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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: The baton leaves the bubble

by John Brummett | January 9, 2022 at 2:02 a.m.

A few of us gathered under a generous winter sun Wednesday afternoon for a ceremony that was joyous, sad, poignant and, for me, personally profound but politically and culturally delicate.

My high school, Little Rock McClellan, is getting the wrecking ball. An $87 million K-8 school will rise on its site.

A few folks were invited by the Little Rock School District to honor all of that in a baton-passing ceremony that would celebrate legacies, symbolize intergenerational connection and look forward to new transformations and memories.

I was the oldest participant. Having no one older to whom to pass the baton, I got the honor of passing it to a sixth-grade student from Cloverdale Middle School. If the construction crew gets the job done on time, she and her classmates will attend the new school rising on the site in two years.

The alumni speakers--City Director Antwan Phillips and I--were to celebrate our experiences and give way to change that inevitably comes.

Phillips graduated in 2002 when McClellan was a fully integrated part of the Little Rock district into which a court desegregation case had consolidated it. Southwest Little Rock had changed from working-class white to Black and emerging Latino. The white folks of my time had discovered Bryant and Cabot and points beyond.

That is to say I graduated from the same location but a vastly different place.

In my graduation year of 1971, McClellan was in the Pulaski County Special School District and itself sparkling new and state-of-the-art. It was a white-flight haven hanging on later than most to a "Leave It to Beaver" world. We were in a John Hughes movie on weekdays and in "American Graffiti" along Geyer Springs Road in muscle cars on Friday nights.

We had maybe a half-dozen Black students with whom I was acquainted, only one well. We were happy, bright-eyed white teens winning state championships in basketball and football, doing well in band and debate and drama and other competitions, and congratulating our classmates who were National Merit Semifinalists.

When I proudly announced on social media that I'd get to participate in the ceremony, classmates implored me to give our time its due--to relate what a sparkling, vibrant, happy, energetic, high-performance high school this was for us.

I wanted and needed to do that. The education and full experience were insular, sure, but good for us in every way save the absence of real- world exposure. They needed to be placed in the record on this occasion.

But I sensed that I risked coming off sounding like Donald Trump wanting to make high school great again, returned to a time ending in the late '50s and '60s most everywhere else but alive and well in the opening '70s for us--middle-class white kids with a bubble over both our school and our look-alike suburban houses.

So, there I stood at the school's entrance Wednesday, a full half-century after my graduation, listening as School Board member Vicki Hatter extolled the school to come that would "look like Little Rock." And I was thinking that I was minutes away from standing there and extolling what looked like Whiteville.

But I'd already worked it out in my head. It wasn't our fault we were kids in a bubble, just as it isn't Dreamers' fault their undocumented parents brought them here as children. And I don't even fault my folks. My dad wanted to move from downtown to "out in the country" to raise pigs and a garden and run a rural garbage route by day while working at night to try to provide for his family with his unskilled labor and seventh-grade education. My mom was just scared--as she told me later--of "all that mess out there," referring, I truly believe, more to violence and unrest than racism.

If I'm kidding myself, blame that I love my parents and went to school in a bubble.

For the record: My folks did try in a few culturally evolving years to integrate our east-downtown church, at which point it split and died--religion and race opening an entirely different issue.

So I told the small assembly that I was the old guy talking about the good ol' days, aware that the good ol' days weren't good for others or even for the community generally. And I said the important thing going forward was that the baton I handed to sixth-grader Sofia Castaneda Guillen bound the two of us, and those we represented, in this way: This community cared about me 50 years ago, and the community cares about her now.

I hope I'm not still kidding myself. And I don't think I am.

I guess what I'm saying is that I'd like your indulgence as I explain the bubble and hold faith in the future.

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.

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