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SACRED GROVE OF ACADEME:
A Centennial Salute to E. W. Grove High School
By Larry T. McGehee, Class of 1954
Paris, Tennessee, Saturday, June 24, 2006

 

In II Kings, the fifth chapter, Na’aman, commander of Syria’s army, visited the prophet Elisha in Israel, who cured this enemy of Israel of leprosy. As he left to return to Syria, Na’aman, believing that each nation had its own god and that a nation’s god was only effective on that nation’s soil, asked Elisha for two mules laden with Israelite dirt, intending thereby to take Israel’s holy powers home with him. We, too, carry with us, wherever we go, parts of Grove Hill—holy healing and holy helping powers. Tonight we salute our hill and the hallowed hall that tops it.

Omnia Tennessee in tres partes divisa est, Latin teacher Mary Lou Diggs used to drill into us. "All of Tennessee," like Gaul, "is divided into three parts."

Looking up at Grove Hill explains how our town came into being. Highest hill (allegedly) in West Tennessee, that cashew-shaped ridge beckoned new families from their flatboats out at the Tennessee River. Finding a spring-fed creek on the hill, they nestled up its northeastern side for protection against southwesterly tornadoes, settling down and sending goods they grew or made—sweet potatoes, patent medicines, cigars, and cosmetics—down the River from which they came and, later, off on two railways that came through here. Like the people in Genesis intent upon re-creating Eden, they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.

Here our ancestors created a city, and they created children, and they created Grove School. Their three creations—city, children, and citadel--were inseparable; combined, they were their "legacy of literacy" to us.

Our hill is topped by distinctly-towered E. W Grove High School, named for its endower, our chill tonic entrepreneur, and built with city and county funds in 1906 on donated Jernigan family property. O Brave New World, that has such people in it.

If we look out across this Henry County universe of ours from Grove Hill at night, the street lights and house and auto and business lights are as numerous as the stars of the gigantic universe "out there" into which their Grove School launched us. When our forefathers came, there were no lights, but they brought light into the darkness by building a school. In that light; we were enlightened.

From Grove Hill, we can look across the entire city and know who lived in each house, taught in each school, worshiped in each church, clerked in each store, assembled parts in each plant, circled each barber’s chair, stoked each steam engine, sacked each grocery bag, plied each soda fountain, or fed each jail prisoner--and not only know who they were but who their kinfolks were. From Grove High School, we can see L&N and NC&StL tracks, and parks and playgrounds where generations of shirtless short-pantsed boys played, and houses out of which wafted air-filling music from dress-wearing, piano-practicing girls they courted.

From Grove High School, we saw all that is and all that was. And we saw even more--for from Grove School we could see ahead, could see forever: our eyes opened wide to worlds out in time and space beyond Paris, beyond Henry County, beyond Tennessee, and beyond an eighth-grade education. We learned to learn here, we learned to love here, and we learned to leave here--because we learned to dream here.

Some stayed close to the land, and some left but always returned: to the womb from which we came and the tomb to which we go.

This little place, this little knee patch upon the knickers of the world, renews us, just as Antaeus, in Greek mythology, was rejuvenated by touching earth.

Like airborne seeds of a wind-blown dandelion, we left Grove, a-lighting in patches of alien terrain "out there". Grove School was our town’s way of whipping us and willing us into being special people. The school stayed here, yet we took it with us to every corner of the globe.

And now some of us have come home. Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. Here in sight of our school, this remnant of a Chosen People assembles, called home to our hill, gathering in gratitude to our watchmen on the walls, our home-staying classmates who have saved Grove School for us to see one more time. Here, near our hill, upon the chalky blackboards of our minds, we re-trace our best times and find the fading faces of our best friends. Here, near our hill, bittersweet being-young memories pulse through veins hardened by age and course through arteries clogged by time. Here, near our hill, recharged with the electrifying "Power of the Tower" that surged into us years ago, we are once more "an Electrified Elect".

