Something Personal

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Finding Grace and Kindness Across the Tracks

Date published: 9/12/2013,  Fredericksburg.com
THIS YEAR marks the 40th anniversary of the James Monroe High School Class of 1973.

Somehow we missed the 40th anniversary of Fredericksburg Middle School Class of 1969.

Few of us who stepped off our school buses that first day in 1968 knew what historic steps those were, for these were the first steps of desegregation. Few of us knew of the rich history of our destination, Walker-Grant School.

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What we did know was that we were much farther away from our homes, faced longer bus rides to an area of town into which few of us had ever ventured, a place literally on the other side of the railroad tracks. We had stepped into the unknown, away from the comfortable confines of Maury Elementary, where many had spent their entire school-age lives (and watched many a high school football game). Looking back, I am not sure many of us were mature enough to realize that we would not have felt that Maury-level of comfort at the pre-segregation alternative, James Monroe High School, either, as eighth-graders amid the mass of “almost adults.”

Middle school is, at its best, a venue for teenagers’ raging hormones manifesting themselves in so many ways that seventh- and eighth-grade teachers should either be considered for sainthood or given combat medals.

But here we had an added factor, desegregation, that few really understood.

But somehow we survived, we thrived.

So after more than 40 years, I am writing this letter to say “thank you” to the African-American teachers and classmates who handled our “invasion” with such grace and kindness that it still touches me after all these decades. I can only hope that had the roles been reversed, it would have turned out so uneventful, yet meaningful.

I recall a line in the last Indiana Jones movie–“We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.” Fortieth high school anniversaries seem to signify that time in life. Life took away my best friend growing up, Billy Perkins, last year. It also took a middle school teacher named Napoleon Harper. He taught math but always reminded me of a movie star (actually TV star–the Pete Dixon character for those old enough to remember “Room 222”). He somehow maintained calm amid a mass of not-quite-controllable 13- and 14-year-olds and genuinely cared about whether you learned what he worked so hard to teach. He even had me believing I liked geometry. When Mr. Harper passed away, I was sad at first but then smiled at the memories that, through the strength of his kindness and character and of many, many others, remained intact after more than 40 years.

Forty years gone by cannot erase memories of a group of teachers and students who met a difficult situation with such grace that we all benefited, for the rest of our lives.

So I borrow from my daughter’s favorite movie, hoping we can proclaim “Remember the Trojans” to commemorate a very special time in our lives. (And, alas, while accepting that the “Trojans” are now the “Tigers.”)

J. Stanley “Stan” Payne was student council president of the first class of the Fredericksburg Middle School. He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Max Klotz of Fredericksburg.

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