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Soon they'll tear down my high school, which is where my life got direction and launching.

They ought instead to preserve the structure as a monument to, and museum commemorating, everything that went wrong in Little Rock public education over the last five decades.

But, first, McClellan High on Geyer Springs Road on the southwest edge of the city should continue to stand as a reminder never to revive the architecture of the 1960s.

It was presumed to be progressive when McClellan opened in 1966 without windows in classrooms along tunnel-like corridors extending left and right from open-air courtyards between the front office, the library in the center and the cafeteria to the rear.

The design might have been more progressive as a prison. Put iron gates in the four corners and you would have one.

When I was there, 1968-71, the structure was an extolled new-age edifice populated by 1,200 largely high-achieving white kids from Central Arkansas' vibrant working middle class. Our parents explained that they had fled not from black people in the Little Rock schools to this Pulaski County "special" district, but simply as part of the suburban movement, to new homes in utopian neighborhoods just a new freeway's hop from work downtown.

We never actually lived in a subdivision, but on more rural and secluded property. I think my dad mostly wanted to get out of the city limits to put in gardens and raise pigs and chickens.

I know my mom always said she wanted to get away "from all that mess out there," by which she meant the trouble at Central High in 1957.

She was never specific about what the mess was. A meek, generally intimidated girl just off the distant backwoods farm, she walked frequently in those days from our apartment on East Capitol Avenue--about where Interstate 30 is now--to downtown. Perhaps she simply was afraid of the thing she said, meaning the commotion itself.

We moved south in 1958 and I started school on Baseline Road in 1959.

Whatever the factors, we were white people getting out of an integrating school district into a non-integrating one, and typical of the time and place.

A couple of years after I left McClellan, the long-running desegregation lawsuit made the school part of the Little Rock district. Soon came busing. The working white middle class headed to Bryant and Cabot.

In time, McClellan became a majority black magnet school that turned out fine students and pillars of the community, and good football, but with a student body that, in broad terms, was no longer economically advantaged or culturally enfranchised or possessed of circumstances ripe for the creation of the vital education ethic.

Neglect, poverty, and crime get in the way of the education ethic. And I've just belabored the obvious of Little Rock's half-century.

And now, in 2020, with the Little Rock district still under state control because of failing schools, McClellan will be closed and mostly torn down, presumably to be replaced by a new middle school when the district has the money, which might be a while.

McClellan and J.A. Fair High School are being merged into a swanky new southwest high school that is designed to revitalize the southwest sector and enhance opportunities for the children. If my old high school has to vanish, at least it's for a good intention.

The national historic site at Little Rock Central commemorates the internationally epic racial trouble there in 1957. A museum at McClellan--which I know isn't going to happen--would commemorate the mostly failed local struggle to cope with the world that came after.

It would not be nearly as globally important, but it might be more locally relevant and instructive.

To speak strictly in personal terms as a McClellan-attending white-flight child of the working middle class in 1968-71, living out of the city but 12 minutes on Interstate 30 from its downtown opportunity at the then-Arkansas Democrat, I count the McClellan years as life-changing, or life-creating, and as glory days.

It was there that the late great sophomore English teacher Beverly Billingsley told me with ever-lovable tactlessness that my brief essays in my application to be on her yearbook staff were the best she'd ever received. But she said she preferred the elite straight-A students for the yearbook staff, and I wasn't one.

She had pegged me for what I was and would ever be--pretty average except able to write. She delivered me to the newspaper staff, and the rest is ... well, this.

For reasons of bravery I can't reconstruct or repeat, I signed up as a shy, skinny, pimple-faced sophomore for speech class, knowing I likely would throw up every morning when I had a first-period presentation to make. I believe it was the last time I ever got out of my comfort zone.

The knocking knees during my first speech ... I wasn't sure whether to stop or acknowledge their occurrence or talk faster. I talked faster. But I made it through two years of speech, debate and drama, and I apply the personal transformation still.

The speech teacher, Bobbie Faye Gammel, wound up with a recurring role on Designing Women, working with the coach and speech teacher who had been her colleague at McClellan for the two previous years, namely Harry Thomason.

McClellan was a robust experience for all of us in those days.

My most vivid memory is that some of the skirts of the era did not cover all of the posterior regions, and I'm just talking about the faculty.

Memory says the girls were uncommonly pretty. The boys in the class ahead of me produced a state basketball championship; the ones behind won a state football championship.

Our class was a bit less athletically, although we had J.H. Williams as all-state in basketball and a standout at Arkansas State, and coach's son Mike Malham Jr., who got drafted by the Chicago Bears and became, in Cabot, one of the three or four more legendary high school football coaches in the state's history.

So, I'm thinking about the fact that next year, 2021, will be our class's 50th anniversary. It will be poignant for a class to reunite a half-century later in the year its school gets torn to the ground.

Maybe one of the optional events could be an afternoon tour of the rubble--certainly not of our mostly fortunate lives, nor even of the school itself, but of the post-1957 struggle to live and learn together in Little Rock.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 05/27/2020


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