It had been 25 years since I sat the tread of my shoe inside that hallway. As I walked into the old Bibb County High School building, entering on the classroom hallway to the left of the main entrance as I usually did as a student, memories came rushing into my brain despite the ripped down ceiling tiles, dust and peripheral rubble.
I remembered staggering down that hallway first thing in the morning still half asleep, bumping into classmates in the crowd as I made my way past doors for Mrs. Hughey, Mrs. Banks, Mrs. Lucas, Mrs. Matthews, and finally turned into the last door on the left for my 4-year homeroom and Coach Hicks.
I could hear the chatter and thrum of conversations and lockers slamming. I could hear the bell ring, and see the ghosts of faces past, lingering in the dusty fog of memory. Some of those faces I see around town from time to time, weathered and aged like my own. We are the teachers now, as scary as that may seem to some. Yet, some of those faces remain in their youth, having left us long ago.
Over ten years prior to me walking those halls as a bleary-eyed teen, my brother and sister made their way to classes between the same concrete block walls. Like generations before, they researched papers in the same library, ate lunch in the same cafeteria, and checked out of school in the same glass-front office. It was no secret that they were better students than me, as was once pointed out by Mrs. Banks as she asked me why I couldn’t be more like my sister, one of her best and favorite students of her career, she said. I took no insult in this, only pride in my sister. We lost my sister Jennifer in March of this year. Saying goodbye was never so hard. Now we say goodbye to the old buildings of our youth, and while it’s sad and brings nostalgic memories of “glory days” gone by, it’s obviously not as bad as losing a loved one. This is not just a goodbye, but an opening for progress and space for new development on the BCHS campus.
The old main building was built in 1961. The old gymnasium went up in 1968, and saw not only decades of basketball games and phys-ed classes (suicide sprints, anyone?), but a multitude of student plays, talent shows, and pep rallies. The memories of playing guitars on that auditorium stage and of shouting back counter chants as the cheerleaders fired up the student body on game days linger with the same misty sweetness of pecan pie cooling on grandmother’s kitchen counter. Well, almost as sweet.
The glory days of these buildings are long gone. They stood recently as relics of a different era. Before WiFi, before flat-screen tv’s, before cell phones and social media, before the state of the world brought about a need for Homeland Security or the TSA, they represented a time when paper notes were passed in class instead of text messages; when encyclopedias and card catalogs were how you wrote a research paper instead of changing some words in something you found on Wikipedia. And yet these buildings saw the advent of all of that. They bridged a gap between generations in an era of rapid technological development – a second industrial revolution, some say. Those classrooms saw it all, along with Generation X that occupied them for much of their existence.
But, for all the nostalgic goodness they hold, we all know it’s time – past time – for them to be laid to rest. Long since out of repair, with leaking roofs and dangerously deteriorating structures, they have been on the agenda to come down for several years now.
“The previous superintendent ran on a platform focused on taking them down and putting up new buildings,” Principal Alston said, “But after putting up the new buildings there wasn’t any money left to tear down the old ones. We’re glad to finally be getting it done. I know it’s sad for a lot of people, but it’s necessary, and I think most people realize that.”
Necessary, indeed. Recently when the new gym was occupied during time for basketball practice, Coach Russ Wallace said he thought they’d just practice in the old gym. “I’ve never been rained-out of a basketball practice before,” Wallace joked, referencing the roof leaks that left hundreds of gallons of water covering the old gym floor after every hard rain in recent years.
Current students have built their memories in the new buildings. To them, the old buildings were just dangerous and in the way. When they go back to school after this Christmas break, they will no longer be in the way.
“It’ll take a while to get all the rubble removed, but there shouldn’t be any trace of the old school by the time we come back, and the old gym should be down and in process of being removed by then, too,” Alston said.
I stopped by Friday to walk through and take these pictures. I’m told many people did the same in recent days. The demo crew said the building should start coming down Saturday, after they finished removing all the copper wire and any other recyclables still remaining in the structure. “Once the excavator starts taking it apart, it won’t take long to come down,” the foreman told me. I haven’t been back yet to see the building on the ground.
I was in the building as they cut power so that the wiring could be safely removed. It felt like watching life support being turned off. I stuck my head in the boys room on the back hall, quietly took out my vape and gave a puff. One last smoke in the boys room.
“Hey fellas, get to class, get to class,” I could hear Coach Pratt’s voice in my head as I puffed that little send-off tribute into the blackness of the restroom.
To class indeed, for the new generation. In a new building of new classrooms, with new technologies, and new memories. The spirit of the school lives on, there is no doubt. Choctaws will always have Purple Pride, and – for this generation at least – will always be affectionately known as “river rats.”
On the banks of the Cahaba, reared against the sky, proudly stands our alma mater as the years go by. Ever…forward…be our watchward, conquer and prevail. Hail to thee, our alma mater, Bibb County High School, hail…