Thursday, December 6, 2012

School Days

Baton Rouge High School opened fifteen years after the Civil War and finally relocated for the last time on Government Street in the late 1920’s. By mid-century, it is easy to imagine James Dean coming down the front steps of the Late Gothic Revival main building dressed in jeans and white t-shirt with a cigarette behind one ear. Turning to his left, he would saunter along the sidewalk through the shade of huge oaks, heading toward his ride parked behind the school. Of course, really, earlier in the day—during first period—he would have been sent to the principal’s office and maybe expelled for the day—or at the very least—told to go home and change from jeans to appropriate pants and to change his t-shirt for good measure. He would have been asked to put the cigarette in his pocket and told he could smoke it during lunch recess in the Bullpen, which was actually under the bleachers facing the oval track and the grassy area in the middle where the football team practiced every hot afternoon. Cool Mr. Dean, the future icon of disillusioned youth everywhere, would have passed an exit door from the one-balcony auditorium with a wood floor stage where Elvis and Faron Young played in May, 1955, a mere five months before the Porsche Spyder sports car Dean would be heading toward crashes and kills him near Cholame, California.

Eight years after Mr. Dean takes his imaginary stroll, the school campus looks pretty much the same—maybe the oaks grown some in height and girth, the same bleachers and another bunch of boys in the Bullpen under them to escape the direct heat, the pattern on the ground around them like sun through enormous blinds, many of the cars in the parking lot probably now the same model year as the famous Porsche. For all the studens (still no jeans to be seen), sitting in classrooms with tall windows during long days of study, they want to be hip like dead Mr. Dean and pretty like Natalie Wood and sensitive like Sal Mineo, but they also want to be cool, literally, for they are always hot since air conditioning won’t be installed until 13 years after they graduate. No Negroes in desks beside them, some students slightly more aware and the others only vaguely from parental whisperings that there was a bus boycott ten years earlier that gave Martin Luther King the blueprint for the Montgomery bus boycott. While marches for Civil Rights are taking place in the city around them—primarily by Southern University students—it is a time of innocence for most, uninvolved and not knowing, more important the day to day tests and romantic maneuverings and the scandal of Mrs. Dugas’ 10th grade daughter dropping out of school because she is pregnant.