Why The Fight Over Schools?
Episode 6 of American Butterfly: School Days
“I am indebted to my father for living, to my teacher
for living well.” — Alexander the Great
Mom was the one who cared about our proper education. She had attended Memphis city schools during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement but graduated before integration in the seventies.
If it had just been about education, Mom would have enlisted Grandmommy, her mother, to educate us. Grandmommy had taught pretty much every subject in her tiny town and had a library of books behind glass-fronted cabinets in the den.
King Philip of Macedon had no public school to send his favored son, Alexander. Because Alexander had to compete with the intellectual elite from the city state of Athens, the king hired Aristotle, the philosopher and scientist, as one of Alexander’s private tutors around 343 BC. Adam Smith himself, father of political economy, was hired away from the University of Glasgow to tutor the young Duke of Baccleuch, heir to vast Scottish lands, one of Europe’s largest fortunes in the eighteenth century. Alexander, with the best education money could buy and his dad’s army, did OK by many standards.
Nonetheless, the homeschooling known by about 1.5 million American students in 2019 was just getting started in the seventies. More importantly, Mom saw social skills as the most important element of education. To her, learning how to tell stories, laugh at jokes, and work together were the most critical elements of schooling. Getting to know the people you would do business with for the rest of your life was helpful, too.
White Station High School (named after a Mr. Eppie White) was a grand place for her, but Memphis City schools had recently changed. When she was a teenager, she had read about things happening in Little Rock, Arkansas, not far over the bridge to West Memphis, a separate city located on the other side of the Mississippi. The NAACP had negotiated with the relatively progressive school board. The “Little Rock Nine” entered the all-White Central High School in 1957. Orval Faubus — a name straight out of Harry Potter — was Arkansas governor. He mobilized the state National Guard to prevent the entrance of those Black students on their first day of school in order to “preserve the peace.”
Within days, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order and sent troops from the 101st Airborne. These troops and, later, nationalized guardsmen and Arkansas police, protected the Black children and others attending or working in the newly integrated schools. Governor Faubus, like many Southern leaders, supported the “massive resistance” strategy and shut down all three Little Rock high schools for the following school year. It was as if SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, threatened Little Rock way back then.
In the minds of many in my Southern family, the federal government had used the courts, executive order, and federal troops to assault the South again, a century after the Civil War. To them, it was tragic that the great war hero, General Eisenhower, was behind it all.
For Mom, none of this meant too much more than ridiculous politics until the courts ruled that Memphis’ low-confrontation integration process wasn’t working. Busing in 1973 made all the difference. She was not surprised that almost half her friends had withdrawn their White children from the Memphis City schools by 1974. In Tennessee, she saw private schools spring forth like mushrooms after a rain.
Just twenty years after the Little Rock Nine, I was living in the same Memphis home my mother had grown up in. Of course I would attend River Day School, a good, all-boys grade school that shared facilities with River Presbyterian Church. I loved seeing my “big kid,” older cousins in the hallways before their family moved away from Memphis altogether. My brother, JT, would follow in my footsteps a few years later. My sister attended the state’s oldest private girl’s school.
Eventually, when my parents observed that my sister was unhappy and my brother not terribly academic, they set their sights on a neighboring city with good Shelby County public schools. At the ages of twelve, ten, and nine we moved nine miles away to Germantown, just past the border of East Memphis. JT and my sister would both eventually attend the public Chism High School while I moved on to Academy School of Memphis, a venerable boys school.
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The above is a modified excerpt from the novel, American Butterfly. The story is told through the eyes of a man raised in the South, living in the North, and struggling to understand life and love in the modern world.
It directly engages recent decades. It embraces the events that have shaped today’s world. And it draws upon the past to help us understand the many sides fighting America’s Culture War.
All through a family story, different and similar to yours and to mine.