Back in the 60s any kid living in the Stewart Avenue area probably went to one of four grammar schools: Sylvan, Hutchinson, Capitol View, or Perkerson. I attended the latter whose location still remains the same since its inception although the original building has long since been demolished and replaced with a more contemporary structure possibly several times over. The Principal at the time was Mrs Merriam Phillips who later retired and was replaced by a guy name JA Walls who some say was brought in to deal with the impending integration and busing activity to support that. In any case my entry into the scholastic life was pretty gentle. The Kindergarten teacher, Mrs Smith, taught us how to sit still for a period of time and also encouraged collaboration on various art projects. My most vivid memory of this time was of a kid in leg braces who used to chew his peanut butter and jelly sandwich with his mouth wide open. He would look at you slack jawed while making loud smacking noises as the dark brown peanut butter congealed with the purple jelly into a thick goo that coated his teeth and tongue. Frankly, I think he did it on purpose but no one called him out on it since he was probably going to be wearing those braces for the rest of his life. I just made sure not to sit near him which was probably the first ever major decision I made that required significant analysis on my part.
As we eased into the first few grades we were presented with a number of those rigid standardized tests designed to determine one’s occupational potential. My results indicated a fruitful career in sanitation engineering or waste disposal. I was totally cool with this as I particularly liked how the garbage men hung on the back of the trucks cruising from house to house. People seemed happy to see them come and go. I didn’t put it together that the whole process was a bit aromatic but the apparent coolness was enough to entice my young mind to consider this line of work. This didn’t go over well at home. My Mother worried that she had failed me in some way but my Dad was like, “What the hell – at least you know he doesn’t mind working”. Back then there was this operational idea that a student was destined for either the “academic” (college) track or the “technical skills” track (blue collar or military). The results also sought to flag those with artistic tendencies and rediect them into more socially acceptable job areas such as “engineer”, “journalist”, “HVAC technician”, or perhaps “detective”. It was never cool to have an outcome which suggested that being an artist, dancer, musician, or actor could be good in and of itself. The reigning philosophy then was that the last thing our country needed was another generation of artistic shiftless hippies.
As a supplement to the diagnostic test the students would be asked to write essays about their future intent which seemed a harmless enough exercise until you realized that the teachers used these essays as a profiling tool to identify potential troublemakers and “bad eggs”. You have to understand that many of my grammar school teachers had been teaching since the 40s so their idea of a “clean young mind” was based on archetypes from a bygone era. Consequently, there is no telling how many students from this time are still in therapy (or various 12 step meetings) because some test result routed them into a line of work which they accepted simply to appease familial and social expectations.
I found great humor in the fact that a friend of mine stated a strong desire to become a mortician despite the fact that no one in his family lineage had any thing to do with the funeral home business. Initially I thought he was just trying to anger the teachers and I admired him for that but he was completely on the level and had an authentic enthusiasm for the job. He thought (quite rightly I suppose) that the job would offer good pay and flexible hours. Later, as we moved into high school, he interned at a local funeral home and they let him drive the hearse around which he, (unbeknownst to his employers), used also to haul music gear for his band. The school teachers had no idea what to make of his stated intent but couldn’t really find fault as it was something that society needed.
We had some relief in that there was an influx of younger more progressive teachers such as Miss Atwater whose penchant for mini skirts inflamed the passions of her older male co workers along with the fury of the matronly teachers who despised the rising hem lines and the flourishing sexual revolution which Miss Atwater symbolized even though her manner of dress was totally mainstream for the time. Like many her age, she had a husband over in Vietnam “fighting the spread of communism” while she held it down back in the US fighting off guys with college deferments. I must say that she never judged us in the way that the older teachers did who demanded obvious and ongoing evidence of patriotism, civic duty, and “good home training”. Miss Atwater was totally cool even if you said you wanted to be a circus clown, juggler, or magician (all of which I wanted to be at one time or another). Unfortunately not all young teachers were so hip. Miss D. wasn’t much older than Miss Atwater but seemed squarely in the “Cold War” camp as she berated our apparent apathy and general lack of appreciation for US efforts in Vietnam. She genuinely feared Kruschev’s prophecy that Communism would one day bury the United States. Her boyfriend was supposedly a Forest Ranger and I visualized this hyper masculine outdoors type of guy who had hacked out a radiation proof bunker deep under the forest floor where the two of them would wait out the inevitable Russian invasion while making strong patriotic babies worthy of the land that my apathetic generation had carelessly lost.
