Dear P.K. Yonge class of 1977,
Hello, friends. I have a confession.
I can’t spell.
I blame our school. Not the teachers. They were great. I blame the person who decided to name P.K. Yonge after a man who couldn’t spell his own last name. It’s no wonder my elementary school papers were marred with red ink. If only Mr. Yonge could understand the confusion he caused for this struggling young man.
It’s far from the only lasting impact from my days on the campus beside Tumblin Creek.
Let’s face it. We went to a weird school. It’s weird, wonderful, incredibly unique, and, to borrow a word I heard a lot over the weekend, quite special.
I must admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I traveled home for our 40th high school reunion. I thought for sure that the years would have dulled the memories, along with the compassion we once shared for one another. After all, I was so eager to graduate forty years ago, to knock the dust of Gainesville, Florida, from my Adidas and forge a new path. I’ve done an incredibly poor job of staying in touch with all of you, and that includes my closest high school chums. Still, I returned to my hometown to find a bond that has, despite time and distance, grown stronger.
Wikipedia will tell you that P.K. Yonge is “a leader in school-embedded educational research,” with a mission “to design, test, and disseminate best practices in K-12 education.” The real story is written on our hearts. Together, we endured constant changes in the curriculum. Because we attended a “laboratory” school that was part of the University of Florida, we were tested more than Fatty Arbuckle’s belt. The state of Florida determined the size, shape, and look of our class. It was kind of odd at times. One elementary school classroom had an additional room separated by one-way glass so anonymous educators could observe our interactions. We felt like gerbils uniquely trained to use a pencil sharpener. And yet, we took pride in knowing that our school was different, that we were a little bit different.
I joined P.K. Yonge in 1964, entering a kindergarten class that was painfully homogeneous. Two years later, at the height of the civil rights era, we were introduced to Kenny Welcome. Integration produced violent protests in Birmingham, Mobile, and Memphis, but on our campus by Tumblin Creek, we treated Kenny like a new sibling. Lavonne Chisolm arrived, then Elaine Hayes. Our class was like a piece of art that was growing in beauty and charm. No one taught us about tolerance; it seemed to come naturally. Anyone who dared discriminate due to race, religion, or social standing was quickly rebuked, not by teachers or administrators, but by classmates. Looking back, there was something really amazing about the way we turned into a family.
Somehow, P.K. Yonge attracted teachers who knew how to bring out the best in us. There were times when they had to dig deep, but they never stopped searching. I mentioned this during our reunion, but it bears repeating. I am forever grateful to Chris Morris, who saw me as more than just a restless teenager who couldn’t stop talking. She guided me into drama, where I constantly went off-script, adding to my character without permission. Rather than trying to silence my runaway energy, she nurtured it, honed it, and encouraged my expressive side. She did this at great risk, because my mouth was often a giant disruption, but Chris Morris knew what she was doing. She corralled that energy and channeled it toward something productive. I fell in love with performing, a passion that came in handy when I decided to pursue a career in television. Mrs. Morris, you are amazing, and the impact you had on me has lasted a lifetime. There’s Mr. McFadyen, who invited my tireless vocal chords into the announcer’s booth at Citizens Field, where I spent many a Friday night huddled over a microphone during football games. And there’s Kathy Heidel. God bless her. During my junior year, at the height of my rebelliousness, she saw the journalist inside of me. I don’t know why she bothered, because I behaved like a royal pain in the rump that year, but she encouraged me to read Tom Wolfe, the journalistic novelist. Of course, I refused. I’m embarrassed to admit I’d reached a stage where I saw teachers, or anyone in a position of authority, as the enemy. I wanted to have my own way. More than once I crossed the line, and I dared my elders to discipline me. Miss Heidel was patient. She knew something I didn’t know about myself, that I was trying to hide a love of reading and writing. She waited me out, allowed me to calm down, then made a connection. She planted a notion so deep inside of me that it didn’t blossom for years, until I made the decision to enter journalism school at the University of Georgia. Miss Heidel, if you’re out there somewhere, I finally read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and it is a marvelous piece of journalistic prose. I see what you did there. I will never forget you.
Class of 1977, just look at what we’ve become. Forty years have passed, and yet Tumblin Creek still runs through all of us. We are doctors, lawyers, journalists, musicians…but we are much more. P.K. Yonge found the best in us. It taught us that we all have value. That weird little school helped us recognize not only our own worth, but also the value in others. I didn’t realize that until I saw you all again. We care about each other, and forty years hasn’t changed that. I still see in you the people who surrounded Kenny and loved on him when he lost his mother back when we were in middle school. When Gary Rothwell’s mother died recently, several members of the class of ‘77 were right there to comfort him. We rooted for each other back then, and we pull for each other now. During our reunion, I encountered one classmate after another who asked with true interest about my family, my health, and my job. Our hearts still beat strong for one another.
I’m proud of each and every one of you.
We are a small but fierce group, loyal to our school and to one another. I suppose I was like most teenagers when I tried to kick high school into the past and spread my wings. But I wasn’t going to leave P.K. Yonge, and it was never going to leave me. You people crawled into my heart decades ago, and there you remain. It took forty years and a reunion to acknowledge that, but there it is.
I was somewhat surprised when, during our weekend gathering, Chris Morris tearfully referred to us as “special”. I mean, Jerry Carnes is not special. But I realize that while I am ordinary on my own, I am indeed a part of a very special group of people. We, collectively, the class of 1977, conquered racial prejudice in the deep south. We learned to love the quirky, astounding, and eminently entertaining talents in one another. When one of us laughed, we all laughed. When one of us hurt, we all hurt. We all came with warts and scars, but P.K. Yonge supplied each of us with a set of goggles that made those warts and scars look appealing. I still have those goggles, and man, they give you an amazing view of life.
I love you guys. All of you.
We may not be young any longer, but we are forever Yonge.