The Unchanging Face of Milby

Under the front stairs of Charles H. Milby High School is a place that, almost 35 years after I graduated, still casts a spell on me. For no obvious structural reason, the bottom portion of a newel post from the second floor protrudes a foot down into the space above the intersection of two first-floor hallways. A tall youth could probably touch it if he jumped. For the first three years of the 1960s, I passed under this pivot point at least a dozen times a day.

Upstairs was my homeroom, with students whose last names ended in As and Bs and Cs. The hall below led to the back of the school with its playing fields and tennis courts. Out back was an 88-seat theater that the drama teacher and students had converted from what administrators called a temporary building, but which everybody else called a shack. The yearbook and the school newspaper were produced in another shack nearby. Behind a door down the hall from the newel post, a narrow stairway descended to an eye-burning swimming pool with a locker room that must have been deteriorating since World War II. Just under the newel post, the floor ramped down slightly onto one of Milby's first additions, probably built after the war, where speech classes were held. I learned to write there, spending hours after school in my sophomore year perfecting my opening debate speech.

I and my classmates were East End kids, products of the postwar baby boom, though no one pointed this out at the time. We lived in the rapidly filling blue-collar and middle-class neighborhoods around Park Place and Broadway and the Glenbrook golf course, and in the new subdivisions that grew up off Reveille Road near Houston's first shopping mall, Gulfgate. We also came from the older neighborhoods of Harrisburg and Magnolia Park and Manchester. Just north of

Milby on Broadway were the docks of the Houston Ship Channel, and when the wind blew from the east, it carried the smell of the refineries and chemical plants where many of our fathers worked, often for one company their entire lives, watching dials, turning valves, fixing things, making things. Our mothers, for the most part, didn't work, and with the exceptions of weekends and summers, neither did we.

When I graduated in 1963, I had known some of my classmates since I was five years old, had sung hymns in Methodist Sunday school with them, gone camping in Boy Scouts with them, played a thousand after-school pickup games with them; I had danced with and courted and resented and envied and loved them. Living in the East End was like living in a small Texas town. Some of our parents had gone to Milby too, even had the same teachers as we did, and several of our teachers were Milby alumni. We were like a family -- not always happy, of course, for inevitably we had our share of rivalries and hatreds. But we were intimates, bound together by place and time.

Milby was not racially integrated then. That wouldn't happen until the '70s. Blacks from our side of town went to Yates or Wheatley. With few exceptions, Hispanics seemed to stick to themselves. Or did we stick to ourselves? It had to have been daunting to be Hispanic and encounter the confident, blond- and brown-haired, blue-eyed tribe that dominated the school. Now that ethnicity has been reversed. The East End is Hispanic, and so is Milby.

During the last 35 years, Milby's physical plant has grown enormously. The student body has doubled. With 3,600 students, it is the largest high school in the Houston Independent School District and one of the two or three largest high schools in the state. Its sheer size inhibits the intimacy I experienced.

Many of the students are too busy working after school to participate in the extracurricular activities that were so essential to my education. The Future Farmers are no more. The band is tiny. The Coed Cadettes, a girls' marching team that was a mainstay of Milby almost from the year it opened, has dwindled to a handful of students. The Girls' Booster Club was disbanded in 1994 for lack of interest and has only recently been reconstituted as a coed pep squad.

But the basketball team that began winning after World War II keeps on winning -- for the last 25 years with African-American athletes. The debate team went to the state finals last year. And Milby still has dedicated teachers and administrators, some of them alumni, some who have been working there for ten, 20 or 30 years.

I went back to Milby for a couple of weeks recently, not just to see what had changed. That would be obvious. What I wanted to see was what had continued. An expression of William Faulkner's kept buzzing in the back of my mind: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." What is it that still shimmers when I walk beneath that newel post dropped so improbably from above? Perhaps it would reveal itself.

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Michael Berryhill