Please Help Our School

Every time I see the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, I think of my years as a student at J.B. Pennington High School in Blountsville, Alabama. I relate so much to the character Gertrude Lang, an awkward young woman struggling to master clarinet, the most unforgiving instrument in marching or concert band. One wrong placement of teeth on mouthpiece, and out come foul—and fowl—sounds. I played clarinet long before the Aflac duck made squawking cool.   

As an adult, I realize that training me to be a mediocre clarinet player took an inordinate amount of patience and professional skill. Mr. William Brindza, my band director, never told me to “play the sunset” as Mr. Holland tells Gertrude, but Mr. B’s facial expression conveyed his satisfaction when we band kids performed well. Mr. Brindza was supportive even when we got out of step or konked ourselves on the heads with our batons during the halftime show, as I did regularly when I went from being a mediocre clarinet player to a worse-than-mediocre majorette. He realized that most of us would never be professional musicians or dancers, but if we had fun and managed to learn to appreciate the performing arts, he had done right by us.   

Mrs. Betty Brindza, his wife, was my speech, drama, and literature teacher. I excelled in her class, so much so that I followed in her professional footsteps. She instilled an appreciation of Shakespeare into students who probably never read another play after high school. In ninth grade, we had enormous fun reciting Romeo and Juliet in class. She always insisted on participation from the rowdy farm boys who weren’t especially interested in literature. With their southern accents and high-energy improvisations, they turned the tragedy into a comedy, and the rest of us laughed ourselves silly. The boys even began to take pride in their performances. One young man who read Benvolio’s part would have impressed Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh with his earnest effort: “Part, fools! Put down yer dadgum swwwords.”

Mrs. Brindza and my other English teachers, Mr. Randal Simmons, Mrs. Ginger Black, and Mrs. Carolyn Bryson, provided me with a solid, rigorous academic foundation to build on as I prepared for my own career as an English teacher. But my mentors are only a few legendary educators who might be appropriate for a J.B. Pennington Teacher and Principal Hall of Fame. Some names I know only through older family members and friends: Ethel Rosser, Sadie Bell Cox, Macie Drake, and even J.B. Pennington himself, were gone long before I arrived in 1977. Others like Principal Birl Bryson, Don and Martha Jones, Bill and Mary Nichols, Jackie Sue Sivley, Pat Smith, Jane Wright, Austin Graves, Dianne Martin, Charles Carr, Hudson Tatum, and many others were mid-career professionals during my years there. Now a new group of educators like my cousin, Amanda McHan, and Principal Brian Kirk, are the current generation’s role models.

Amanda, Brian, and their faculty colleagues at PHS face a serious challenge this school year. In March, a fire broke out in the school’s library and spread to the auditorium. Unfortunately, though the structure remains standing, the damage was so extensive that the entire building will have to be gutted.

This is not the first time the school has been devastated by fire. The high school in Blountsville has burned four times in the last hundred years, in 1919, 1938, 1990, and 2016. In 1990, twenty-seven years ago, the school I attended from 1977-1983 burned. That building, constructed in 1939 with New Deal funding, was a striking, “stately” building as the PHS alma mater describes it. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of the community, the exterior of the structure that replaced it was almost an exact replica of the old building. The interior was state-of-the art in the early 1990s.

Now the community must start again. Although insurance will restore the school to early 1990s standards, a substantial amount of money still needs to be raised by the community. Bringing the building up to 2017 building code requirements is not covered by insurance. Computers, band uniforms, microscopes, and other school needs are terribly expensive. The people in my home community are strong and resilient, so I have no doubt they will persevere. They are experts at bake sales, raffles, and other fundraising ventures. But they could certainly use the help of anyone willing to donate to the construction efforts.

People who grow up in a small town know that the local high school is the center of the community’s social activity. Plays, band concerts, and football games are events that bring people together. Unfortunately, a lot of newly-constructed schools must forego building an auditorium because the costs are prohibitive for a large space used only for special events. J.B. Pennington High School has had an auditorium dating back at least as far as the structure completed in 1939. I hope the school will be able to maintain this tradition, but that means the community will need to raise a lot of money.

At the end of Mr. Holland’s Opus, as Mr. Holland is about to retire, Gertrude Lang, the awkward clarinet player, returns to the school for a tribute to her old teacher. Now the governor of Oregon, Gertrude speaks at a large assembly of Mr. Holland’s former students. She tells him, “There’s not a life in this room that you have not touched. And each one of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and notes of your opus. And we are the music and notes of your life.”

When I think of how my fellow graduates and I are better people because of our years at J.B. Pennington and the dedicated teachers who mentored us, I want to do what I can to honor my old high school and make sure it continues to be a “guiding star” to future generations. I hope that my fellow Pennington alumni will open their hearts and wallets and donate to the fund to rebuild the school.

In addition, I would like to urge anyone else who may not be a former Pennington student to support the rebuilding efforts if you believe in quality public schools that provide a good education. If you would like to donate, you can do so at the Blount County Board of Education website.  Even if you cannot afford to give money, simply sharing this article might help reach others who can make a financial contribution.

Although the school’s mascot is the tiger, I almost think PHS should also adopt the phoenix, that mythical bird that rises regularly and triumphantly from the ashes of destruction. Although these are difficult days, J.B. Pennington High School will return, stronger than ever.