In March, I attended the 55th reunion of my class at Ketterlinus High School in St. Augustine, Florida. There were perhaps 25 of us there, out of a class of around 100, which seemed pretty darned good to me. Being with people I hadn’t seen—some for 55 years—was, well, bracing. To my surprise and delight, I recognized my BFFs and had a great time catching up with them and trading stories about our classes and teachers (including our elderly Southern belle English teacher, who praised us to the skies but never put anything but a grade on our papers, and our tough-as-nails chemistry teacher, who could raise welts on the arms of those who didn’t do their homework). We looked at old photos of our young selves and reminisced about our grand class trip on a bus all the way to New York City, where we got to see a real Broadway play, my first: Auntie Mamestarring Rosalind Russell.
On my way home, I thought of our school, with its small and poorly stocked library, its single football (for boys only; no girls’ sports then), its austere classrooms, and its lack of language or any other labs. Yet we read and wrote and learned—and many of us somehow made it in to college. I went on to teach high school (11th grade was my fave) before I returned to graduate school, and during my college teaching career I’ve spent as much time in high schools as possible. And, oh my, how things have changed—and not changed. I still visit schools with very limited facilities, with small and out-of-date libraries, and with very poor funding. But even as legislatures have fiddled away fortunes, teachers and strong administrators have been working for students—and sometimes even bringing legislators along with them. When I had a chance to spend a day at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, I found a very diverse and vibrant community proud of its public high school, and proud of its history of having integrated just a few years after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling. Here’s the plaque I saw just outside the main office celebrating this history:
Plaque at T. C. Williams High School
I walked the halls lined with photos of students who have won awards and scholarships, of graduates who have gone on to colleges, graduate schools, and careers. “Titan Pride,” they say. I saw the spacious cafeteria with its many choices, the expansive gymnasium, the big, bright library, computer labs, and—be still my heart—the Writing Center, where Laurel Taylor holds “write ins” for teachers to bring their classes in to write on the spot, and where some graduates serve as consultants. And I visited the room of English teacher Sarah Kiyak, filled with posters, photos of authors, and student artwork and writing. The school day was over, but students kept drifting in to Ms. Kiyak’s room, talking with her, asking questions, giving her news, and getting hugs. When the teachers arrived for our seminar, the students were still talking and were reluctant to leave. I chatted with five or six students, who were full of dreams of college. Later, Sarah told me that this school (3,500 strong) had been labeled “poorly performing” for years. But somehow the powers that be in Virginia were persuaded to provide some additional funding—enough to hire more teachers, lower class sizes, and update some equipment. And lo and behold, graduation rates and scores steadily improved. Titan pride.
I left feeling uplifted, as I always do when I’ve been with teachers and students. So BRAVA/BRAVO T. C. Williams, where they are living out the motto of the National Association of Colored Women: “Lifting as we climb.” I saw plenty of climbing at T. C. Williams, and plenty of lifting, too.