Dawson, would someday be celebrated across the whole state. What we knew was not to get on their bad side. Being ordinary ourselves, we probably thought of them as ordinary, too.
Each year brought some new adventure. In those times classroom teachers could work creatively and independently. In the fourth grade we learned about Mesopotamia (Greek for “between the rivers”), the land bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates — and that knowledge came in handy during the Gulf War and ever since “over there.”
We learned how to make soap out of ashes, though not why. We were in a new school building, with ultraviolet germ killers and “Big Brother Is Listening” speakers on the wall. Blackboards had turned green. Our fifth-grade teacher, Leola Black, inspired a love of reading by — reading. She read us “Little House on the Prairie” and “Ben and Me” — choices that introduced us to Western pioneer life and 18th-century revolutionary politics and scientific adventure.
In her class, we built huge scrapbooks of North Carolina history, five and six inches thick. Mine is long gone. At recess, we learned to construct pine straw forts and hurl cones with vigor. It was only years later that Jeannie Butler thought to sell the darn stuff and went to college on her pine cone money.
Art teacher Don Moore tried his best to introduce to us the art of cutting up paper to make pictures. This is not something I personally ever learned, but I did learn to admire people who could learn it. My sister Mary learned it, and much later made a stunning copy of a Van Gogh oil painting out of cut and glued paper. If I had been smarter, I might have learned some humility from those failures; but I wasn’t, and I didn’t.
By eighth grade, we learned there might be some hard work in study, and it was not good news. In those days, nobody got any diplomas until they finished high school. Eighth grade was the last year of being schoolchildren. They started calling grades seven and eight “junior high” about then, but we couldn’t tell: We still did all our work in the same room, the last one on the hall before the door that led out of Southern Pines Elementary into the future.
In high school, we entered the mysteries of Latin and algebra with the help of thrown bits of chalk. Last weekend that math teacher, “Dub” Leonard, joined the mob to great acclaim and warm welcome.
Partway through high school, we got another new school building. We had almost blown up the old one once. We learned what a lovely sound a cherry bomb (bum) can make if it goes off in the right kind of cavity. We learned behavior had consequences. Our teachers learned some things also, like not to leave the room during a history exam.
At this reunion, Ken Creech handed each of us a booklet he’d put together about our “ordinary” class. It had capsule biographies of a very classy class, people who went on to put themselves through school, raise and educate children, and make real contributions to their communities, their states, their country and our world.
Just an ordinary class, yet I learned extraordinary things from my classmates: loyalty, friendship, real trust, mutual respect, some humility — just things that seemed ordinary at the time, the true value of which can only be appreciated with age.
I miss them all, and carry them all around with me in memory and association that grows over time. I wish my son Bryan could have had the chance to be part of such a rare and exclusive club over the years ahead, but he joined a different bunch every year, as children do nowadays.
Just an ordinary class, but not ordinary people. Nothing ordinary about them: far above ordinary every one. Some are gone now. They live on in the books of memory, of shared experience, and in the values they nourished and the character they helped build.
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