by Ernie McCray
Soon, the day after Thankgiving, I’ll be in my birthplace, Tucson, surrounded by old childhood friends. We’ll laugh and cry as we reminisce about way back when we were at Dunbar, an all black first through ninth grade school.
I can hear our sound bites now. “Boy, our teams kicked some butt, huh? Whoo! Whee! We won everything!” And we did. “And you knew we were gonna win the marching band competition soon as the snare drums kicked up the beat and Barbara Nell, with her fine self, started strutting down the street!” We were hard to beat. “And, our chorus. Lord, have mercy, we were the talk of the town!” We surely were known all around. “And nobody could tell us we weren’t smart!” Got that right.
Ah, what a school, that Dunbar Jr. High. I had a good time at that place, starting practically from the moment I showed up in September of 1947. I was a nine year old refugee of sorts from a parochial school run by a woman who would create a sin in one moment and then punish you for it in the next. Like I once committed the sin of “smiling while studying” and for that she whipped out a yardstick like Zorro drawing a sword for a duel and whacked my knuckles to kingdom come. And all I wanted from a school was the freedom to just be myself which just wasn’t going to happen at my old school but when I got to Dunbar I kind of knew right away that I had showed up at a place where I could sprout my wings and fly. I could feel it in the air. I could sense it in all the friendly smiles I saw everywhere.
Remember, smiling was a sin at my other school.
Now, I’m not trying to overly glamorize those days. I mean, after all, Dunbar, was a school and as such it had more than its share of memorizing and all that answering the questions at the end of the chapter kind of stuff. But our teachers were good and we could feel their love because they created a school for us that was full of pizzazz, like a hot riff in a big jazz band. Or like one of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s (our school’s namesake) genial and lively verse in black dialect. The sheer energy of the school made me feel alive. It had all that I needed as a human being to thrive.
As a budding educator I was allowed to teach small groups. As a budding actor, a ham, and a writer, I got to act in plays and show off in talent shows and a poem I wrote won “Best in Show.” As a budding singer I once sang a solo in Mr. Dawson’s renowned chorus. As a budding intellectual I got to appear on the radio, on a local Quiz Kids kind of show. I remember my dear lifelong friend, Shirley Robinson, and I answering questions left and right, winning for Dunbar in our 4th, 5th, and 6th grade years, literally destroying the racial myths of our times. As a budding leader I was the president of our school’s Gra-Y and the citywide student council of Gra-Y’s. As a budding athlete I competed with all my jock friends in whatever sport that happened to be in season. As a budding student of the world I appreciated that every year each class at Dunbar did a dance and a song from another nation in a celebration of cultures of the world. And our parents sewed the costumes and prepared meals from these distant places. Oh, what a healthy positive place for black boys and black girls.
And, now, in retrospect, I can clearly see that, perhaps, the greatest benefit I gained from all those rich experiences is: Dunbar made a lifelong learner out of me. Because here I am at 67, still honoring our old motto: Be the Best. Still educating, still acting and showing off, still writing, still singing, still using my brain, still leading, still keeping fit, still dancing and vocalizing and eating foods from far away. Still being myself which is all I ever wanted or asked for anyway.
So if my old classmates and I get around to singing our alma mater: “Hail to Dunbar Jr. High, a grand old school is she...” I’ll be harmonizing in bass, voicing such sentiments in absolute sincerity.
Ernie McCray, a San Diego resident, is a long time contributor to La Prensa San Diego.