By LARRY HYPES
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It has now happened 55 times at the new Tazewell High School and 140 times since Tazewell County’s oldest high school opened its door in the original location in 1873 — only eight years after the end of the Civil War.
When this current edifice opened, there were cattle on a dozen hills surrounding the big brick building. The football field was down below town. School colors were still Kelly green and white.
The coal mines from Amonate to Gary Hollow were working and Bishop was the county’s largest single employer. There were more than 30 schools then, with five high schools and elementaries in just about every community from Burke’s Garden to Mud Fork. Enrollment was closer to 12,000 students and there was no 12th grade then. No in-school suspension, either. A person could choose three days out or three licks with the paddle for punishment of a serious offense.
High school started at 9 a.m. and released at 3:25 p.m., on most days. Six periods and one of those a study hall for some students filled the schedules. A telephone in the office, one in the principal’s office, library, and cafeteria was it for the high schools. Crew cuts were often the order of the day. Girls wore skirts or dresses and boys sported slacks — no jeans. Remember?
Fast forward half a century.
Different is probably the better word to describe a current graduation week in Virginia-side high schools. It may be better. It might not be. There are certainly many changes from what a majority of readers probably recall. School used to end for everyone at the same time. On the last day, final exams were completed and the graduation was held in the gym, auditorium or football field. Not too many students had cars so when the buses came in, it was a wild scramble with yells of joy for many to grab a seat and get homeward bound for the summer.
Teachers and principals did their own scrambling, along with the custodians, to make certain seats were in place, the top 10 seniors were accounted for, the diplomas had been signed and all the people had been assigned to their places for the big event. Some had to go home for a little while and others simply stayed at school.
There were always a few seniors — so called — who discovered too late that missing class, not doing homework and letting obligations slide past had cost them a chance “to walk” on the big night. It was a crushing blow, often with tears on both sides, and generally with quite a bit of bad language from others. Explaining to parents, relatives and friends that the diploma would not be forthcoming was always an embarrassing and painful episode.
Once the graduation concluded, some tearful good-byes mingled with hugs, handshakes and gatherings of totally joyful young people filled warm nights with hopeful thoughts of jobs, marriage, cars and eventually kids on the horizon.
Much of that remains but the times — they are a-changing.
Seniors have been gone for a week, generally. Underclassmen exams take place days after the 12th graders have departed. Even those exams are often not so important because the state testing program has become paramount and drives the Virginia education system. One might say those tests drive nearly everyone involved crazy.
So, at school’s end, a fragmented exit takes place as bits and pieces of the student body comes and goes over the final few days. A great many now have cars and they do not depend on the buses anymore.
Still, on graduation night, for a few hours even the old-timers like me get to pretend things are still the same. The happy seniors line up just like they used to. We graduate on our own football field at Tazewell High School (in my mind I sometimes say to myself that is just as God intended). We stand for the Pledge, the speeches, the songs, presentation of diplomas and the Alma Mater.
Parents and teachers still care deeply. The “kids” achieve and accomplish so much these days under a tremendous amount of testing pressure, peer pressure, social media pressure and pressure to find a decent job in a very tough employment market. Bishop and Amonate and Gary are not what they used to be.
Yet for a few hours, under the shelter of the gentle hills surrounding Tazewell High School, we can laugh and sigh and shed some joyful tears for the wonderful boys and girls who have brightened our lives these past four years. They will most certainly be successful in their own ways — not ours.
Congratulations to the delightful and very capable Class of 2013.
Larry Hypes is a Tazewell High School teacher and Daily Telegraph columnist.