Last night, as I was writing the February 11th entry into Triumphs & Tribulations XV, I looked back at entries from past years and I came across what I wrote in Triumphs & Tribulations I on February 11, 2001 and in the 2 weeks following. I was 16 at the time, mired in a suffocating controversy. It’s funny how I can look back on all of this almost half my life later. That brings me to this week’s moment in the Flashback Friday series: leaving Parker High School.
How I first came across this moment? February 21, 2001 was the date. I found myself in blue jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, and my yellow and gray windbreaker. I wasn’t in the mandatory school uniform because I was visiting all of my classes to have every teacher sign off on the withdrawal form. How I got to that point started on the first day of school…in August 2000. That’s when I found myself in Geometry 10, my A1 block class, sitting behind LaToya Watson…a fellow sophomore that I was instantly attracted to. After like 2 months of observing her in-school movements and the way she interacted with others, I decided on a way to approach her with the highest percentage of success. Having been rejected by a crush—Alicia Wilson, I think was her name—the year before in embarrassing fashion, I had to be careful and very calculated with my approach towards Miss Watson. I had to catch her when she stopped at her locker between the B2 and B3 blocks as it was the only time she was alone long enough for me to kick words at her. LaToya, however, ran for Miss Sophomore ahead of the homecoming festivities and upset the heavy favorite…some chick named Stephanie Croster. I was forced to go another route in my approach to account for her increased profile and popularity: a series of secret admirer letters. The 1st of the 4 planned letters was beautifully written and I managed to avoid the obvious by typing it and having somebody else write her name on the envelope. I slipped it in her backpack while she was at the chalkboard during class the day before we broke into the homeroom schedule to take the exit exams. I never accounted for the possibility that she’d let a certain mutual classmate read the letter as it was her that figured out the clue that identified me. LaToya and her entourage of friends cornered me at lunch a few days later and she dissed me…it was polite but no less a rejection. It was in front of other people and I got ribbed at about it for like 2 weeks. As the calendar crept into December 2000 and we were readying for holiday break, it somehow came across that I called her a “ho” because she dissed me. Though it was a totally false accusation, she took that very personally and pretty much cursed me out in class. Always being one who remained stoic and quiet, I simply looked and nodded my head without saying anything…at least not in class. After that class, I stopped by my locker and in my frustration of being cursed out for something I didn’t do, I slammed the locker with such force that the combination lock broke off. I may have added an expletive or two along with that. Certain people saw that rare show of fiery emotion. I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t say anything to anybody at school the rest of the way unless absolutely necessary…meaning I’d only answer roll or explain work to my teachers. It was through this that my lone wolf persona was born. As I had started my journal writing with Triumphs & Tribulations I in October 2000, date countdowns became a big thing to me. A lot of the headers on the assignments I turned in would have a countdown towards an important date of significance to me (i.e. 10/20/15 – 4 days left). When we all returned for 2nd semester, this is what I added to my headers. Classmates would always ask what’s happening on such and such day and I would always be silent. Things changed in mid-January 2001 when I started identifying St. Valentine’s Day 2001 as a date of significance. That’s when rumors started circulating about me. I remember when I first caught wind of what was supposed to happen. I was sitting on the bleachers during PE and I overhead one of the freshman girls sitting a couple of rows below me say “Girl, some boy named An-John Thomas is supposed to blow up the school on Valentine’s Day”. I interrupted and asked her to repeat the name again and she repeated “An-John Thomas”. That being the most common mispronunciation of my first name, I corrected her with “you mean AnJuan Thomas” to which she replied “yeah, him”. That’s when I countered with “I’m AnJuan Thomas”. I’ll never forget the look of shock on her face or the shivers I felt immediately. If some brace-faced freshman was talking about this, it had to be common knowledge throughout most of the school. Indeed it was and by the end of that day, I knew I was in a very precarious situation. I immediately sought out to talk to the principal—Dr. Raymond Reddick—but he refused to meet with me. He’s still a b**** in my book because of that. As January 2001 was wrapping up and Valentine’s Day loomed in the near horizon, that rumor spread like a wildfire. During the whole time, I maintained my strict code of silence towards other students, only talking to my younger sister, a classmate of mine from my Wilkerson Middle days, and a couple of teachers. Students were getting scared no doubt as February 14th got closer and closer. When