This story appears in Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South. Get the book here.
Pride is a difficult thing to find when you’re staring at a building overcome by cracking mortar, “No Trespassing” signs, weeds as tall as a grown man, rusting handrails, doors spray-painted with “X” and shattered windows.
It is unsightly and you hate to use cliches, but it does appear as if a bomb went off inside. It is nearly impossible to see pride in windows crashed by bricks and time. You decide to go looking for that pride, because you have been told stories of glory, big hearts, family values and school spirit.
You park beside the building on several occasions and you gaze at it, trying to fill your mind with what it must have been like back in ’72, in the midst of a state championship football season, when the team’s only blemish was a tie in the last game of the regular season.
“In the early ’70s, it was the premier high school as far as football is concerned,” says an opposing coach, who led his team to playoff victories against this school every year from 1978 through 1980.
You wonder how a Class of 1978 graduate can speak so highly of a school building in such decay, mentioning spirited pep rallies, sold-out football games and pride in being a part of it all.
You question how a school that is covered in graffiti produced medical doctors, doctors of education, nurses, businessmen, pilots, a senator, a judge, an NFL quarterback and running back, and many more successful people.
It just doesn’t add up. You weren’t alive then, in this school’s heyday, but you talk to your parents about it, about a run-in with the older, bigger running back and how driving past what’s left of the building now makes them sick. You talk to a former co-worker, a high school teacher of yours, a city councilwoman, a high school football coach and a school principal. You ask that school principal, a Class of 1976 graduate, why that place was so successful then and is now likely set for demolition. How does that happen?
“That’s for you to try to figure out,” she tells you.
Well, here is my attempt.
I can’t recreate an era, but I can attempt to take you back in time through their words.
My parents grew up in this area of Birmingham, in a time when racial tensions were high, when wars were being fought. They walked to school and back home each day, because it was just down the road. My dad lived in a bright white house on Eighty-Fifth Street, with a pecan tree in the backyard and a Volkswagen in the driveway. The school was on Eighty-Sixth Street. There were sidewalks and smiling faces. Everybody knew everybody. They were connected. That was a beautiful thing about this time, about this neighborhood that bordered this popular high school. The racism and wars that existed in this time period felt a world away, even when some of it was occurring just a few miles down the road.
It was a volatile time back then, I’ve learned from history books, but this neighborhood and school seemed shut off to the outside noise. It was as if a protective perimeter enclosed it all. There were strong values at home. Church was a priority. Education was a focal point. Expectations of attitude, dress and location were high for teenagers. Very few married couples divorced.
“It was just a different time,” the school principal says.
That opposing football coach tells me that three of his cousins went to school there. Everyone seems to be related to someone who attended that school. Its graduates must be close to ten thousand. He tells me two stories that tug at my heart. One is about the time three assistant coaches at his school died in a car wreck, and the other school’s coach later offered to send some of his own to help on the sidelines. The other is about his program’s first white jerseys coming from that school, since the colors were about the same. The coach still keeps one.
The school principal remembers the sense of community any way a Southerner does: by food. She recalls routinely walking home from school and stopping at a friend’s house because her mom made cherry cheesecake. You can’t pass that up.
In speaking with all these people, I feel that sense of pride they had in their high school, but I also notice some angst at how the building became an eyesore over time, how it was vandalized, and not protected and poured into with resources and a vision for the future. Imagine owning a classic car, and letting it rust outside in the elements.
That high school closed in the late ’80s and was a middle school until the 2000s. Since then, it has just sat. Bricks have fallen. Windows have been shattered. Weeds continue to grow. I couldn’t imagine having gone to school there, having so much pride in a building full of peers and encouraging teachers, and seeing it now. Everyone I speak to says the word to describe it now is sad.
But stories don’t have to end that way. You can demolish a building, but you can’t destroy a mind. You can’t recreate an era, but you can provide the values from that era to this generation, which so desperately needs them.
It started with waking up in the middle of the night. The man’s father was a legend at this school, the coach who led the football program to back-to-back state championships before taking a job at a big-time college program. His son never attended the school, having to move in the eighth grade because of his dad’s rise in coaching. But he knew of the success. He hung out with those players, lived in the gym and dreamed of playing there for his dad.
In 2013, when that man woke up in the middle of the night, he felt God placing it on his heart. The school had been closed down for nearly a decade, but the closest private school was also shutting down. God was telling him to start a school in that area, which had become a poorer area since the glory days of the ’70s. He thought the feeling would go away, but it didn’t.
“Had to do it,” he says.
His vision was to use the high school’s name for a private Christian academy to serve the neighborhood and surrounding areas.
“Embrace the old name but create a new tradition,” he tells me.
The academy opened in 2015 for young high schoolers. There were nine students. By 2016, that number more than doubled to twenty. The school was likely to have close to thirty students in 2017. By 2018, it would also be a school for high school seniors.
This brings me back to all those people I spoke to, most notably the school principal. She retired after thirty years in education, but when her friends told her about this new school, the one that would bear her high school’s name, she called the man who had the vision, the dream. She asked if he needed a principal. She always wanted to build a school, to have a say-so in how it is set up.
“What an opportunity,” she says.
The school employs four core curriculum teachers and five others for specialties such as fine arts, the Bible and physical education. She desires for all her students to be marketable upon graduation, whether it be to universities or companies. She wants them to be prepared for life, armed with strong values.
“I want to graduate Christian children,” she declares. “That is our primary goal. We are a Christian school and that is our first and foremost of what we plan to do, that each child leaves this place knowing they have a Savior, having a relationship with their Savior and understanding what that involves and how that will change their lives forever.”
She says that this private academy is still a new concept to many people, especially the former high school’s graduates. They ask if their alma mater is starting back up. They show up at that rundown building searching for the principal’s office. When they find the building the school is actually in, a former family worship center, they have questions. The principal answers them with conviction and passion. That sense of pride has been reawakened.
“When they do come, they leave knowing,” she says.