Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Baton Rouge High raises its cry
. . . for the coach we all adored

If you think about it for a minute, you realize that the bottom line in education is love.

Parents who love their kids enough to want something better for them.

Teachers who love their students enough to put in long hours for low pay . . . usually after digging deep to purchase classroom supplies the school system never bothered to.

Sometimes, it all bears fruit in students who develop a deep love for learning . . . and who will, someday, complete a sacred circle of life. They will love their kids enough. . . .

IF YOU PICK UP the newspaper in my hometown, though, you'll find there's a thin line between love and hate -- and it seems a lot of folks love to hate the East Baton Rouge Parish (La.) public schools:
For the third consecutive year, Survey Communications has polled heads of household in East Baton Rouge Parish — 800 of them this go-around — with half having children in the school system and half with children who attend other schools. Those interviewed, as in past years, were read a series of statements and asked if they agreed or disagreed.

This year’s results showed an across-the-board decline. For instance, in the past, more than 90 percent of respondents agreed the school system “welcomes partnerships with community businesses or civic groups.” This year, only 80 percent agreed with that statement.

Only 46 percent of respondents agreed that students in the school system “can achieve at/above the level of other students in private/parochial area schools,” down from 58 percent who agreed with that statement last year.

Boston suggested that a rise of negative press last year, including the state takeover of eight low-performing schools, is the likely culprit.

“A lot of times what happens with those sorts of reports, it creates fear, uncertainty and doubt in the minds of the general public,” Boston said.

Boston, however, suggested the downturn may be temporary. “This is not something that warrants any one of you running out in the street and jumping out in front of a bus,” he said.
THAT'S PROBABLY BECAUSE if they haven't jumped in front of a bus by now -- what with the school system going, since 1981, from almost 70-percent white to 80-something percent minority and with the state taking over several schools a year -- those now serving on the board don't have a suicidal bone in their bodies.

Let's face it, experts (like the PR guy in the Advocate story above) can spin poll numbers any way they want, but it's undeniable that, for a long time now, not many people have been loving up on the parish's public schools. And while the board considers a big public-relations campaign to turn sinking poll numbers around -- and, frankly, the school system could use a PR makeover -- its members need to realize that what their world needs now is love.

Board members need to love every kid in the parish, not just those in their districts. And people in Baton Rouge need to love every kid in the parish, too, not just their own.

White needs to love black, black needs to love white, rich needs to love poor and poor needs to love rich. Young needs to love old, old needs to love young, and everybody needs to love seeing kids learn.

Learn the right things.

From teachers and books.

In the classroom.

UNFORTUNATELY, true love is a rare enough thing -- especially in education -- that it really sticks out when you come across it.

Cities and states that truly love their schools tend to stick out in national rankings. They're the ones at the top of the good rankings, at the bottom of the bad ones . . . and they're the places with all the good jobs.

Then there's Louisiana. And, specifically, Baton Rouge.

If you're a parent in Louisiana, places that love their public schools are, more than likely, where your children will end up. Believe it or not, there are places in America where private school is a lifestyle option, not a perceived necessity.

And when the expatriate sons and daughters of Louisiana raise their children in these far-off places, they might be paying higher property taxes, but they won't feel compelled to pay a much more significant "private-school tax."

I was born, raised and educated in Baton Rouge. And I left for someplace I'm convinced is much, much better. National statistics and rankings are convinced of that, too.

While I was growing up -- and being educated -- in Baton Rouge, though, I knew where I was feeling the love . . . and where I wasn't. The former were rare enough to stand out in my mind three and four decades later.

FOR THAT MATTER, some of the latter were horrible enough to stick out, too.

Like fourth grade at Red Oaks Elementary. That was bad. A 9-year-old hasn't lived until he's had a lazy battleaxe of a fourth-grade teacher who likes to yell . . . and to grab a fistful of a misbehaving boy's Beatles-style mop top and walk around and around his desk until the flowing locks were twisted tight like a rope.

That was the only time I didn't mind my culturally retarded parents forcing me to wear short hair slicked down with Greasy Kid Stuff.

Later on, there were the little rednecks at another school -- all-white, of course -- calling the two beleaguered African-American teachers the N-word to their face.

And then there was junior high, otherwise known as Hell's Anteroom.

There, we had one potbellied sadist coach who used to laugh and laugh when a bunch of hoods -- in ninth grade for something like the third straight time -- would corner a younger kid during P.E., throw him down, pull up his shirt and give him the "red belly." Today, that would be known as "assault and battery," and I have no idea exactly how I managed to avoid that particular junior-high fate.

He also was particularly fond of firearms and, once a year or so, would have some geezers bring in lots of heavy firepower to show off to the Future Criminals of America. If you ask nicely, I still can explain to you what "M-1 thumb" is.

