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Nostalgia For A Middle School That Could Close

Barry Mason, in front of the "Baby Colesium" at J.T. Williams Middle School

Parents, students and teachers have all shown up to CMS forums in droves to speak out against school closings. Harding University High has even had alums turn out to its meetings. But in general alumni are a scarce commodity at these forums and with good reason. Most of the schools up for closure are elementary and middle schools and who really brags about their middle school? WFAE's Lisa Miller found a group that does: About a dozen friends are waiting patiently for a school forum to start. Among them is Barry Mason. Like many others here, he's pulled out his school t-shirt for the occasion, but it's a bit dated. It reads J.T. Williams Class of '69. The whole row is part of that class. J.T. Williams is a middle school. Can you remember the year you graduated from middle school? I have to do the math and count backward from high school graduation. Those are the years that usually get the nostalgia. But not for Mason and his Class of '69 Alumni Association. "I'm telling you, the middle school was the best part of my life ever," says Mason emphatically. "Now I've been to the senior prom. I played basketball and all that good stuff, but it was nothing like J.T. Williams. I tell you nothing, nothing." Mason walks around the campus of his old school. J.T. Williams serves part of the west side. The school is primarily African American. Back in Mason's days, it was 100 percent black. He and his group are here a lot to tutor students, monitor tests, drop-off school supplies and just generally trying to prop up the struggling school. "You know what we used to call that?" asks Mason pointing to the gym. "That's the baby coliseum. Everybody around the whole city, when you say middle school they wanted to play in the baby coliseum. I still hold it precious in my heart. I had some good moments in that gym." Mason and his classmates were tight. They all lived in the same neighborhood. They'd go to birthday parties at each others houses. Mason says J.T. Williams was the place where he learned how to be part of a community. But then in high school they all separated. Mason initially went to West Charlotte. Then in 1970 bussing came along. His mother thought he'd get a better education at West Mecklenburg. "When I got off the bus that first day at West Mecklenburg, I felt like I was in a strange land," remembers Mason. "The very first time I ever laid [eyes] on somebody different than I was. When I got off that bus and I looked around and I was like, 'What in the world?' I was like in a dream land." A land where people made him feel like he didn't belong. "The National Guard had to take us to school, put us on the bus, and take us home," recounts Mason picturing the helmets and other gear they wore. "The streets were lined with white folks on different sides, throwing rocks at the bus and spitting at us and all that kind of stuff." Mason threw himself into his studies, trying to topple his teachers' expectations of him and the other black students there. That first year he cried every so often and spent a lot of time thinking back to the good old days at J.T. Williams. A few of his former classmates also were at West Mecklenburg. "We sort-of stuck together like glue. We sort-of studied in the evenings. Everything we did, we did it as a team like here," says Mason. They made it through high school at West Mecklenburg and after graduation went their separate ways. Mason kept in touch with one of his friends from J.T. Williams. About five years ago they began wondering what happened to the others and so they went looking for them. The alumni association is now sixty people strong and they're worried the school's days are numbered. J.T. Williams is one of the schools up for closure. The students would be sent to k through 8 schools. "I just pray to God that everything works out for this school and our organization because this is our school, this is what we do and this is what we're going to continue to do in the name of J.T. Williams Class of '69," says Mason.