Title Photo. Postdate, 2107, July 14. THAT 70's SHOW. It's all about THE FRO, according to this 70's Essex High School Group.
CRYSTAL BLUE PERSUASION
Believe it or not, the 70's, almost 50 years ago, was a time of vibrant color and mega change. That change and color were clearly worn so all could see--the basketball-size hair, the polyester shirt collars long as a dog's ears flapping down shoulders, maxi-Shaft coats down to the ankles. There were clunky metalic medalions thumping on long silver chains, stone beads over psychedelic shirts. It was the time of the Isley Brothers crooning ITS YOUR THING and Seals and Croft, SUMMER BREEZE. It was the time of affirmative action when more and more black youth were getting into college, either through scholarships, grants, study work, or government assistance. This is not to say blacks were not achieving all along--because I had one valedictorian and one salutatorian in my own house, prior to that time, but opportunities were limited for them, especially if they were poor and unexposed.
The tail wind of the 60's riots and hosings and letters from Birmingham Jail (which a few of us hadn't even heard of), the 70's was the time near the peak of the sexual revolution, a time of flower children and free love, developing intellectual curiosity, and unfortunately a quick availability of a vast assortment of illegal drugs, probably in part set in motion by the spoils of the very unpopular Vietnam War. Soldiers were starting to come home. They brought their drugs and blues and PTSD but they also brought new ideas, memories of the outside world, not always dark as a Vietnam jungle.
It was a time of immense strides for many blacks, as more jobs became available, more ways to find placement in a country still finding itself. Bell bottoms over platforms of every color (I had some light blue ones in college--sweet) rang out the idea that we are free, and we have been free for quite some time. Even though there were still hurdles and hills, a few of us were getting to the mountain top, and King said he had already been there. Our local school, however, was only beginning to fully integrate, with that full largely peaceful transition in Essex County in January, 1971. Even though FREEDOM OF CHOICE had been executed as early as 65, the schools were fully integrated that first semester of 70, but only in the case of the high school multriculating in the old Tappahannock building until the new building was complete.
The new building was heaven, but unnerving as well. A large, carpeted library where Mrs. Cary sat perched like a quiet angelic bird, smiling at you as you walked past, sometimes button-holding you to get the proverbial dirt of the large new nest and see if you were on the straight and narrow. Behind the library was Mr. Dockery's chubby hole, a state of the art dark room, though the French lab was upstairs, I think. (I took advanced French in a regular upstairs classroom with Mrs. Agnes Ware, who was the dearest white lady I have yet to meet.) The dark room was adjacent to a huge, carpeted tiered meeting room; later when I taught there that's where the faculty meet. In 71, we had class meetings there. Also it was where some secret admirer grabbed my hand, which was probably very, very cold, like the underside of a shady field gourd. I jumped. I'll never tell who and you wouldn't believe it if I did.
The hallways were scintillating sliding boards, or they felt like that, a kind of marble look-alike through which the wide metal plated stairwell loomed up as though it were going places. Testosterone mostly dormant, we skirted up and scooted down, quiet as church mice, loud as monkeys in a new jungle. Miss Johnson coolly commanded the spacious office across the hall from the library. In her psychedelic scarfs and V-neck dresses she was in everybody's business, only you didn't know it--she was clean as a kitten in a silk kimono. Yes? Larry Giles, may I help you, trying to hide a smile which came out anyway, as she dropped her notepad. Suddenly Miss Collins comes through like Florence Nightingale in a scholarly frock with a wide colonial white collar, hiding a smile, too. Then Lucy. Now, Lucy was not quiet. She was a great, breezy ship whose huge, flappy white sails the whole county knew. So everyone was happy, happy but waiting for all hell to break loose, the waters to grow rough.
They never did.
