Looking back with appreciation to friendships formed at Grady High School 41 years ago
It’s not like me to go to a horror movie at the Plaza Theatre at 11 on a Friday night.
In fact, it’s not like me to go to horror movies at all.
But there I was on Friday night going to see “The Commune,” an independent psychological thriller written and directed by Elisabeth Fies. The horror movie festival crowd was mixed in with the eclectic “Rocky Horror Picture Show” crowd, who were going to see the cult classic in the larger downstairs theater.
I was there for only one reason — to see Adrian Lee, who starred in “The Commune” as an earthy, twisted stepmother called Rhea.
Adrian and I met at Grady High School when we were both entering 8th grade. It was through Adrian that I met Francie James, who also had just entered 8th grade. Amazingly, Francie has been my closest and best friend since we were 13, four decades ago.
Fellow Grady Grey Knight Al Rothstein invited a bunch of us to his Virginia-Highland home Friday night to see Adrian, who was visiting here from Los Angeles. We then head out for the Atlanta premier of “The Commune.”
Adrian had hardly changed in all these years, and seeing her and our fellow high school friends gave me comfort as to the strength of friendships despite the passage of time.
Although Francie had other plans Friday, she and I got together Saturday evening for dinner and to go see the movie “Amreeka,” a film about a Palestinian single mom, Muna, and her son living on the West Bank. They get the opportunity to legally immigrate to the United States where they move in with her sister’s family living in Illinois.
The movie agonizingly portrayed the challenges that Muna’s son, Fadi, faced in trying to fit in an American high school soon after 9-11 when there was a great deal of anti-Arab sentiments. Because of the prejudices during that period, Muna and Fadi, who are not Muslim, experienced a difficult adjustment to the promised land. Ironically, one of the heroes in the movie was the Jewish principal at Fadi’s school.
What an appropriate movie for Francie and I to go see.
When we were at Grady, our city schools were in the midst of a great social experiment. It was one of the most diverse learning environments one could imagine. First , it was the designated high school in Atlanta for foreign students; second, about one-third of its student population was black; and about one-third was Jewish; and the remainder were primarily Christian white American students.
School busing was in full force. And white flight was at its height.
My parents had bought a house two blocks away from the school, and virtually every house on the street was for sale. By the time I had graduated in 1972, Grady’s student population was half black. And a few years later, the overwhelming majority of the students were black.
And yet for those four years of high school, Grady embodied all the pains, divisiveness, awareness, cross-racial friendships and hopes that came with the dreams of a Great Society.
Among the students were the late Yolanda King, the oldest child of Martin Luther King Jr.; actor Eric Roberts, the older brother of Julia Roberts; Debra Halpern Bernes, now a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals; longtime journalist Howard Pousner and hundreds more.
One of our fellow students was Angela Robinson, who returned to Atlanta in 1994 to become an anchor at WXIA-Channel 11. As one of her first assignments, she decided to bring together about 20 of us Grady graduates to talk about our experiences two decades earlier.
The highlight came after the taping when Grady’s assistant principal told us that remembering that special time in Atlanta’s past was all well and good. But he then challenged us to become engaged with Grady’s current students as mentors.
For a year or two, we’d meet in Yolanda’s apartment to try to create such a program, and then our efforts dissipated as our lives got in the way.
When we were in high school, we were a diverse bunch in other ways. There were the jocks and cheerleaders; the band and ROTC folks; the honor students; and there were those us — Howard, Francie and I — who worked on the Southerner, our high school newspaper. And there were those of us who were part of a counter-culture, catching the 1960s wave of self-discovery, enjoying music at Piedmont Park, opposing the Vietnam War, planning protests, trying to effect change as best we could.
One of our victories came in 8th grade when girls were not allowed to wear pants to school. We picked a week when Principal Roger Derthick was out of town. On that Monday, about 20 of us wore pants, too many for an assistant principal to suspend. On Tuesday, that number had doubled. By Friday, hundreds of girls wore pants to school, and the policy was changed the following week.
Our experiences at Grady left a deep imprint on all of us — forever changing how we view our world, forever creating a bond between us.
In the last couple of weeks, memories of my long ago past have been bubbling up to the surface — stirring up emotions that have been buried in the deep recesses of my soul.
Those reflections have been welcome reminders of what matters most in life — it begins and ends with those we love. As Francie often tells me: “The past is present.”
My friendship with Francie has been a constant string that has kept me together since we were 13. We’ve been there for each other as lovers and husbands have come and gone. We’ve been there for each other as our children struggled through those difficult teenage years. We’ve been there for each other as our respective parents have died. And we still are there for each other watching the decades go by.
It’s a friendship that began because Adrian Lee introduced us to each other 41 years ago during those formative years at Grady High School.
So that’s why I was at a horror movie on Friday night — to let Adrian know how much I appreciate the gift of friendship.