After the backhoes and bulldozers had left, all that was standing were the trees. But if the trees could talk, they’d surely tell you about my mother.
Diana Lee Bailey died on my 12th birthday, 10 months after my last days at Barnard Elementary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Until a massive fire swept through the 87-year-old brick building in September, I always had Barnard to remember her by. Condemned as a total loss, the elementary turned charter high school was razed. And with it, another piece of my youth was lost.
“We’ll never be able to go back to that school and walk those halls,” said Sharon Atcheson, a longtime Barnard teacher in the 1970s and ’80s before becoming principal at Tulsa’s Lee Elementary for 20 years. “So many people take their kids or grandkids by their school and say, ‘This is where I went to school, why don’t we stop and play on the playground? I want you to see what it was like.’ And we’ve been robbed of those memories because that happened, just like you were robbed of your mother, losing her so young. But it’s that same kind of feeling that—‘We’ve been robbed.’ ”
While both are gone, they’re certainly not forgotten. With education heralded as a driving force in America’s prosperity, parents like my mother and schools like Barnard in the 1980s, when classes were full and caring teachers the norm, remain key variables in the equation, which, of course, makes their loss that much harder – and more deeply rooted.
My mother was the PTA president at Barnard in 1984, a year in which she continued a three-year battle with breast cancer. It plagued scores of women then, too, before the wider, public fight gained a full head of steam.
As my mother’s son, I didn’t know her as the ambitious, charismatic PTA leader; I knew her as someone who tackled difficult things.
“She just kept us all laughing, but it was rough. She was very sick,” said Karen Fraser, a good friend of my mother’s and her predecessor as PTA president. “She was the first person I ever went through breast cancer with, and now they don’t get as sick.”
They also are more likely to survive. According to medical research, more than 75 percent of women with breast cancer now will live for at least 10 more years after diagnosis compared to 40 percent in the early 1970s, though the incidence rate has risen, including a rapid spike between 1980 and 1987 thanks to an increase in mammographies, which boosted detection rates as smaller tumors were evident earlier. Childbearing patterns have also been an attributable cause of the incidence increase, with mothers having fewer children and conceiving later in their lives.
“I remember being in the room with her when they were doing the chemo,” Fraser said. “I remember the doctor came in, and said they were going to have to try something different, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is what practicing medicine means.’ Because that’s what they do, they try to find the right cocktail.”
While women have a 12 percent chance of developing breast cancer at some part of their lives, women aged 30–40 have less than a 0.5 percent chance. My mother, who would’ve turned 66 on October 20, died six months before her 40th birthday.
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I learned to appreciate at an early age what my mother had done for my quality of life, and it was readily apparent that few of my peers’ experiences mirrored mine. But it took several years—well into my adolescence—before I understood what a solid, well-rounded education I had acquired in elementary school.
“It really was, it had a good reputation,” said Barnard music and history teacher John Townsend, whose 28-year career there began in 1970. “And as far as I know, we were not only able to maintain what they call the academic standing in competition with the other schools, but we were also able to excel in the arts. We had an excellent drama teacher. Even after Sharon left we had two or three of them come along that were able to somewhat maintain what she had implemented. It was always different, but the quality didn’t just fall to the floor.”
Emerging from Barnard classrooms, I would often discover my mother in the high-ceilinged main hallway that spanned the building east to west, speaking to a staff member, teacher, administrator, or fellow parent—or discussing whatever minutiae it was a junior leaguer and lady janitor pondered together.
“Well that would be your mom,” Fraser said. “She talked to everybody and was just so nice to everybody. And that was kind of the feeling there. Everybody was part of the school.”
She was a PTA functionary, but in my eyes she was royalty, and I was a prince. The confidence that bred stirred me to become one of the highest-achieving students in school—and one of the hardest-playing athletes and neighborhood punks out of it.
“I have no clue how those teachers handled the likes of us and managed to turn out such a huge class of intelligent kids,” Chris Willis, one of my brightest classmates, told me recently. “Maybe we did get lucky and have a chance back when teachers still cared.”
Hindsight for the mold that shaped our earliest development has never been sharper as seen through the broad prism of a presidential campaign year, with its trumpeting of recipes for enrichment amid a fresh round of made-to-be-broken promises.