I could describe the building forever, as it was an inventive and comprehensive structure for its time--the home economics suite, the art lab, Mr. Smith's wood shop, the large cafeteria where my cousin worked and we held the first prom--no, the prom was held in the humongous gymnasium, whose face was shiny as a silver dollar. You could read silver on every face, that and, is this going to work--blacks and whites. There were no others. Though now that I think of it, yes there were plenty of others still seeking to know who they were and where they and those like them were going. The process of finding identity is on-going and dynamic, whether it involves bell bottoms or knickers, high ribbed socks, or basketball shorts half way up the knee.
At that time there was immense pressure on certain African-American youth to succeed, as they suddenly found themselves in classrooms with students, who in many cases had simply experienced more opportunity. Norman Chandler, Ralph Jones , William Darby, and others had already conquered the basketball courts, and football was becoming a new frontier. In some cases, I believe the black teachers were even scouting for black heros, as they rightly suspected in some cases the white students had been better prepared. Of course, many of them had--their uncles and aunts had been going to college to be lawyers and doctors long before slavery and the Civil War. I remember my senior year being caught by my long collar and thurst into a physics class where I didn't have a clue what was going on. "YOU CAN DO IT, she exclaimed." I wasn't sure I could. She didn't know how poor my family was, in some ways, still without running water. "GO IN THERE AND YOU FIGURE THOSE NUMBERS," she said. I stumbled in with question marks.
The teacher was horrible, a two-year old handsome white man with long sideburns who wouldn't even look at you. He and the majority white student class roster assumed you knew this and you knew that, when many of us simply hadn't been taught. The old black system had strengths and weaknesses. My English teachers (Mrs. Harris, Ms. Johnson, and later Mrs. Spindle) had been exceptional, but I was weak in math, although Mr. Edwards had helped me to see that I had untapped ability in math that others had allowed to lie dormant. There were only a couple other blacks in the class--Ralph Nelson, Bruce Burton (I think), maybe Clayton Dandridge. Sorry there must have been a few black girls, as well but I don't remember their names--maybe Christine Braxton.
I dropped out of physics the third day, mostly because the teacher was inaccessible and unfortunately only seemed to talk to the white students. But this was not the end of the story. I soared in Mrs. Spindle's English class, and the students would turn around and look with big eyes, WHO IS THAT RED, RAPPAHANNOCK-LOOKING BOY? WHAT IS HE? WHO IS HE? AND WHO ARE THE OTHERS WHO LOOK LIKE HIM? I smoked Mrs. Spindle's final exam with the highest score in the school (chuckling). Spindle was so proud of me she give me one of her prize possessions from one of her many student stage plays which she had been doing since the 30's. In some ways it was a symbol of new times, a reconciliation that had been in the making for many years. It was the large bronze candelabra from Macbeth, which still adorns my bedroom to this day, lighted with the beacon of what is possible in all of us, despite color, despite poverty, despite adversity, neglect, and abuse, WE CAN DO IT! and so can you.
Sleeping sometimes I go back to that first prom, May, 1971. I am wearing a light blue tux whose legs flare like liberty bells, manly ones with a blade sharp pleat. I have a pre-college job and several college acceptance letters. College would be where I would smoke my first and last marijuana joint and make the dean's list every time. I was already a member of the Essex High School Honor Society, and I had slimmed down from the chucky 9th Grader I used to be. I was becoming more social. I was rather handsome, or certainly one of the hottest girls from the school wouldn't have asked me to be her date. She was beautiful in her blue lace, ribbon through her hair. Pressing carnations to her chest, we had a dance or two, the one I remember most...CRYSTAL BLUE PERSUASION...we danced in our little space with white streamers fluttering and lifting up in breezy curls. We gazed expectantly for a long moment, then the rest of life happened... lessons learned and trying to write others more profound and more peaceful and soothing than the last, as life turned and turns and spins and turns and spins.... v neck prom dresses
--Larry D. Giles, July 14, 2017. (I will work on this from time to time to expand it and add more details, as there is much more to this story.)