Here, near our hill, winds through our memories’ minds the greatest academic procession of teachers ever assembled: When the saints go marching in, they wear nametags--such as Weston, Pardue, Morris, Word, Dunn, Williams, Jelks, Roberts, Cook, Crosswy, and Krider, and a pantheon of other coaxers and coaches.

And trailing them are hundreds of blue-sweatered, white-lettered Blue Devils, majorettes, band members, athletes, ag students, valedictorians, cheerleaders, orators, actors, singers, class presidents, class clowns, Most Liked and Most Likelys--our heroes even now when heroes have become so scarce.

Here, near our hill, reunite remnant representatives of a day when poor mingled with rich, when scholars and plodders met without distinctions among them, when star-struck stars of the teams and bosomy belles of the ball were so poor they couldn’t afford free lunches--but no one cared. There was courage worth saluting in that kind of education, a home-grown, hill-grown heroism worth heralding.

Alas, more funeral chimes toll for us now than school bells. The youngest among us are 55; our oldest—the very alert Lorene Easley Luckey of the Class of 1924--is 103. On grave-cleaning days there are more of us below than above the grass now, and we scrape moss from marble markers in our cemeteries to find our teachers and classmates. We are not now what we were then, nor are we even what we thought we would become, but what we are and what we became, we owe in large part to others, many of them gone.

Some of us left our names (and some graffiti) scrawled upon restroom walls or upon beams in Grove Tower or on the school’s water tank, but something else is needed.

What symbolic gesture can we make, to prove we were ever here?

If, like Shakespeare’s Glendower, we could summons spirits from the vasty deep, we would call forth all who ever attended or taught at Grove to write their names upon the gray bricks of that consecrated schoolhouse—a winner of two Tony awards, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, a multitude of educators, doctors, nurses, ministers, lawyers, soldiers, sailors, officeholders, business leaders, civic leaders, writers, musicians, coaches, caregivers, housewives, inventors, innovators, change-agents, and energizers whose names ought not be forgotten.

The true marks we have made are our lives, and that Grove High School building that molded us after 1906 is our best monument to ourselves. It is our Mount Rushmore, our Viet Nam Wall, our own Honor Roll to aged and fallen teachers and students. In our imaginations, all the Grove names are carved upon it, not invisible to us at all.

So, here we are, survivors indeed, tossed ashore like Odysseus or Robinson Crusoe by the stormy seas of age, a handful of the five or six thousand or so alumni from Grove High’s 63 years (1906-1969). We gather, this little band of survivors, like Henry V’s we few, we happy few, in remembrance of hundreds of Grove’s students and faculty, huddled here in our hearts.

Seeing us here tonight brings to mind the jalopies some of you used to drive up that hill. Here we are—with battered fenders, sagging exhaust pipes, hot-patched inner tubes--but still able to climb our hill. If we peek beneath the Grecian formula and hair rinses, beneath the folds of flab and of wrinkles, and beneath the balding domes and expanded waistlines, we’ll find in this crowd people of importance to us for being parts of us, pretty much unchanged except for their camouflaged exterior appearances, ever-young youngsters who were eye-witnesses to our youth, and even an evergreen teacher or two to verify our dreams. Here we find certification and accreditation for our beginnings.

Here, near our hill, the lilt of laughter, the love of learning and of one another, and the innocent lies and liveliness of devilish old Blue Devils, rise, bounce around and are blown about upon breezes that earlier blew upon Mount Olympus and its gods.

Millennia ago, other famous hills-Horeb, Sinai, and Gilead, Ararat, Zion, and Calvary-were also called "sacred". We think of our hill and our school when we read, in Psalm 43: "Oh send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me, let them bring me to thy holy hill and to thy dwelling!"

