I still remember my last day of high school. I remember leaving the parking lot and listening to the Dave Matthews song “Number 41,” and I still remember the lyrics that were blaring from the speakers of my Nissan Maxima. “I will go in this way, and I’ll find my own way out. . . .” They seemed poignant at the time, though I’m not sure in what way exactly. As a matter of fact, I’m not really sure that I even liked Dave Matthews. I think I wanted to like Dave Matthews because all my friends liked Dave Matthews. And so I turned right onto Allen Avenue listening to the album “Crash” with my “Dancing Nancy” sticker on my back windshield and headed to the rest of my life, leaving Jackson Central-Merry in my rearview. Some chapters of our life close because time dictates their closing, and some close because we decide it’s time to move on, but whatever the reason for the ending, sometimes we want it back.
In a few weeks, Jackson-Central Merry will cease to be what it’s been for the last forty-six years. With the implementation of Vision 2020, JCM will close its doors for good. The teachers who currently teach at JCM will be shuffled throughout district to new schools, and the students who don’t graduate this year will be jettisoned to Liberty and South Side. Some of these students will attend their final year of high school at a different school. The school where they spent their first three years will not exist. Sure, the school board voted to name the new Early College High School after JCM, but that’s like giving a thirty-day severance package to an employee who’s been at the same company for forty years. The act itself was a slap in the face because what JCM was for the majority of its forty-six years was a high school that excelled academically and athletically. While Early College High has the potential to be something new and innovative for the school system, the carrying on of the name was only nominal and symbolic. Early College High is not designed to be the school that JCM has been since its inception.
In 1970, JCM became the first fully integrated high school in Jackson when the predominantly African-American Merry High School joined with the mostly white Jackson High School. JCM has produced several professional athletes including Artis Hicks, Ed Jones, Ben Howard, and Al Wilson. JCM also graduated several Ivy League students. In 1996, the girls’ basketball team won the 5A State Championship. There are accolades and outstanding alumni that I could list for the rest of the article, and it still wouldn’t encompass what the school was as a whole.
My first day of high school was August 9, 1993. I looked across the parking lot and tried to wrap my head around the size of the campus where I would spend my next four years. I was literally the youngest person at the school during my freshman year because my birthday fell at the end of October. I was overwhelmed at the idea of making it to my classes on time or even finding where they were. I have flashes of memories from that year that decide to show up every now and then: practicing basketball in the basement of the Oman Arena and not being able to reach the chin up bar, reciting lines from Romeo and Juliet, watching Al Wilson and Wesley Barlow run all over North Side. I felt like I was somewhere bigger than a high school. The dual campuses (both two stories) made everything seem larger than it actually was.
Throughout my four years at JCM, I was fortunate to have outstanding teachers. I will never forget each of my English teachers who brought something different to the way they taught their classes. I teach mythology to my eighth grade students because Nancy Petit brought it to life for me when I was in the tenth grade. I read “The Lottery” to my students every year because Wanda Taylor made us read it in the eleventh grade. I teach my students to cite text the way Donna Tosh instructed us to cite text in senior English. I had no artistic ability, but Russ Pflasterer made visual art come to life and gave me the confidence to at least try and draw something of some value. My drawings hang in my house to this day.
The administrators at JCM were never there to threaten students but to simply enforce the rules so that the school ran the most efficient way possible. O’Neal Henley was the principal my first two years and his assistant principals were just as effective as he was. Johnny Williams, Johnny Reynolds, Tommy Allen, and Tom Cobb are the ones who I still remember. I was fortunate enough to work with the football team for two years and the coaching staff was a who’s who of local coaching talent. Led by Ricky Collins, JCM football consistently played deep into the state play-offs every year, normally culminating a season with a close game against Germantown. Coach Collins’s assistant coaches were Jim Hardegree, Tommy Allen, Frank Shelton, Bobby Jelks, Jon Frye, Joe Davis, and Willie Wortham. Several of these assistant coaches would eventually become head coaches at other schools. On warm days, I still run at the track at JCM, and I can still see Jimmy Carmichael and Frank Shelton encouraging me during fourth period track practice.