Oh . . . the M-1 rifle was quite a heavy weapon. The M-1 carbine was much more manageable.

Then there was Mr. (Deleted), our ninth-grade algebra teacher. That was the year I stopped doing well in math and, in fact, began to hate it.

Mr. (Deleted) would write all the equations on overhead-projector transparencies, then clean it off with lighter fluid. Flammable liquid + hot overhead projector = 30 teen-agers wondering if this be the day they all burn to death.

It also was Mr. (Deleted) -- the school's golf coach when he wasn't cheating death -- who informed me I surely would grow up to be a garbage man. With the mad mathematics skillz I picked up from him (not), I frankly can't figure out how he went bad on that prediction.

THE NEXT YEAR -- after giving hope one more shot and begging my parents to let me go to the brand-new magnet school -- I discovered something important upon arrival at Baton Rouge High:

School didn't suck.

Baton Rouge High would have been notable for me if the only thing it had going for it was an overwhelming majority of students who were there to learn. Well, that and the glaring absence of Coach Potbelly and Mr. (Deleted), the wannabe human torch.

But there was more.

That wonderful school was an island of tolerance, good will, racial harmony, and excellence in a city that too often has seen too little of too much of that sort of thing.

And we all took lots of crap from our "peers" because we did something different, stuck our necks out and dared to be part of a "different" kind of educational community. No, not "educational community" . . . community, period.

Exclamation point.

I well remember the cracks about the "maggot school" and "maggot faggots." Never have I been so proud to be called bad names.

And rarely has any school as a whole so embraced what was meant to be slurs and, with good cheer, thrown them back in the faces of "old times there are not forgotten."

Look away, look away, look away . . . Baton Rouge.

HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? I'm glad you asked.

Part of it was us. We were at Baton Rouge Magnet High because we wanted to be there. We wanted to have dreams. Most of us didn't want any more -- I don't think -- of the status quo in a middling, underachieving Southern state capital.

Part of it was that we were the best students taught by, for the most part, the best teachers. Things were expected of us.

And part of it was that BRHS was the most integrated school many of us had ever attended -- and it worked out. Blacks, whites and everybody else got along. Not only that, we formed close friendships.

Most of it, however, was love . . . L-O-V-E. Agape, even.

WHICH BRINGS ME to Coach Robert D. Holder. Coach Holder had taught high school in East Baton Rouge Parish since 1956 and at Baton Rouge High since 1970. By the time I arrived there, Coach Holder had been athletic director for three years and had achieved Official Icon status long before.

Thing is, Coach was the antithesis of the potbellied terror of junior high.

No sadistic laughter as teen-aged thugs terrorized P.E. prey. No taunts of "Hey! Don't hurt my BALL!" when some fallen victim had just gotten a premeditated faceful of leather in a dodge-ball game.

You see, Coach Holder -- even for those of us never lucky enough to have him as a coach -- was the definition of "cool" . . . in the most profound sense of the term. He didn't need to knock others down to make himself Big Man on Campus.

Instead, he spent 42 years befriending his students. Mentoring them. Keeping tabs on their schoolwork. Encouraging them. Serving as faculty sponsor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

And, seemingly, trying to talk half the student body into going out for wrestling or track.

The Rev. Robert D. Holder died Oct. 20. Yes, reverend -- he was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1994. When he retired from teaching in 1998, Rev. Coach devoted himself full-time to his beloved Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church and to prison ministry.

SOME PEOPLE will see Coach Holder's obituary and see just another obituary -- born in Lumberton, Miss. Died in Baton Rouge. Retired educator. Air Force veteran (staff sergeant) of the Korean War. Funeral Thursday morning at Mount Pilgrim. Burial at Port Hudson National Cemetery.

I am a Southerner of a certain age, however. I know how to read between the lines.

Coach graduated from Southern University in 1951 with a degree in education. While Southern is a fine school, it wasn't young Robert Holder's choice to go there. Jim Crow made that choice for him.

Then, in 1951, he put life on hold to help fight the Korean War in the newly desegregated armed forces. In the Air Force, he could not only now fight alongside white folks, he could eat in the same mess hall, too.

But back in segregated Louisiana, he had to use the Colored Only water fountain and sit in the back of the bus. When he got out of the Air Force in 1955 and wanted to pursue a master's degree in education, he had to go up North to the University of Kansas to do it.

And after he had done that, it was back to East Baton Rouge Parish, where he taught and coached at Northwestern High School -- all black by order of the Gret Stet of Louisiana -- for the next 14 years.

Then it was on to Baton Rouge High just in time for integration under the "neighborhood schools" plan. (Yes, Virginia. In Baton Rouge, going to your neighborhood school was considered an integration plan . . . and it took a federal court order to accomplish that.)

BRHS was one of the few schools that actually ended up meaningfully integrated. I understand it was, er . . . interesting.