As recently as the third presidential debate, a ropea-doping Mitt Romney proclaimed America must have “schools that finally put the parents and the teachers and the kids first, and the teachers union’s going to have to go behind.”
President Obama followed by pledging to fund the hiring of more math and science teachers “because we know that we’ve fallen behind when it comes to math and science. And those teachers can make a difference.”
As Bush had done before Obama, and Clinton before him, presidents have long seized on the issue of youth education performance. But the Barnard school grounds, in their elevated, stone-wall eastern perimeter and multilevel asphalt playing fields that will remain, bear the fruit of an even more pressing hot-button campaign issue—economic reform.
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A New Deal program that employed millions of Americans at the height of the Great Depression gave Barnard its iconic signature for the thousands of commuters who passed it daily on Lewis Avenue.
The Works Progress Administration had become a colossal public-works effort that employed workers in every sector and corner of the American economy before market forces were shocked back to life during World War II and the program became moot.
But for Barnard, it constructed a massive wall that protected the playground from the already-busy traffic—and helped fulfill Franklin D. Roosevelt’s promise on a local level.
For me, the promise of my Barnard years was evident from the outset. In kindergarten, I quickly learned not everyone was able to read at a basic level. But thanks to nightly lessons at home, I was already on par with many first and second graders. And while I excelled in English, I required weeks of speech therapy for weak Rs through brief tutoring sessions at a desk set up in the hallway. The highlights of my kindergarten days, meanwhile, were hatched during an arts-and-crafts block, when I could glue and paste and nail and saw to my heart’s content.
Across the hall in first grade, I discovered a glimpse of a much wider world in real time, complete with live play-by-play. A TV was carried in, set up, and our attention was turned to the screen as the space shuttle coasted home in one of NASA’s early looks at a spectacle that would soon become routine.
Thirty-three years later, the room directly beneath us—down an adjacent stairwell from the spot of those earliest enlightenments—greeted a group of Tulsa firefighters with a blast of bright orange
backdraft flame that nearly killed them.
“It was just all of a sudden, we were knocked down and then we’re on fire, we’re burning,” Captain Terry Sivadon told KRMG radio.
A predawn call to duty had brought them to what was now the Tulsa School for Arts and Sciences on September 5 for a fire that was found to have been caused by faulty construction of a chemistry-lab vent.
“I didn’t think we would make it out,” firefighter Heath Tye told KRMG.
While they got out alive, crawling on their hands and knees using their fire hoses as guides, eight were injured, and at least two sustained severe burns.
As a Barnard alumnus, the “if we can’t have it no one can” sentiment struck me as the easiest initial emotion to surrender to, after watching Internet video of the fire and apparent backdraft explosions. But in the aftermath, the realization that I had lost something much more profound began to set in, that I would never again be able to visit the historic 17th Street building that also served as a lasting memorial to my mother. No longer would the jungle gym that stood on the southern most edge of the playground’s top level remind me of my mother’s busy schedule, how it had caused her to run late for carpool one afternoon, how she had pulled up as we sat atop the tall metal bars that looked out from atop the hill to the rows and rows of bungalows to the east, how Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” had poured out of her 1982 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser wagon as she rolled down the window and apologized profusely.
“Watching the explosion, I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that was just my children’s kindergarten and first-grade rooms that just blew out,’ ” Fraser said of her reaction to seeing the news on TV. “And emotionally that was really just—uhh! Just watching that fire shoot out from those rooms where you guys were, where the little kids were up there.”
Atcheson stopped by 10 days later on the way home from taking part in the Komen Race for the Cure downtown to snap photos.
“I stood out there with my camera and took pictures where my classroom was and further down to the west,” she said. “I took pictures of that, I took pictures of the arch. I took a picture of the marquee, and I took a picture of the area that was so devastated down closer to Lewis.
“Now, when I saw that, it was just like someone punched you in the stomach.”
The Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences had entered into a lease of the building a year after its closure as Barnard Elementary, part of a Tulsa Public Schools consolidation effort that punctuated a 20-year decline for Barnard.
