I am a few weeks away from being 62 years old, but these days, I am mourning the loss of my high school. Over the past several weeks, Leslie High School has simply gone away. It’s been merged into a countywide consolidated school, purged of its bulldog mascot, purple and white colors, and its status as the heart of a small North Arkansas town. But if I am any example of its graduates, Leslie High School — as is written on many tombstones — is gone but not forgotten.
In 1963, I graduated with a class of 22 from Leslie High. Even in such a small field of classmates, I was neither valedictorian nor salutatorian, not even third or fourth. If my memory serves me right, according to our class sponsor, I was considered an example of an “all-around student” or some such thing and the faculty voted me a special prize.
I was celebrated at fifth in my class of 22, less — I’m certain — for my academic prowess than for my free throws. I will say, in my academic defense, that I was an excellent typist and I suspect that — thanks in large part to two demanding Home Economics teachers over my four years of high school — I may have become the best cook. I just don’t know.
Yes, all the girls took Home Ec, and all the boys took Agri, which also may have been called “Shop.” Actually, one or the other was usually our only choice of courses (although it wasn’t really a choice for the 12 girls and 11 boys or vice versa … whatever). Home Ec or Agri were the only choices beyond a math course of some sort, English and literature, some sort of science, and some sort of history or social studies. One of our teachers basically taught the class by sitting behind his desk and reading aloud the chapter we, the students, had been assigned to read each day (but to my knowledge, never had). Please don’t take this wrong; I’m not exactly being critical of this or any other teacher here. I’m just remembering him reading from the textbook for 50 minutes a day, every day, while in the seats in front of him, we wrote and passed notes, drew pictures, daydreamed, courted, held hands, or slept the hour away. We may have been more interested in making history on the basketball court and/or making out anywhere than learning about the past, where the various Soviet republics were located, or the various branches of our federal government.
Leslie High School was then better known for producing basketball players — and winning teams — than academics, but I am pleased to remember that more than half of my graduating class went on to college. I think that we all graduated from college, too. In fact, we graduated and graduated some more, with at least one of us earning a Ph.D and some of us master’s degrees, and for some of us, even second master’s degrees way down the road, well into our 50s. The latter was me, at 50 or so, still trying to make up for not being known as a strong student, and for graduating fifth in my class of 22.
It was back in the 1920s when Mr. Guy Mabrey and his teammates won Leslie High School’s first state championship at basketball. Guy, who was the Leslie postmaster for many, many years as well as a deacon and Sunday School superintendent at Leslie Baptist Church and maybe superintendent of Leslie schools way before my time, was proud of that basketball championship to his dying day. He was a great fan of the Leslie Lady Bulldogs, the team I played on that won two state championships in the early ’60s, and Guy seemed to see the two teams as linked in some magical way over the years. If Guy missed any of our games at home, I never knew about it, and he drove many miles to see us play nearby and far away. In fact, he was one of the organizers of a massive caravan that drove to and from Alma, four hours away — each way — to see us win our first state championship. Next day at Sunday School Guy announced — along with that day’s attendance and the amount of the offering — that more than 200 Leslie residents had gone to the finals the night before. Out of a total population of 500, almost half the town had gone to the game.
It took me years to get used to the fact that there was a “new” Leslie school. It just seemed wrong that the gym where we had practiced basketball twice a day and played games on Tuesdays and Friday nights and where our trophies lived and our pennants flew was now a performance hall and museum. Even when I proudly visited “the old gym” for performances or to peruse the artifacts in the museum, it was hard to make sense of the fact that the Leslie bulldog’s purple face was painted center court on another gymnasium floor at the “new” school a few blocks away.
Now, Leslie High School is nowhere and no more; it has graduated its last class. Something new has been created — for good reason, I know, I know — seven miles away, in Marshall, the county seat of Searcy County. I’ve heard that Marshall, too, had to give up its mascot, its colors, perhaps even a part of its heart in order to consolidate and give Searcy County’s students the best education and a new place to build their memories of their high school, their alma mater.
As a mere 40 graduates sang at the most recent alumni banquet, which thousands — including me — chose not to attend:
Hail to the Purple
Hail to the White
Hail Alma Mater
Ever so Bright
We Love No Other
So Let Our Motto Be
Victory Leslie High
Sharon Blair, who lives in Wellfleet, Mass., is a video archiving consultant who retired after 30 years in television, her last as national program development director for Connecticut Public Television.