IMAGINE navigating that stretch of history in a land where not only are old times not forgotten, but aren't really even old times. At least not totally.

I figure an African-American of that generation would have a right to a fairly sizable chip on the shoulder. A lesser man than Coach Holder would have had a big one.

Me . . . had I been a few years older and black, I would have sported a whole damned log.

But that's not what Coach Holder was about. It's not what Baton Rouge Magnet High was about -- this in a city where the blue-light special at K-mart can turn into a racial pissing match.

The students at Baton Rouge High, to Coach and to any number of wonderful teachers like him, were just "the kids." To tell you the truth -- and I don't think this is a sad case of a middle-aged guy romanticizing his youth -- the BRHS of my late-'70s tenure was one of the least race-conscious places I can recall.

I think that's because we were a motivated bunch . . . and because we stood on the shoulders of giants. Educational giants. And Coach Holder was one of the "giantest" of them all.

When a man dies, those who knew him get to reminiscing, remembering all those little, unremarkable moments that make up a life. Only we discover those moments weren't so unremarkable at all.

Here are some of the Coach moments from the lives of some Bulldog alumni:

* I attended BRHS from 1977-1981 and remember Coach Holder as a constant presence always ready with a smile and a word of encouragement, and I never had him as a teacher.

*Coach Holder was my PE teacher and impacted my life from his positive example. He believed in me even when I did not always believe in myself.

* My freshman year was scary, and running track for the first time didn't help with the transition and nervousness, either. The first day I stepped into the gym to change for practice, Coach Holder, the Guardian, as I at some point began to call him, saw that I was afraid. He told me "Everything will be OK. All you can do is your best. I'll be watching you to make sure of it!" I never looked back and ran cross country and track for four years. He paved a way for my confidence and made my years at Baton Rouge High School memorable. For the confidence he helped me find, for the love of God as he always preached, I will forever be grateful for having him in my life.

* I attended BRHS from 1976-1979. In those years, Coach Holder was the head of the Athletic Department and was my wrestling coach. More importantly, he served as a mentor for me throughout my years at BRHS, and never relinquished that role. Over the last 30 years, I have worked with Rev. Holder in many ministerial capacities. He was one of the original instructors in our Fourth District Congress of Christian Education, and his class on effective Bible reading was one of the most popular year in and year out.

* Some of the members of the cross-country team decided that we didn't want to run to the LSU lake and back, so we went to a friend's house and ate snacks. Later, that friend's brother dropped us off a few blocks from the school. Coach Holder occasionally would get in his car and drive our running route to make sure we were all safe. Well, that was one of the days that he was out making sure that everyone was okay. When we returned back to the school, Coach Holder made us run sprints until our legs were about to fall off, and some of us threw up. We never cheated again.

* I knew Coach Holder since I was a freshman in 1973. He not only cared about what you did on the track or the field, but what you also did in class and helped mentor young girls and boys into responsible adults. I am still a good friend of his son Jonathan, and this relationship continues until this day. I will miss Coach Holder very much. Many of us are very blessed to have had this man in our lives.

* He recruited me to wrestle after I had him for tennis in 9th grade. Who can ever forget his rainbow suspenders and Bible? He was a true one of a kind. I remember after getting an A in his PE class, he was trying to chase me down to give me a 'B' for bad.

* In '73, Coach Holder was getting everyone into a huge variety of sports. He was unique. I remember he had us play everything from badminton to golf.

* The last time I saw Coach Holder was when I was still living in Baton Rouge, so it was probably in the '90s. He said something that still makes me grin: "David, you're one of the few in your class who hasn't gotten fat!" I definitely can't say that I've always lived up to his praise since then, but it's a nice memory to have. He was a very kind man -- like a huge Teddy bear. He had good words for me every time I saw him. He was a dedicated Christian and a strong coach. He was the sponsor of the FCA during my tenure at BRHS, and I considered him to be a wonderful mentor and a father figure to all of us.

* I attended BRHS from 1977-1979, and Coach Holder was the sponsor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes -- of which I was an officer my senior year. Besides meeting on the appointed club meeting day, Coach Holder would meet some of us each morning at the flag pole to pray with us before classes. He was a very dedicated teacher and dear friend.

* I was on the wrestling team and a member of the FCA. Coach Holder was like a father to us, keeping his kids out of trouble. He put his faith into practice every day and was an inspiration to me and many others.

* I took regular phys ed for my first semester there, because one couldn't get in the ballet classes mid-year. I might have considered that a waste of time but for getting to know Coach Holder. He always tried to get me interested in athletics, but being a part of FCA and meeting at the flagpole was as far as I went with that. He didn't give up on a kid, though.

He had me by his side doing high kicks one day in an attempt to show me how good I would be at the high jump. I told him what we were doing reminded me of the Radio City Rockettes. I think he was a little disgusted with my attitude, but I thought he was adorable for trying.

