It was quite a year back in 1956.
That was the year President Dwight Eisenhower secured a second term in office. The popular Republican easily turned back Democrat Adlai Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois, dominating him with an electoral vote count of 457 to 73. Stevenson only won a handful of states, and among them were South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. That’s right, the South was virtually alone in overwhelmingly voting for the Democratic candidate.
The top-rated show on TV back in 1956 was “I Love Lucy,” followed by “The Ed Sullivan Show” and something called “General Electric Theatre.” Elvis Presley — the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself — scored a host of No. 1 hits that year, including “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”
The minimum wage in 1956 was $1 an hour. It was a year in which a gallon of gas would cost you about 23 cents, milk was about 97 cents a gallon and you could get a ticket to a movie for about 50 cents. And if you got that movie ticket back in 1956, one of the films you likely wanted to see was “The Ten Commandments,” director Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical masterpiece starring Charlton Heston.
And also in 1956, a new Abbeville High School facility was built at 701 Washington St.
Obviously, much has changed since 1956. And some things have not.
For instance, in comparison to that presidential election of 1956, it now seems very far-fetched that a Democratic candidate would sweep the states of the Deep South in modern times. But such was the case 63 years ago.
Shows like “I Love Lucy” and “Ed Sullivan” are by now nearly forgotten, replaced by the seemingly bottomless choices people can tap into on massive cable systems and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
And the King? Well, the King long ago left the building. Though some people still cling to the idea that he faked his death and swear they spotted him at some roadside Waffle House or hanging out on an island with fellow alleged death-fakers Tupac Shakur and Andy Kaufman.
Meanwhile, in 2019 minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, the national average for gasoline is $2.57 per gallon, the national average for a gallon of milk is about $3.20, and an evening movie ticket at Greenwood’s Premiere Cinema 10 will run you right at $10.
And through it all, as the world has marched on and societal norms have shifted and changed, as prices have risen and wars have been fought and so much of the South has been bulldozed and reimagined and built back anew, students are still — still — going to that same Abbeville High School building at 701 Washington St.
I pray that won’t be the case much longer.
The matter has, frankly, become quite pressing. I was struck by a Sept. 2 report from intrepid Index-Journal education reporter Aleks Gilbert, one in which students and parents from AHS complained of mold and other problems at the high school. The piece was accompanied by a number of photographs showing decrepit sinks, toilet stalls and vents, and what appeared to moldy areas near windows. At least one student quoted in the piece told of various ailments at the school, including windows that had fallen out and been replaced with tape, walls that “lean inwards” and brown water in parts of the building.
For its part, the Abbeville County School District said that the safety of students and staff is a “top priority” and that it acts quickly to test air quality and take action when there has been a complaint of mold.
Aside from questions of general maintenance, I’m again struck by the simple fact that THE SCHOOLHOUSE IS 63 YEARS OLD. Of course it has physical issues. Of course it is structurally outdated. For context, a 14-year-old freshman going to school there now is in the same building that my now-79-year-old cousin attended classes in back in the 1950s.
What also struck me about the photos that were shared in Gilbert’s Sept. 2 story was the familiarity I had with the images as they were displayed. Familiar because, honestly, that’s how the high school looked when I attended there more than 20 years ago (Class of 1997). It was worn the hell out back then, quite honestly. I’m just telling it straight.
Look, I’m fully aware that I’m wading to a red-hot issue here. I’m cognizant of the long, long gestating debate about the two high schools in Abbeville’s district — Abbeville and Dixie (also ancient) — and whether they should construct a new Abbeville High and renovate Dixie High, or build one consolidated, countywide high school. I’ve got my opinion on that specific issue, but that’s another column for another day.
But what is certain is that — one way or the other — there must eventually be a new high school in Abbeville. I have a nephew who just started kindergarten at Long Cane Primary, and I’m nervous that I’m going to look up in nine years and he’s going to be headed to high school in that same building built back in the 1950s.
Clearly something must change, but it will take a few things. True leadership from the school board. Tax dollars. A desire to make Abbeville County more attractive for economic development. And, perhaps most of all, a spirit of cooperation among the citizens of the county.
I believe it can happen, mostly because I believe, down to my very soul, in the people of Abbeville County. Let’s get this right and get it done.