By the end of my senior year, I had become comfortable on that campus. While everyone was talking about how much they couldn’t wait to graduate, I didn’t have that feeling. I didn’t necessarily want to stay, but the itch to leave wasn’t as prevalent for me as it seemed to be for some of my other classmates. I was happy my last day of high school because I appreciated what the school had come to mean to me. I felt extremely comfortable moving to the next point in my life because the people who made JCM what it was had done their best to prepare me for whatever came next.
I don’t have any “glory days” that I wish to reclaim from my high school career, only a healthy appreciation for the education I received and the great teachers I had while at JCM. We all know that JCM has been limping to the finish line this year. There have been fire alarms pulled, fights in the street, and erroneous news stories that have reached national publications, but I won’t remember JCM like that. A few months ago, one of my students asked me, “How do you feel about your school closing?” My response was quick and even a little surprising to me. I said, “That’s not my school, man. It used to be, but my school was nothing like that.” I thought about why I had said that so quickly and with such certainty. I felt some guilt for saying that, but I knew that it was true. The school I attended was a diverse, thriving public school with an enrollment of over 2,000 students. We had AP classes and rigorous honors courses. We had state champions and students preparing for Ivy League educations. When I was in high school, we used to joke about JCM playing any of the private schools in a football game or basketball game. We knew the utter dominance that would take place. Two seasons ago, USJ came into Rothrock and throttled JCM. As strange as it sounds, I knew that JCM would never be what it once was.
In 2010, the Minnesota Vikings were playing the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football in late December. Brett Favre hadn’t played in the last two games because of an injury (the first time that had happened in his career), and I wasn’t expecting him to play. My daughter was three years old, at the time, and we were at Kroger getting groceries when my dad called me. He told me that Favre was on the field warming up and was going to play. I picked her up out of the cart and left the cart in the aisle and raced home to see Favre play in one of his final games. The first drive ended with Favre throwing a touchdown pass to Percy Harvin, and I screamed out and jumped up in the air. Jordan did the same thing, but she had no idea what was really happening. As much as I knew this was Favre’s last season, it was still exhilarating to watch him play well. The next possession, though, he was slammed to the frozen turf by Cory Wooten and his career was over . . . just like that. He watched the next two games from the sidelines in street clothes. He didn’t even hold a press conference to announce his retirement. He just faded away.
We all want celebrities and athletes not to age or, at the very least, to age gracefully. We want that because the passage of time is reflected in them. When we see them age, we also know we’re aging. We watched Peyton Manning literally limp through his last season and his statistically worst season of his career. We made excuses for him because we didn’t want to admit that he was at the end. A Super Bowl victory masked what was really a shell of the Peyton Manning that we will remember. And, honestly, that’s what JCM is to me now. It’s a ghost of what used to be. It’s a place that will pop up in a dream from time to time or a collection of people on social media who will bring up an old story every now and then. Most of all, though, JCM is a marker in time that reminds me of the people I met there and the memories that I made with them while I was a Cougar.
When I remember Brett Favre or Peyton Manning or any other athlete who limped to the finish line, I won’t remember their last days in a foreign uniform. I’ll see Favre in his green and gold Packers uniform, and I’ll see Manning in the blue and white of Indy. That’s who they are to me. When I think of JCM, I won’t think of salacious and inaccurate news stories, fire alarms, or fights. I’ll think of crowded crosswalks, engaging classrooms, and the people I met there and still keep in touch with to this day. Jackson Central-Merry isn’t what it used to be, but nothing is, I guess. We can’t stop time and the way it tends to decompose things that were once great, but we can freeze it in our hearts and our minds. We can choose to remember what the best of something was, and I can confidently say that JCM was the best school in the city when my friends and I were there.
Several years from now when Vision 2020 and the closing of schools is an afterthought, how will we remember the schools that no longer exist? Will we think of them in their last days when chaos and uncertainty seemed to fuel every headline? Or will we allow ourselves to see the entire scope of what great places they were the majority of their lives? I know what I’m choosing. Jackson Central-Merry will transcend any recent blemish, and I’ll remember the crowded crosswalks, the engaging educators, the state championships, and a school that helped build a foundation for my future.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.
Photography by Gabe Hart.