“It was beginning to show quite a bit of change,” said Townsend, who retired from Barnard in 1997. “But nothing happened necessarily that was internal. It was usually imposed from the outside. The effort to improve the entire school system, in my opinion, sometimes caused Barnard to not necessarily do as well as it had been doing. We had children from all over town to begin coming in. And at first they came in small numbers, though they adapted to the Barnard environment. But when they came in large numbers, that was a little bit… it became a little bit more of a challenge. They had previous experience in other places and consequently they didn’t adapt as quickly to the environment that we had established and maintained for a period of time.”
The school district had started to bus students in from across the city in the 1990s, Townsend said, a development others indicated was at least partly due to area children increasingly attending private schools.
“The other thing that affected change was the faculty turnover,” Townsend said. “Teachers would retire or move on or whatever, and they were replaced with people who had other experiences. And a lot of times they would come in and what they had experienced to them was the way it was supposed to be. So of course they would try and change the environment, the standard Barnard environment that we had worked with. So it was just a lot of elements from outside that had an effect on the school.”
But long before its demise, Barnard’s story was one of South Tulsa evolution. Stuck hard between the upper-crust Utica Square neighborhood and a working class section east of downtown, Barnard had traditionally fed the public educational needs of two distinct areas of the city.
Built in 1925, Barnard rose in a “neighborhood that was developed over a 10-year period during the height of the oil-related expansion of the city,” says the Yorktown Historic District’s registration for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, referring to 1921–’31.
“During this boom period, Tulsa developed into one of the two major urban centers in the state of Oklahoma,” the registration reads. “As an example of a working middle-class neighborhood in Tulsa, Yorktown
represents the impact of the oil industry on the common man.”
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Barnard, a Tudor Revival building, was listed as “Contributing Resource” No. 71 among 311 neighborhood buildings in the registration. The Yorktown district was added to the National Register in 2002. “When I first came to Barnard, there were a lot more of the very affluent that were there,” said Atcheson. “And I remember we had people that had chauffeurs that brought them to school. And when I started there, about ’73 … there would be maids in uniform who would bring up the homework when somebody forgot their homework.”
Atcheson said during her time as principal at Lee—which, like Barnard was, is a midtown public elementary school—she encountered a student body with parents who sought to eschew symbols of status and wealth.
“There was a whole lot of that where people wanted everyone to be on equal footing, as far as nobody stood out socioeconomically, which was a really nice thing,” Atcheson said. “And I think that’s the way Barnard became, too, where it became not in vogue to show how much money you have. It was much cooler to be discreet. And that was the biggest difference I noticed, is that there wasn’t a lot of the showy stuff anymore. But I know there was a lot of people who still had money.”
When I revisited Barnard as a middle-schooler during a Friday night carnival not long after my graduation, the ceilings already seemed much lower as I had begun to grow into the 6-foot-3 frame I stand in today. The teachers appeared more hurried and less friendly, nearly as if my era had been wiped clean. Perhaps they thought I should be home, cherishing what would soon be my greatest loss. Because, after all, they had lost something, too.
“Every now and then we would have parents who were there for not necessarily productive reasons that included all the children, but maybe just their own. And I didn’t see her that way,” Townsend said of my mother. “I saw her as someone who was working for the good of the whole rather than just individually.”
Earlier this year, I finally convinced my father to ship me a cache of Super 8 film rolls featuring family scenes my mom had invariably and inescapably starred in many years before her death. Planning to promptly convert them, I instead put the box atop a bedroom dresser, where it had languished untouched for months. But when the Tulsa Historical Society installed a temporary Barnard display of homeroomclass photos and scrapbook-style memorabilia items, I knew it was high time I faced my mother’s passing with a smile.
Inside the shoebox are two dozen canisters, many unmarked, but several undoubtedly holding the keys to my future through the lens of my past: “Ft. Gibson, Arkansas trip” … “Xmas ’78” … “Summer 1975” … “Jeremy Toddler 1974.” A trip to the photo processing store is indeed in order, and the top of the box is tough to wrestle back on; roll by roll, it fights in vain for my undivided attention. So I look again, and a hidden gem shows its face in “Jeremy’s First Bike Ride.” It was an experience I recall vividly, my mother, father and I working in tandem toward a new beginning.
Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 23, Dec. 1, 2012.