Sunday, 22 August 2010

Hearts and minds

Lester School

One of the important formative experiences in my early life was attending Lester Junior High School in Memphis for three years, 1975 - 78. My family had arrived in Memphis in 1974, and I spent sixth grade at the MSU Campus School, providing me my first brush with Memphis musical greatness. Lester was located in a very tough black neighborhood called Binghampton, about three miles from my home, and I lived in its catchment area due to the court-ordered desegregation of the Memphis City Schools, which had begun in the early '70s.

While this attempt at social engineering ultimately proved a boon to property developers and religious private schools capitalizing on the white flight which ensued, in the first few years there were some examples of schools which managed to maintain some sort of racial balance. Lester at the time was under the leadership of "Bud" Garrett, a charismatic teacher and basketball coach who had managed to sell the proposition of a ghetto school built on academic excellence to a relatively affluent white liberal audience in East Memphis.

I think when I started there in seventh grade the racial mix might have been something like 70/30 black/white, which was a pretty remarkable achievement given all the historic mistrust and fear stemming from what up to that point had been an apartheid system in all but name. By the time I left at the end of ninth grade, the mix had skewed to 90/10 or so (my school bus route in that final year served precisely four children), as the white liberals of East Memphis abandoned the experiment and the "optional schools" magnet program drew the more advantaged and socially mobile to other schools. Still, I had some fantastic teachers there, and I learned a lot about the realities of life which has stood me in good stead through the years that followed. And for a couple of years in the mid-70s, it was a beacon of hope, possibly even a model school of sorts.

The school was also the scene of numerous ridiculous anecdotes, which I often revisit with the good friends I made there, whenever we happen to speak. This one came to mind the other day. It was first period, in seventh grade (1975/76), and we were in our P.E. class, playing softball under the direction of our teacher, whose name escapes me at the moment (lifelong friend and unofficial Lester historian Jon McKamie reminds me his name was Mr. Johnston). At one point a new kid was brought out from the office to join the class, a Vietnamese boy on his first day of school. As I previously mentioned here, there was a resettlement center at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and the local Catholic charities sponsored settlement for a significant number of Southeast Asian refugees in Memphis in the mid and late '70s.

This new arrival didn't speak a word of English as far as we could tell, but he smiled with remarkable confidence in the face of such an alien situation (imagine trading Danang for Binghampton), and joined our team. I was next up at bat, and made a base hit. I duly ran toward first base, which was being manned by a very tall and "big-boned" girl, whose identity I cannot recall with certainty, but it may have been Afrika Hathaway (Dr. McKamie corrects me, it was the equally formidable Annette Sanders). Unfortunately, she was straddling the baseline about two feet in front of the bag, and I expected her to move, but she didn't, so I knocked her down hard in an effort to get safely to first base. She was unhappy with this, understandably, and there was a bit of commotion and a lot of laughter before our teacher came over to explain that it might be safer for her to stand next to the bag or slightly behind it.

Next up was our new Vietnamese classmate, who, it transpired later, was actually a couple of years older than originally thought, and was soon moved up to his appropriate grade level, which is why I never knew his name or anything else about him. He had apparently never played softball/baseball before, but swung the bat with authority and actually connected with the ball on the first try. He smiled, a bit stunned with surprise at his success, and we all shouted and pointed at first base, encouraging him to run, which he did, and very fast at that. The girl playing first base, whom I had decked just seconds before, was now standing well behind the bag on the baseline, having learned her lesson. The new arrival from Fort Chaffee blazed down the first base line, past the bag, and dealt a brutal body check to the poor, innocent first base woman, knocking her flat on her ass. Pandemonium broke out, with most of us in tears of laughter, and even our teacher struggling to contain his amusement as he dusted off the unfortunate victim and tried to explain to the new kid that knocking people to the ground was not a normal part of the game.

God only knows what sort of story the kid told his family when he got home from school that night, about this great new contact sport called "softball."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps my favoite remembrance of Lester Jr. High,Jimmy...The black girl on first base was Annette Sanders...The P.E. teacher was Coach Johnston...