Judy jones graduation

The author receiving her Middlesboro (KY) High School diploma from school board chairman Jimmy Jackson, 1974
Photo: Courtesy of Judy Owens

If I could get past “Arches of Roses,” I knew I could make it through my nephew Jon’s high school graduation last month without choking up.

“Arches of Roses” was a slow, sentimental farewell sung as Middlesboro High School seniors marched into the auditorium at the beginning of their graduation ceremony. Junior girls in long formal dresses and white gloves held arches wrapped with gold and white ribbon and covered with roses. This was our ritual when I graduated in 1974 and at my mother’s ceremony in 1952.

As it turns out, my hankie was safe in my purse. “Arches of Roses” had been cast off; now Middlesboro students march in to “Pomp and Circumstance” like everybody else. The discarded processional was just the first change I noticed that day, and in some ways, the differences say a great deal about how rural towns across America have changed.

The number of Middlesboro graduates had visibly declined since my graduation. In 1970 the U.S. Census counted 12,169 people within the city limits; by 2000, Middlesboro had lost more than 15 percent of its citizens. Jon’s high school class was even smaller than would be accounted for by the drop in population. Middlesboro Class of 2008 had about 110 students. The Class of 1974 had 173.

There are fewer African Americans in Middlesboro now, but the percentage of people in a category called “races other than black, white or Hispanic” has skyrocketed. There were 58 such people in 1980 and 193 in 2000.

Those new faces were among three valedictorians of May 31. Akash Patel, a bright and funny young man, the son of a family physician from India, spoke about his ambition to emulate his father and become a doctor. Melanie Uy, also the daughter of a doctor, came from the Phillipines. Her valedictory address focused on the challenges of growing up as an immigrant. Ashley Givens, also a valedictorian, had suffered a life-threatening illness and talked about her struggle to recover while sustaining her class work.

High school and college graduation rates are up since 1970. In 1970, 66 percent of Middlesboro’s adult citizens did not have a high school education. By 2000 only 38.5 percent did not have a high school diploma.

The percentage of people with a college degree has doubled, from slightly more than 5 percent to 11 percent. Yet in spite of greater educational attainment, people in Middlesboro are poorer. The percentage of people in medium and high income brackets has declined, while the percentage in low income brackets has increased, from 31 percent in 1969 to 47 percent in 1999. This may be partly explained by the construction of new housing outside the city limits, but also reflects the lack of jobs even for those who do earn diplomas.

Lee's Drugs Middlesboro

At the main intersection of Middlesboro, KY,
Lee’s Drugs has gone out of business
Photo: Judy Owens

As we drove home, passing down Cumberland Avenue, it was obvious that behind the static façades of Fountain Square the very fabric of this place had changed.

Middlesboro’s main intersection once was bordered by the major national retailers of my era: Woolworth, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward. One corner was occupied by Lee’s Drugs, a locally-owned pharmacy, which through the 1970s featured an old-fashioned soda foundation and lunch counter. Woolworth and Montgomery Ward are long gone, and J.C. Penney moved to the mall. Most of the stores where I tried on clothes, flipped through records and ordered chocolate sundaes have been replaced by pawn shops, second hand stores and pay day lenders. It’s not that everything’s gone. A.D. Campbell, a women’s dress store, is still there, and so is the Commercial Bank. But these stalwarts are the exceptions.

In 1974, nobody questioned the idea that a high school graduation ceremony started and ended with a prayer led by the community’s respected ministers. In 2008, there were no prayers. In fact, these kids did not have a baccalaureate.

After the ceremony, I called a retired teacher to talk about the changes. She wasn’t surprised that two of the three valedictorians were children of medical professionals from overseas.

“These people come to America with a tremendous work ethic and their parents have a strong commitment to their children’s education,” she said. “Their children tend to be the leaders in the school, not just in academics but in sports like soccer and tennis.”

Supreme Court decisions had limited prayer in public schools, but in this teacher’s mind, the prayer-in-the-public-school ban had had another effect.

“Many of the parents who were the most active in church tended to be the most active in school. Some took their kids out of the public schools because of the ban on prayer,” she said. Middlesboro children attend at least four private schools: St. Julian, Gateway Christian, Middlesboro Christian Academy, and, in nearby Cumberland Gap, the J. Frank White Academy at Lincoln Memorial University. These schools are small but account for at least 400 students and more than 20 teachers who two generations ago would have been in public school.

Jon Jones graduation

Jon Jones adjusted his mortar board before graduation ceremonies at Middlesboro High School, May 31, 2008.
Photo: Judy Owens

When my nephew walked across the stage and received his diploma, he passed a milestone that nearly 40 percent of his fellow Middlesboro citizens have never reached. He plans to start college in the fall, and if statistics are any predictor, he will — we expect — be among the few to graduate.

In spite of all the changes, the lack of education in my home community has stayed sadly the same. It’s one tradition that should go the way of “Arches of Roses.”

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