Mystery Monday: A Personal Mystery Solved

From kindergarten through fourth grade, I attended a private school--called West End Christian--here in Tuscaloosa. I have very mixed feelings about my time there. On the one hand, I had (well, excluding the crazy woman who taught me in second grade) excellent teachers. The school in the early 1980s was one of the best in the state, and its academic programs were rigorous--at least at the elementary level. I credit my teachers with instilling in me the essential basic skills that helped me excel in English courses and for allowing me the luxury of reading. I also learned hard work at an early age. I will never forget the fourth-grade Alabama history project that kept me working for weeks from six o'clock at night until well past eleven. It was excessive and difficult, and even my parents objected to it. But, in the end, I learned about sticking to something to make it good.

I got an A+.

Other good things I remember: we had a close-knit community there. In the afterschool program, high school girls took care of us and were amazing (I only went to afterschool care for two years, I think). We had amazing school spirit and tons of school activities. I remember homecoming celebrations (especially the shower of candy at the homecoming parades), fall festivals, seasonal activities in the classrooms, walking to our playground (kind of far away from the school...or at least it seemed so at the time!), field days, excellent lunches (wow...those peanut butter and honey sandwiches served with homemade soup were to die for), movie Fridays, and, in the beginning, a certain amount of freedom.

When I was in third grade, I was allowed to skip science class one day a week to take piano lessons. Now, I would die if my child did this today, but I would leave my building, cross a street open to traffic, and walk by myself to the high school building where I took my music lessons.

(From Facebook. A black and white image of our school logo. I remember seeing this. It was in green and gold.)

But there came a time when I didn't like it so much anymore. I never knew what was going on and it was always explained to me as politics, but during my time there, our beloved head master resigned and many of us, even the younger ones like me, were devastated, because we loved Mr. Sumner. I always wondered what happened there...and then things started to change.

Now, we always attended short chapel sessions during the week, and I don't remember anything horrible about them until sometime in my late second grade year or early third grade. The moment I knew something had changed was when the preacher started telling us that we would go to hell if we used a nightlight in our bedrooms. (The rationale: you should trust God enough to get you through the night. Using a nightlight is an example of not being truly faithful.) Well, even at age seven or eight, I knew this was complete crap. No. God gave me a brain and tools to use, and it is just smart to have a nightlight on to help me see in the middle of the night, preventing what could be a painful accident. I am in favor of religion. But I am not in favor of manipulation.

Well, these incidents increased, and, according to my parents, they noticed academic changes as well. The school began favoring religion over academics in extreme ways, and, especially concerning to my parents, was the fact that the school was populated only by white children and faculty.

So, at the end of the fourth grade year, I happily left (I hated it by this time) and ended up in public school. I traveled every day for a year to Bessemer, Alabama, to attend the school where my dad taught. In sixth grade, I returned to Tuscaloosa (there was a reason for, everyone in the city at that time went to one school for sixth, everyone was new, in a sense and provided an easier transition for me).

Well, my fifth grade year in Bessemer was great. But during that year, something really bad happened back at my old school, West End Christian. In February of 1988, two men burst into the elementary school building and took students and teachers hostage. I remember watching it on the news and being terrified. The good news, everything turned out okay. You can read a brief account here or here. Turns out, that man took over the WRONG classroom. He took over Mrs. Blanton's classroom. I love her now (actually saw her a few months ago), but I was terrified of her as a kid. She was very stern and suffered no fools. She wrote an article about the experience, and it is amazing...but I can't find it! If I do, I will post it. Meanwhile, you can see a photo of her in this article about the parole hearing for the man who took her and the students hostage.

Shortly after that happened, however, the school closed. I always wondered why. I mean, I could understand that such a situation could scare people to death, but I always thought that there had to be more to it.

Well, every now and then, I get a little nostalgic for that school...well, for the good times, I guess. Because you just don't find that kind of atmosphere in many places. There is a Facebook group, but I didn't join because I wasn't a graduate and no one would know me on there anyway! I also found a site for the school about two years ago...yep, it has never changed or been updated. It just keeps saying, "Coming soon." Well, folks, I am ready for someone to get back to work on that one!

Anyway, today I felt a little longing for it again, so I typed in "West End Christian" and "Tuscaloosa" into my trusty search engine, and I found this recent Tuscaloosa News blog post. It really solved a lot of mysteries for me and it makes perfect sense. Here is an excerpt:

Two years before [the hostage situation], however, controversy began between the church and the school that was the beginning of the end for the school that at its heyday had 800 students.

Several teachers and the headmaster, Buddy Sumner. resigned over the membership of the school board and new requirements put into place by them. The board originally had five members and was expanded to include all the deacons of the church and three women.

Among the rules they put into place was the requirement that all teachers attend church and that their church attendance should be verified before their contracts would be renewed.

A letter signed by Rev. Ken Cheek, church pastor, listed 11 policy items, including the church attendance, saying that the statement was approved unanimously by the deacons at a special meeting. Included in the list were: No plays other than religious plays with prior approval in sanctuary and chapel twice a week. School chapel that all teachers attend and take roll to give to the church secretary weekly (and if that didn’t work they would go to assigned seating). Also included was the statement that the School Administrator will work with and cooperate with the pastor.

Honestly, you don't know how much better I feel after reading this. To know that, even at that age, I wasn't alone in my resentment. And, to know that so many people took a stand.

Yes, the school was not perfect and represents a lot of bad things about that era in education history, but in many ways it was everything I wanted and needed in a school as a kid. I can only hope that, should I have one, my child will have the same experience.


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