I was popular with the girls or at least it seemed that way. One day the cutest girl in the class (I know because everyone said she was) came up to me and announced that we were going to be boyfriend and girlfriend. I had no idea what that meant but it seemed to be cool. On paper her name was simply Janet Jones BUT her first name was pronounced as Zhuh-Nay. What I didn’t know was that her Mother was a Burlesque Dancer of some reknown at a time and place when that occupation was still very much in the margins of society. The annual Parents Day Lunch was announced and after Janet’s Mother indicated her intent to attend there was an unusually high turnout of Fathers who might have otherwise skipped out. I need to be direct – Janet’s Mother had a magnificent bosom that was captivating even though I was far too young to understand the full implications of such physical attributes. Evolutionary biologists will tell you that the tendency to stare at large mammaries comes form the same place in the brain as does hunger and thirst. This would account for the fact that everyone (Moms, Dads, Teachers) found themselves gazing at Janet’s Mother.
Most of the Mothers and teachers had that “tsk, tsk” thing going on while the Dads were exchanging knowing smiles between each other while trying in vain not be noticed. The whole scene was somewhat reminiscent of the “Harper Valley PTA” song. As Janet was my “girlfriend” we sat at the same table and there was a steady stream of men dropping by just to “say hello”. Janet’s Mother was used to jaws dropping (and wallets opening) in her presence though since she was there with her daughter she had toned it down some but it was impossible to conceal her generous endowment. She was in total control and everyone knew it. Had she dropped her fork I think 10 guys would have stabbed each other for the right to be the one to pick it up and return it to her. I suspect that several divorces were set in motion that day but I was getting the thumbs up from grown men whom I guess were theorizing that Janet might grow up to be similarly equipped. I was far too young to be thinking like this though once the older kids ran it all down for me I knew the score. My elation at being associated with Janet and her Mother was short lived as they moved away soon thereafter which was a frequent occurrence given that burlesque dancing was an itinerant profession. I would say that I missed Janet but the void was filled almost immediately by Darlene Dyer who, like Janet, approached me and declared us to be boyfriend and girlfriend. So once again I was “off the market”. Although she too soon abandoned me by saying, “I can tell that you don’t like me”. Well actually I did but she seemed so sure that I assumed that she knew better. It was only later that I learned that she had dealt me in for an “older guy” a grade or two up.
While this all sounds so innocent it wasn’t very long thereafter that things changed rapidly in the area which triggered a decline that persists to this day in Southwest Atlanta. When I finished Perkerson the area was still pretty solid but many families had left the area as part of the “White Flight” to the suburbs in anticipation of court ordered school integration. There was a corresponding turnover in the school teacher roster with most of the older set choosing to retire leaving the “new generation” of teachers to deal with the issues facing urban Atlanta. Keep in mind that Perkerson was located right across the street from the Stewart Lakewood Library and the Shopping Center so the recollections I discuss in this blog post also contain information on the school’s decline at that time. I don’t wish to short change my experience at the school. It was a pretty idyllic experience and I did manage to learn many things although at times the curriculum seemed designed by social engineers who had first sought the approval of McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover. Despite this there was a high degree of rigor and an insistence on learning math, geography (sometimes in the extreme), and writing although one teacher, Mrs Creech, had a maniacal fetish for verb conjugation that eventually resulted in her dismissal. As the school integrated, so did the teaching staff. In particular, the Librarian Mrs, Hemphill hipped us to the poetry of Langston Hughes at the same time she talked up the merits of Silas Marner. (An interesting juxtaposition). She also recommended the then relatively new “Outsiders” book while also pointing out the earlier published “Durango Street” that was written from an Afro-centric perspective. While the area did in fact decline the quality of my education did not. I learned a great deal – it is too bad that others didn’t stick around to do the same. © 2017 The Stewart Avenue Kid