Light…Truth…Holy Hill…Dwelling. Up on our hill, we are again on holy ground, atop a mountain of memories, metaphors, and meanings. To our hill we return, to recall our vows, to renew our resolve, to relish our atrophied relationships, and to revive our faith in the life of the mind, in life well-lived, in life shared with others.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the pilgrim’s path down through the nine circles of Hell led, in the pit’s bottom, past the embedded Satan, Brutus, and Judas, to a passageway that came out in Purgatory and moved upward on to a hill that stretched to heaven. Paradise rested atop that heavenly hill at the center of Dante’s universe in Italy. In our own universe, Paradise is in Paris, atop Grove Hill.

We were not educated to be pickled, preserved, and put on shelves, but to be transformed and transplanted. We were missionaries commissioned to carry Grove’s prescription message of enlightenment, sent out to civilize the masses roaming Tower-bereft, monotonous, main-stream malls of mediocrity, meaninglessness, and meanness. From our lofty Grove heights, we were obligated to lift up others. Having been elevated ourselves, we were educated to advocate the elevation of everyone else. Great expectations were laid upon us because we were the enlightened, electrified Elect. Because Grove made a difference in us, it sent us forth to "make a difference for the world".

Now, we have become gnarled oaks sprouted from Grove Hill acorns planted decades ago. Our roots are here, our midriffs tell our ages by adding new rings each year, and our weathered trunks bear initials and hearts carved on us when we were young up on the hill. Tennyson was right, when he had Ulysses say:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

When we had departed, when the last blackboard eraser had been dusted, when the last locker door had banged shut, when the last loud class bell had clanged, and when the county high schools had merged with Grove in a new building in a new place, our cathedral-of-learning doors were bolted.

That was 37 years ago. Yet, Grove still stands. While we live, it lives.

Our school bred self-confidence and optimism in us, but not self-deception. We all have been foolish one time or another, but we are not fools. Grove’s alumni have faced harsh realities for a century, and we know hard facts when we see them. We know, having memorized Shelley’s "Ozymandias" and having read Ecclesiastes, that man’s material works are transitory, that worldly goods go the way of the world, that all is vanity, and that monuments vanish. Isaiah says, The grass withers, the flower fades. Most things are momentary, many are false and fleeting, and time cannot turn backward in its flight. Grove High School cannot last forever.

Still, enough ghosts and graduates haunt our school’s hill and hallowed halls to keep Grove School here for yet a little while longer. Ghosts need homes, too. So, in the words from our old minstrel song, "we go along, singing our song, side by side". "Side by side" with the ghosts of our dead classmates and teachers and first loves, we slide and glide our way together towards home, towards Grove--always towards Grove--groping, grasping, and gripping tightly what Grove means to its ghosts and to us.

We would like to believe that this school will survive us, if only as history or a building, that, borrowing William Faulkner’s words, when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be "Something". "Something of Grove."

Maybe "Something of Grove" will endure.

Maybe not.

Linger a while; thou art so fair. This is not the time to go.

Not yet.

"Go, Blue Devils. Go, Grove!"

But do not go yet!

Soon, too soon, no Grove students will be alive to gather here.

But not yet.

Time like an ever-flowing stream bears all its sons away.

But not yet.

Those 63 Grove yearbooks in the Heritage Center will attract more and more dust--but fewer and fewer readers.

But not yet.

Grove School will be bulldozed someday.

But not yet.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low…and the rough places a plain. Grove Hill will be leveled someday.

But not yet!

Grove Hill and Grove High are not gone.

Not yet!

Someday the sun will set forever on our Grove High empire.

But not yet.

Rise up now. Like Joshua of old, rise and command the sun to stand still. Rise up now. Stand up. Stand up with me now--if you can. Stand up tall, like Joshua, and raise your arms to stop the sun, and let us shout together:

Not yet!

Not yet!

Not yet!

Praise God Almighty!

Grove is not gone!

Not yet!

 

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DR.  LARRY  T.  McGEHEE

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1954
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2006

 

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