When I entered my senior year of high school in 1996, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Not because I didn’t like school or people there because my school, Jackson Central-Merry, was amazing.
We were award-winners and record-setters both academically and athletically. From CNN Contributor Van Jones to NFL players Al Wilson and Artis Hicks (who graduated with me) to so many other names that may be lesser known but no less successful and significant, JC-M was THE school.
The childish bullying I had once endured was over, and everyone had gotten over the shock and had stopped the (blatant) judgment of me “already succeeding” (having a baby) as one student said when I was voted Most Likely to Succeed.
I was just ready to go because I, like nearly every teenager who ever lived, was just ready to be grown and on my own.
Summer Owens 1997 and 2017
To the surprise of many people, since I had become a mother at 15, I graduated #8 in my class, earned a full scholarship to the University of Memphis, and moved away from my hometown of Jackson, TN. That first year of college, I went home nearly every weekend with my two friends who had left Jackson for Memphis too.
As time went by, we visited less and less but still made the short drive to see our families who were still there. We soon started making the drive home even without each other.
Then I looked up, and 10 years had passed. Then 15. Some awesome classmates took the initiative and planned awesome reunions, and I made sure I was there each time.
I was even married at the ten year reunion and took my husband and stepson along with my son who was 12 by then. Time was definitely going by fast.
Check out my son with the yearbook (I was the editor of the yearbook staff my senior year).
In my memoir, I talk about walking across the crosswalk from one campus to the other as a pregnant sophomore. The crosswalk connected the “East Campus” which was the former Merry High School (the black school) and the “West Campus” which was the former Jackson High School (the white school). In 1970, nine years before I was born, Jackson Central-Merry became the first integrated high school in Jackson.
In 2003 when I was just getting into my career and visiting home even less, the West Campus, formerly the white school, became Madison Academic Magnet School. Jackson Central-Merry was limited to just the East Campus, and students would no longer have the college-like experience of walking on the crosswalk. No more greeting friends and hanging out and rushing between classes.
When we returned to Jackson for our 10 year class reunion, the decline and eventual demise of our once powerhouse school was evident. The beautiful integration our class remembered wasn’t reflected in the stands or on the field. The football team, cheerleaders, band, and color guard (which I was a part of) were less than a quarter of the size they once were.
We were in shock. But then we went on with our lives.
Then I blinked and nearly 20 years had passed. It was almost time for our 20 year reunion. But a year before we would celebrate 20 years of being “grown”, our beloved school was closed.
There were lots of reasons given. Low attendance, maybe poor academic performance. Definitely not the school I had attended. Race, class, and educational inequality were issues once again. I don’t know that those issues ever went away, but our class (in my opinion) didn’t experience it.
There was a fight to keep the school open. Dedicated alumni consistently attended school board meetings speaking out and pleading for our school. A few alumni even created a huge JC-M all class reunion/homecoming which brought together alumni from every year since JC-M was integrated as one school. Before the game, we marched onto the field representing all the awesome years. It was a powerful showing of the love for our school.
But the school board still voted to close it.
As a consolation prize I think, the vocational building which was in between the East and West campuses, was turned into an early college high school. They named it Jackson Central-Merry Early College High School and gave it our school colors and mascot. The team who fought to keep the school opened embraced the new school and worked to support it right away.
I had only been back to visit my school a few times since I graduated. I had spoken to the large number of teen mothers there the two years prior. Ironically, I was booked to speak on the day my granddaughter was born and her birthday the next year. The year I became a teen mother, there were only two or three others in the whole school of maybe 1500 students. That had changed too. Although the school was less than half that size, the number of teen parents was much higher. However, I was honored to be able to share my story and encourage young mothers in the place where I started my fight to overcome some of the obstacles they were facing.
So I cried when my school closed. I took it personally. The closing impacted some old classmates who were on staff there. It impacted family who were or would have been students there, and it impacted the entire community.
But our 20 year class reunion brought back all the wonderful memories of our time at JC-M. Like the previous reunions, it was planned by whomever stepped up to make it happen. This time two classmates, one in New York and the other in Colorado, led the charge and made it happen with the support of a couple of people still in Jackson and a few others.
This is us plus a few others who showed up after the group picture. As each person walked in, it was if we were all best friends in high school.
Some us were friends. Some of us were in clubs or on teams together. Some were the “popular” students and some were barely known. Some us had never even spoken to each other. Some I had followed on Facebook and knew things about their lives, and many I had not seen or honestly even thought about since I was 18 years old.
But that weekend none of that mattered. All I could think about was-
You sometimes don’t realize how much you miss people until you see them.
I missed these people. And I wanted to see every one of these people, people who shared some of my most precious memories, as much as I could see them all weekend.
We partied and sang, and we enjoyed catching up and sharing memories. Our kids who had never even seen each played together and loved on each other. Even my “kid”, the first baby of our class, now 22, came to the family picnic.
Original signage located on the East Campus
On the last day those of us who were still in town went to brunch and had the great idea to visit the place that had connected us more than 20 years ago.
West Campus (Now Madison Academic Magnet School)
We took the walk none of us had taken in 20 years along the crosswalk. We posed with the Aspiration sculpture that we passed daily as we went from one campus to the other. On the East Campus, we looked in the windows and were saddened to see boxes and abandoned desks and obvious neglect of our school. We even tried to get inside but decided against in when we saw the police. Just kidding…
At the end of our tour of what was left of our school, we stood and talked. We reflected on our collective and individual experiences. The great times we’d had, and the trouble we had gotten into. The things we got away with and the times we were caught.
It was truly bittersweet.
Bitter to see the place that was really once our second home now one campus lifeless and unused and the other not even claiming us. But it was sweet to be reconnected with the awesome people I was blessed to share that home with.
In 20 years, we had gotten married and divorced. Had kids and even lost kids. Stayed in Jackson and moved far away. Built careers and started companies. Survived diseases and lost some classmates to diseases as well as accidents and violence. Like in school, we had laughed and cried a lot, and now we were all grown up.
And with all the racial tension in our country, it was refreshing to see and to know that for the people who gathered that weekend, still the only colors that really mattered were green and gold.
And I had no idea how much I missed them…until I saw them.