I’d walk through the halls, people looked and whispered. When I’d go my locker, other students moved out of the way. I even had a lunchroom table to myself. Months earlier, I was a relatively unknown within the sophomore class but at the height of the rumor, everybody in the school knew my name. It didn’t help that I got called to the main office 5 times between January 15th and February 1st to be questioned. On the last such occasion—February 1st—the head of school security, the assistant principal for my grade level, and a Birmingham Police officer pulled me out of Ms. Harris’ African-American Literature class. I remember as I was walking the halls with them to the main office, a fellow student walked by and called me an arsonist. I ended up getting administratively suspended for an indefinite amount of days. St. Valentine’s Day came 2 weeks later and according to my sister, who attended school that day, only 150 of 1300 registered students came to school that day. The next evening, my mother received a call from the Parker High secretary saying that the administration wanted to meet with her and I. My dad joined in on the February 16th meeting with Parker High administration and a representative from the Birmingham Board of Education. My mother was not kind in that meeting at all. I was cleared of any wrongdoing and was allowed to go back to class but not before I said that I’d rather drop out than to continue at Parker considering the way I got treated throughout the entire controversy. My dad promised me that he’d pull me out on his next available off day (February 21) and I told him I could handle myself up until then. For the rest of February 16th and all of February 19th and 20th, I kept the lowest of profiles…hiding out in Mr. White’s Technical Drafting class as most of the school body was up in Jacksonville, Alabama supporting the boys basketball team as they made a push in the state playoffs. February 21st came and my dad withdrew me out of Parker. The 1st stop, of course, was that African-American Literature class and my mother let Ms. Harris have it over things she said about me during the height of the rumor. My dad had to tell her to go back to the car. One of my classmates—the one who told LaToya who wrote the letter—expressed regret at me leaving, saying “who are we gonna get answers from now”. Two of my teachers—my Honors US History 10 teacher (Mrs. Bean) and my Biology teacher (Mrs. P. Davis)—both expressed sorrow in losing me as a student. Mrs. Bean kissed me on the cheek and said “I hope your sister is just as good as you are” while Mrs. P. Davis was kinda upset at losing her “top student”, citing that my work ethic and thoroughness as a student would be a loss for Parker. After visiting my other teachers, I submitted the paperwork back to the main office and that was the end of my days at Parker High.
What it meant to me then? In the moment, it hurt to have to leave Parker…on a seriously personal level. I had a 3.75 cumulative GPA and my GPA was rising at an accelerated rate because I was tearing it up in the honors program. I had passed the required language, math, reading and science portions of the Alabama High School Graduation Exam in the 98th percentile and I got 97 of 100 questions correct on the history portion that didn’t even count…all in my first attempt as a sophomore. I was blowing away assignments in my 2 favorite classes—Graphic Arts II and Biology. I was doing very well academically at Parker but I felt my reputation was in a place where it couldn’t be repaired…even after I was cleared of any wrongdoing. I had to start brand new and I did just that at Huffman High. I hated the long bus ride to the other side of the city. I hated that the long commute from Huffman on the MAX meant that I worked from 5pm until 10pm through the week instead of 4pm until 10pm coming from Parker…I lost money on that. I hated that I lost my status as grandmaster of Parker’s chess club.
What it means to me now? Today, as I look back on it, the decision to leave Parker was the right call. I was welcomed with open arms at Huffman. Longtime friendships were started at Huffman as I reconnected with one of my co-best friends and met another. The competition amongst the top students was significantly better than what I experienced at Parker, driving me to up my game. I became a lot more sociable…even ran for student government. Most importantly, I linked up with some real forward-thinking teachers that challenged me to explore beyond my boundaries and means. If it weren’t for me leaving Parker, it’s likely that I would’ve stayed put in the state for college and attended the University of Alabama instead of bolting for life outside of the state’s borders. Leaving Parker is one of the top 10 best decisions I’ve ever made. But, even though I’ve long moved on from my days at Parker doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten what happened to me. They’ll come a day when the City of Birmingham will tear down Parker High. It may be this year, next year, or even 20 or 30 years from now. I’ll be there though. And when it’s all just a rubble pile consisting of bricks, steel, wood, and glass, I’m gonna personally drive up to the site at spit at it. And in the highly unlikely event I ever become Mayor of Birmingham, I’m taking a wrecking ball and bulldozer to the entire building myself. It’s still personal.