It appears that I am but one of many, many fans of Mrs. Eleanor P. Jacobs. In fact, her fans are legion. My little blog that usually gets a couple of dozen close friends and family members gazing upon it blew up with over 300 views last Friday when Mrs. Jacobs and I finally reconnected, and she shared my post on her Facebook page. My heart swelled when I saw that she deemed my essay worthy of reposting on her own timeline.
I won’t lie. I fantasized about this (virtual) reunion over the last several months, and the culmination of my search was better than I could have hoped. Not only was Mrs. Jacobs gracious and flattered by my missive, (I fretted and feared she wouldn’t like it) she even recalled the incident with Maya Angelou’s book and sent me the most encouraging words about my own writing. We traded Facebook messages back and forth all night. Steve needled me about the grin that never left my face Friday evening. Even while we went grocery shopping, he saw me from the other side of the store, hunched over my iPhone, smiling like a crazy person at the Facebook comments.
Almost, ALMOST as amazing as reconnecting with Mrs. Jacobs was reading the dozens of stories others shared about their experience with Mrs. Jacobs as a teacher and co-worker. This is a woman whose reach is long. How lucky am I to be included in the exclusive club of students taught by her?
In a delightful coincidence, Mrs. Jacobs now lives in Atlanta, where I lived for several years before relocating to Minneapolis, a city that is the polar (no pun intended) opposite of Atlanta in every measurable statistic, from weather to ethnic demographics. I still have family in Atlanta, and I’m now planning a weekend getaway for Steve and me to visit my old stomping grounds. I plan on taking Mrs. Jacobs out and treating her to a long and loquacious dinner somewhere memorable. I have so many questions…
Once I started reading the collected memories of other students on Facebook, I thought more about Williston-the school itself…the buildings on the large campus. I remembered how old it was, how sweltering it was so often in the humid south. The school was decrepit compared to the recently constructed middle school I left in Ohio. I Googled “Williston Jr. High School” images to jog my memory, but I didn’t immediately recognize the photos I found online because the school is now Williston Middle School of Math, Science & Technology, and the buildings are newer.
What surprised me after more online digging, was the information I found on Wikipedia, and then verified through other articles. Williston first opened as an African American high school in 1866 for freed slaves, and in 1923 became the first accredited high school in North Carolina for blacks. The high school closed in 1968 and reopened as the integrated junior high school that I attended. I was stunned when I realized that the school had been integrated only 13 years before I attended-we didn’t even have the distance of a single generation from that racial separation. Fully fifty percent of my teachers there were African American or other minority, exposing me to a diversity I never experienced at any other time in my primary or secondary education.
One tragic story I found tied Williston forever to one of America’s greatest losses. On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King was scheduled to speak to the students at Williston High School. He was in Memphis on April 1st, when he decided to extend his stay there in support of the city’s sanitation workers. Of course, after postponing the speech at Williston, he met his terrible fate on April 4th on a hotel balcony in Tennesee.
I never knew the rich history of this school when I lived there. My social studies and history teachers at Williston never mentioned it. Were the memories too raw and recent? Events that were still tangible for much of the staff would have been much more compelling and relevant to me as a student. What a privilege it would have been to have learned that history from those who lived it.