Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I took a right turn onto Allen Avenue from the Oman Arena parking lot just east of the West Campus of Jackson Central-Merry High School. It was May of 1997 and – like every other person who was trying their hardest to be cool – I was listening to the Dave Matthews Band. There was a Dancing Nancy sticker carefully placed at the top of my back windshield – a badge to be displayed for anyone behind me to see. If you don’t know what a Dancing Nancy sticker is then you clearly aren’t as cool as I thought I was on that day.
The truth is, though, I didn’t really even like DMB. I just thought I liked them because I thought I was supposed to like them. And on this mid-May afternoon, “Number 41” was playing through the speakers of my Nissan Maxima. My windows were down. The West Tennessee heat hadn’t yet arrived, and my whole life was in front of me. In his distinct and somewhat slurred voice, Dave growled “I will go in this way and find my own way out…”
It seemed apropos for my last day of high school. How exactly, I’m not entirely sure.
Since that day, it feels like I’ve lived several different lives all within the city limits of Jackson. I attended Union, got married, served a short stint as a youth minister in a Southern Baptist Church. I worked as a school counselor in a private school. I got divorced. I took a job in the same district where I was once a student and stayed in that position for over ten years. The last year and half, I spent working in the district office of Haywood County Schools telling the stories of the wonderful staff and students that make up that school system. But it wasn’t home.
The drive to Brownsville every day was cumbersome. One month before I started my job in Haywood, my daughter moved to Tennessee to live with me full time. Being a single parent and working out of town was more challenging than I expected. I managed it for a year and half, but it never got easier. More than anything, though, I missed being invested in the city where I had spent my whole life.
I’ve always been a sucker for full circle moments – times where you find yourself back where you started but armed with wisdom and experience that you didn’t originally have. I’ve had a few of those moments in my life but none quite like the one I experienced last week.
On the second Thursday in January, I found myself once again standing at the head of a classroom in JMCSS. Not only was I back in the district where I spent 13 years as a student and 14 as a teacher, but now I was teaching 9th grade English at my alma mater. I couldn’t help but think about what it was like for me in Mrs. Linda Austin’s 9th grade English class trying to memorize lines from Romeo and Juliet in 1994.
In 2016, Superintendent Verna Ruffin made the decision to close JCM. It was a decision that was a mistake from the beginning. I reflected on the slow death of the school during that time in a story for Our Jackson Home. Five years later, I was writing about its resurrection. This current piece isn’t the final installment of a trilogy. This is just the beginning of something real.
Public education has been under attack in Tennessee since Bill Lee took office in 2018. Lee has muzzled teachers from telling the truth about history; he has whitewashed and censored authentic discussion in the name of “civics”. Charter schools and voucher programs have been priorities in his administration. He even sat on a stage while his guest of honor, Larry P. Arnn ignorantly spouted that “Teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” Did Lee defend teachers when Arnn made that asinine statement? No. He sat there with a cheshire grin and vacant eyes.
But this isn’t about Bill Lee or any other Tennessee legislator who is trying to systematically hack away at public education in Tennessee. This is a call to action for the community.
In the year and a half I was away from JMCSS, I had the opportunity to view the district from the outside. I saw the momentum that was being built in the public. I saw the community begin to partner with the school system. Mayor Scott Conger and Superintendent Marlon King met and collaborated even though the city technically had no legal or financial responsibility to support JMCSS. It spoke volumes that the city offered its support. I saw the partnerships that developed between the school system and local industries. I saw the post-secondary options and opportunities expand for young people in Jackson.
The Madison County Commission unanimously voted to fund the building of a new Pope school after years of kicking the can down the road. The county commission voting unanimously to fund anything related to public school is reflective of how everyone seems to recognize that the community’s growth is directly tied to the school system.
On my second day teaching at JCM, I walked to the end of the hall and stared out of the window of the exit door. I could see the old crosswalk. I could see the windows of the classroom where I took English I in the early 90’s.
The renovations that have taken place in JCM during the rebuild are nothing short of spectacular, but sometimes it’s hard for me to tell where exactly I am in the building in relation to where I was when I was a student here. It’s like being in a dream that feels real until it doesn’t. I know I spent four years here as a student, but it seems like it happened to someone else. And, in many ways, I guess it did. I’m not the same person I was 25 years ago. JCM isn’t the same school it was, either. We’ve both evolved and now we’re together again. Full circle.
I can’t think of a better place to invest in the city than the school that invested in me all those years ago.
Let’s get to work.