Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Grateful in a strange land

I have lived in Omaha, by God, Nebraska for 22 years now and -- still -- there are times when I feel like a stranger in a strange land.

Saturday was another one of those times.

That was the day Central High School opened its doors to the community to celebrate its 150th-anniversary school year -- it was founded in 1859 as Omaha High School, just four years after the city's incorporation and eight years before Nebraska would win statehood. Its present building, the "new" Omaha Central, went up between 1900 and 1912.

You see what a beautiful structure it is.

ALMOST half a lifetime ago, I immigrated to Omaha from a foreign land . . . so to speak. Specifically, an exotic and strange Caribbean outpost by the name of "Louisiana."

It has been rumored that "Louisiana" is not a foreign land at all, but instead one of these United States. Technically, that may be true.

Technically, the cop running the small-town speed trap doesn't have a quota to make, either.

Anyway, I grew up in Baton Rouge, where I graduated from the oldest school in the city. Baton Rouge High came into being sometime around 1880 -- this in a city settled in 1699 and incorporated in 1817, five years after Louisiana became a state.

Its present building, the "new" Baton Rouge High, went into use in 1927.

You see, in this 2007 photo, what a dilapidated structure it is.

Having done no meaningful maintenance --
obviously -- on Baton Rouge High since I graduated in 1979, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board managed to get a sales tax and millage renewed so it would have the money to fix the school facilities.

This after toying with the idea of tearing down the building after years of
never toying with the idea of keeping it in good repair.

OF COURSE, "fixing" Baton Rouge High now requires tearing down the entire campus, save the historical main building. And the fate of the original building will involve more "renovation" than "restoration" -- there's not enough money for a full restoration.

All this will require relocating the entire student body for two years as the campus is renovated and rebuilt.

AT OMAHA CENTRAL, meanwhile, keeping up with the times -- and technology -- hasn't meant destroying the charms of a bygone age, save some false ceilings in classrooms here and there. Above is Central's courtyard, created when the "new" school was built around the old, which left what you see here upon its demolition.

Some years back, covering the courtyard with a clear roof created an atrium, now used as a gathering space and food court.

WHEN A NEW gynmasium opened at Omaha Central, workers renovated the old gym (above) into a second cafeteria and multipurpose space. Another view is below.

WHILE WE'RE speaking of gyms, I guess you might want to see Central's new one:

AND WHILE I'M showing you Omaha Central's new gym, I suppose you might like to see Baton Rouge High's gymnasium:

IN CASE it isn't obvious, there are no potholes in the floor of the Omaha Central gym. There are large ones in the floor of the Baton Rouge High gym.

And, yes, the locker rooms at my alma mater are as nasty as they look. Tetanus may be a concern, I don't know.

It is difficult to explain things like this to Omahans, who support inner-city public schools like Central -- that of the beautiful old building, and of the brand-new gymnasium and football stadium.

In fact, about two-and-a-half years ago, when I got some of my Baton Rouge High pictures developed at an Omaha photo lab, the proprietor asked my wife about them. He wanted to know whether the photos were of a school destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

In other words, what people in my hometown had come to accept as normative, people in Omaha assumed was a victim of a catastrophe.

I come from a foreign land. Things are different here in the United States.

Potholes are what you try to avoid on city streets after a rough winter. Potholes are not what you worry about breaking your ankle in during phys ed.

At dear old Baton Rouge High, the old gym will not be renovated into cafeteria space. It will be bulldozed.

THE NEED for bulldozing speaks volumes about the esteem in which public education is held in my old Louisiana home.

Above is a common sight in the 1927 main building at Baton Rouge High. Moisture intrusion is causing plaster to fall off the walls in chunks. Has been for years, apparently.

MEANTIME, IN OMAHA, this is what it looks like in the hallways of Central High. Remember, this building is a couple of decades older than Baton Rouge High. Here's another view:

What it comes down to -- as I've said over and over, ad infinitum -- is culture. The South, and particularly Louisiana, never has been inclined toward public education.

Likewise, the South -- and particularly Louisiana -- never has been inclined toward a strong civic culture . . . or functional egalitarianism.

Recall that my alma mater, Baton Rouge High, did not exist until around 1880. Baton Rouge incorporated, remember, in 1817.

In 1859, the year Omaha Central came into being, there were public schools in Louisiana -- and at least one in East Baton Rouge Parish, I gather, but they were few in number and less than rooted in their communities.

That is because the South was -- and is, to a substantial degree -- a society based on class, and the privileges thereof. If your station in life allowed you the luxury of an education, that could be purchased.

If one was of mean estate, that's how one was apt to live out one's days -- poor. And ill-educated.

And for the vast majority of Southern blacks in 1859. . . .

A CENTURY AND A HALF later in Baton Rouge, those who have the means can purchase a fine, private education -- and that's where you'll find most white kids today. In private schools. Where they fled, starting in 1981, when "forced busing" came to town in the name of racial integration.

Meanwhile, the most prestigious public school in town looks like a casualty of Katrina. More than 30 years ago, when I was a student there, Baton Rouge High was notable for being the least decrepit school I'd attended.

To hell with all that.

To hell with a system where, yes, a school board can erect a nice, new facility where one once lay in ruins -- laid waste by official malfeasance and profound civic indifference -- but where one also has little confidence that what soon will be state of the art won't, in a decade or three, be in just as sad a state as the ruins it replaced.

To hell with it.

Children are a society's treasure, and if what befell Baton Rouge High is any indication -- and it is -- my hometown for decades, if not forever, has been casting swine before pearls. Children also are not stupid, and also for a couple of decades or so upon reaching adulthood, they've been voting in a referendum on the Gret Stet of Loosiana.

With their feet.

THEN THEY BECOME -- like so many of my generation of native Louisianians -- transplants in a strange land, one day walking into a public school and finding they have no frame of reference for the relative wonder they behold.

Like refugees stepping off a plane just arrived from some Third World enclave, they find themselves strangers in a strange land.

And "strange" is good.

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