I didn’t deserve the diploma I was handed from the faculty and staff of Walter Williams High School in Burlington, North Carolina on a spring evening in 1971. Academically, I never applied myself, socially except for attending football and basketball games I wasn’t there, and I was a complete zero in terms of being part of giving back to the community.
Yet, 50 years later from that evening, some how, some way, I landed on my feet and found a path forward.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, August 18, 2021, my wife confirmed that our high school and college yearbooks were neatly tucked away in a plastic storage box on a shelf in our basement. I found the the Navy blue 1971 Doe-Wah-Jack with its musty scent, and I walked into the next room, sat at my desk, and thumbed through it.
Immediately, I was taken back into that sturdy building, a fortress, constructed from real durable materials, by craftsmen who understood the importance of applying their skills with a respect for quality.
If only the building could talk. I’m certain every piece of that imposing structure and its grounds has a journal of stories. Stories about people because that is what school buildings are grounded in— people.
I know a bit about school buildings and the people in them. For 31 years, I served the public schools in Virginia as a teacher, coach, administrative aide, assistant principal, and principal. During my career, I had the good fortune of serving in a high school, middle school, and elementary school. And no matter where I was assigned, any success I found came not from my abilities, but by the people who surrounded me.
In the yearbook, I looked into the seven faces of the school board members. No women on that board, and one African American. I can only begin to imagine the discussions they had when the courts ordered the school system to integrate.
But, that is a significant part of the history of the Class of 1971. Closing the historically black high school, Jordan Sellars, and sending the school’s students to Walter Williams and the new Cummings High School was quite a bold move. Once again, people thinking, putting together the logistics of a challenging puzzle.
Athletics aside, I was amazed at the number of extracurricular clubs that were available for students. We even had a Bible Club. But, back to athletics, I saw no sports for girls—only cheerleading and PE classes.
There was another interesting photo—the school system hired students to drive school buses. What an amazing trust the hiring adults had in those students.
The faculty at Walter Williams was a wide range of characters, but for sure the yearbook dedication in 1971 was perfect—Coach Barry Hodge. He was all heart. Every school has a teacher and coach like him. Those all heart teachers and coaches have the rare ability to reach the hearts of unreachable students. Teachers who reach the hearts of students hold a special place in heaven.
In my 50 years since graduating, I attended only one reunion— the fifth year. Yet, I have sort of followed Burlington from a distance as my sister, Lisa, and her husband, Eric Henry, still reside in Alamance County.
Thanks to the internet and Facebook, I have reconnected a bit with the class. Celia Touloupas, Denise Guthrie, and Marie Coble stumbled upon an op-ed I wrote that appeared in the Burlington newspaper a couple of years ago. Tinkering with words is one of my favorite things to do. When I make a post on my Word Press blog site named—Might Be Baloney, sometimes Celia, Denise, and Marie read the post and comment.
A few years ago, I worked on a lighting project at our church with another member of the Class of 71—David “Daisy” Coleman. At the time, David lived and worked in Richmond, Virginia. He still looked like the three sport athlete that he was in high school.
Richmond, specifically, Henrico County is where my wife and I settled in the summer of 1979 to start our family and eventually raise three children.
From the Class of 71, I have kept in touch with my life long friend, John Huffman. That friendship started in the fourth grade at Hillcrest Elementary School. John, his parents, and siblings were like a second family to me as we grew up. I will always admire John’s sense of humor and his ability to make people laugh. Lord knows a good laugh is good for our souls especially in this challenging world.
Even though Burlington like all cities had and still has its imperfections, I would not trade anything for growing up there. My parents, God bless them, never stopped loving me or believing in me no matter how boneheaded I was. I know they were thankful when that undeserved diploma was firmly in my hand.
For any classmates in the Class of 1971, if I offended or disappointed you with my words, actions, or inactions I apologize. I know I could be snarky like Eddie Haskell to my teachers at times. But, somehow I avoided being sent to the office.
Looking through the yearbook is an opportunity to reflect, and I know for sure that I could have been better in lots of different ways, and I guess that is what living now is about for me. How can I attempt to make this old world better before my time comes?
I thank Mrs. Barnwell, my senior year English teacher, for exposing me to different literature. I have never forgotten Catcher In The Rye or Black Like Me. Maybe that is what put me on the path to majoring in English during college.
A long time ago, when I first thumbed through my crisp, clean copy of the Doe-Wah-Jack, I was surprised to find in the early pages the lyrics to the Beatles’ song “In My Life.” Perhaps no truer words have ever been crafted by a songwriter, and yes, I was a diehard fan of all things Beatles. A special thanks to the staff for including those heartfelt lyrics.
In looking through the posts on the Class of 71’s Facebook page on Wednesday afternoon, I was saddened to read the names of classmates who have jumped into the wild blue yonder. Good, good people who made an impact no matter where they landed.
Despite the pandemic, I hope all goes well on Saturday evening for the 50th reunion. I appreciate the leadership of the organizers. That’s tough work.
I’ll leave you with these words from my favorite writer, Pat Conroy. Sadly, Mr. Conroy is also up in the wild blue yonder.
At the age of 68, I think about these words quite a bit.
Who knows maybe you will too.
“I want you to know how swift time is, and there is nothing as swift—a heartbeat, an eye blink. This is the way life is. It is the only great surprise in life.” From Pat Conroy’s commencement speech at The Citadel May 12, 2001
Class of 1971, be safe, God bless,
Bill Pike Richmond, Virginia