The reunion consisted of two events, a brown-bag picnic and self-guided tour of the school in the afternoon, and a party that night. The party was terrific fun, if it did make clear to some of us our imminent fogey status (we spent much time complaining about how dark and loud it was, how we couldn’t read one another’s nametags and we couldn’t carry on a decent conversation. Very sad).
The picnic was much weirder, much more uncomfortable. No small part of this, for me, had to do with the sad shape that the school itself seems to be in. The building is a gorgeous old behemoth, built during the 1920s, and always felt like a somewhat mythic place to go to school, right down to the “HIGH SCHOOL” inscribed in the marble over the front doors. And as my pal Beth and I pulled into the parking lot, we both said, simultaneously, that the place hadn’t changed at all since we’d last been there.
It was evident that the parking lot has not been repaved in years and years, for instance. And very little upkeep has been done on the buildings, outside or in. The seats in the auditorium, covered in already aging green velvet upholstery when we were students, are now twenty-one years older. The paint in the hallways appears to be the same paint as in 1984, perhaps a layer or two thicker. And the linoleum tile floors are, if anything, patched in more mismatched ways than before.
The whole thing was a bit heartbreaking, and evidence of the things that have gone wrong in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. When the system came under a federal consent decree mandating the desegregation of the parish’s schools, largely via forced busing, the result was massive white flight; a system that had been 70% white and 30% black in the late 1970s is now 75% black and 25% white. And one of the results of this is that, for the last twenty years, whenever a new sales tax or bond issue to support public schools in Baton Rouge has come before the public for a vote, the measure has been defeated.
Baton Rouge High School was transformed into a magnet school in the late 1970s, and was, during my junior year, named a national School of Excellence. The decrepitude into which the facilities have fallen, emblematic of the self-destruction of the entire school system, is devastating to see — and is unrelieved by the irony that, two years ago, the school was honored once again as a “No Child Left Behind” blue-ribbon institution.
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