He had a nice high kick for a grown man, too. It is probably good that we didn't have a girls basketball team or he would have been after me (6 foot 2 inches) for that, and he would have been crushed that I didn't go for it, unless he ever saw me play.

Still, he would likely have been there offering extra help whenever possible.

GET THE PICTURE? That's why a number of us Baton Rouge High alumni want -- after the upcoming campus renovations and rebuilding are complete -- the new gymnasium to be named the Robert D. Holder Memorial Gymnasium.

There could be no more fitting honor for a man who gave so much for so long to so many students -- transcending generational, racial and class divides in a city too long defined by what pulls it apart instead of what draws it together.

The above comments were drawn from comments left on alumni Facebook pages, and from an online petition to the parish School Board asking that the new gym memorialize a man who was Baton Rouge High. If the man shattered even one stereotype in a place and time infested by stereotypes, that would be reason enough to name the gym for him right there.

But Coach Holder did more than that. He stood for more than that.

ROBERT DANUEL HOLDER was the embodiment of the ideals Baton Rouge Magnet High stands upon -- that it's not what you are that matters, and it's not who people say you are that matters . . . it's the kind of person you become that matters.

It's the ability to think for oneself that matters. It's the ability to shatter narrow stereotypes by our actions and by the content of our character that matters.

The Baton Rouge High that I know stands for these things. It stands for these things because of faculty members like Coach Holder. Because of the great faculty who worked alongside Coach Holder.

They set the tone.

That critical mass of administrators (like magnet school architect and founding Principal Lee Faucette) and faculty gave our generation of students the freedom and the guidance allowing us to, in many cases, transcend what we thought we were when we walked into our place in Baton Rouge history that first day in 1976.

I owe -- we owe -- them all a debt we cannot repay. And Coach Holder stood . . . stands still, having transcended this vail of tears . . . not only on his own merits, but as a representative of theirs as well.

IF BATON ROUGE needs reminding of what a good public-school education can mean for a city's children -- and it does -- maybe the School Board doesn't need a big public-relations campaign after all. Maybe it just needs to remind a fragmented city that there was a man named Robert Holder, and he wasn't on the faculty at Parkview Baptist. Or Catholic High.

Maybe it just needs to remind a fragmented city that it's about to give up, perhaps, on the next "Coach Holder" . . . a kid on the "margins" of society who not only can't afford private school, but might not be particularly welcome in some of them.

Maybe it needs to remind a stratified city that the original Coach Holder was enabled, in part, to do such a good job with earlier generations of young Baton Rougeans because Kansas' margins were considerably wider than Louisiana's back in the day.

To tell you the truth, maybe the School Board just needs to use the example of Coach Holder and all those he represents to challenge itself -- it's capable of more. It can do better.

The once-upon-a-time example of a humble coach at the city's oldest school ought to accuse the school system as it inspires it. Challenge old assumptions; smash ugly stereotypes. Think for yourselves.

And remember that when we're all dead and gone, our white-folk dust and our black-folk dust will all end up the same shade of gray. Love one another.

AND THERE WE ARE . . . back to the bottom line of education. Love.

That is what everything's all about: Love. Love for your home . . . love for your neighbor . . . love of your children.

What public education in Baton Rouge needs is a good example. And the rest of the city could use one, too.

The Bible that Coach so loved says, in Matthew 23, "He who is greatest among you shall be your servant." Truer words. . . .

What Baton Rouge's public schools need is what Coach Holder had. Indeed, that's what we all need.

Please, let's name a new gym at an old school for a good man. Let's do it not just to honor Robert D. Holder -- though honors he deserves -- but let's do it to honor all those who put their "kids" before themselves.

Let's do it to remind ourselves that's really, really important.

Rest in peace, Coach.


Anonymous said...

Very well written and I appreciate all you have said. I was class of 93 and a FCA officer 3 of my 4 years. There were so many hugs and words of encouragement from Coach Holder throughout those years.
I came from a Private School to BRHS and can say that I loved it. You are right about it being so racially integrated and that was a learning point in my life to see, appreciate and love so many differences. I'm looking forward to my daughter being able to go there to High School and having the same experiences that I did.

Miley said...

I really like this "throwback" to my years there. I didn't have Coach Holder but he was one of the more pleasant people on campus, most definitely. He also encouraged so many of my friends to do what was right - even putting a girl on the wrestling team (and she was GOOD thanks to him!)
He retired the year I left - 1998.
People often ask me how it is I can "understand those damn foreigners" or why I "get along with everyone"... I tell them that I went to school with a racially and ethnically diverse crowd. My best friend wasn't of the same color, background, religion or ethnicity as me and I can only think of one who was. I am glad... and I am glad that there were teachers like Coach Holder.