When I first visited Briarwood with my parents during the summer of 1970, it was still a work in progress. The basic structure of what is now known as the John and Gayle Hammond Middle and High School but was then the only building on campus was in place, and construction was far enough along that it had that “new building” smell. (To this day, whenever I walk into a building shortly after construction is complete and the paint and carpet are still fresh, my mind goes back to that first BA visit.) It was still a ways from being ready for students, though, and it took long enough to get it there that the school didn’t open until the Tuesday after Labor Day, September 8.
I remember quite a few things about that first day, which was nearly two weeks after my fifth birthday (it’s a long story, but I started first grade a year early). My plastic Barbie lunch box that was identical to Debbie Pickard’s. (She’s Debbie Hammond now, and she was celebrating her sixth birthday that day.) My being so excited about being with so many other kids that while others in the class were crying and clinging to their mothers, I told mine, “You can go home now.” (She did. . . and then she cried.) Our desks being arranged into one big rectangle in what is now Mrs. DeMore’s classroom. Buying milk from the refrigerator case by the back door and eating lunch on the tennis courts. That first year of my formal education was full of interesting experiences for me, the most memorable of which was my getting stuck in my chair while wiggling around during naptime and my teacher, Mrs. Kay Burch, having to take me to the office - chair and all - to be extracted from it. . . although the day that I had imagined that the back door of the science lab was a portal to an imaginary world and knocked on it in the middle of one of Mrs. Lois McGinty’s science classes was pretty memorable for me, too. (Let’s just say she wasn’t happy.) It was also the first for a place that would come to be home for hundreds of students and teachers over the years that followed.
With second grade came Mrs. Ruth Watson, the gym and the addition of a kindergarten. With third came Mrs. Elizabeth Hughes, the addition of more classrooms onto the gym as grades 1-5 moved out of the “big building,” and the first year of BA football, during which John Shurley, the brother of my friend and classmate Lollie Dee (now DeFreese) helmed the team as quarterback and Coach Bill Reese directed play. That was also the year that we lost Mr. Clinton H. Grant, our first headmaster. He had a stroke in the office earlier that year - my mother, a parapro at the time, was in the office when it happened - and he passed away later in the year. (His was the first funeral I ever attended.) Somewhere in there came the addition of the “chuck wagon,” the trailer behind the gym from which we could buy short order lunches. I left after fourth grade with Mrs. Foster (whose granddaughter, A. G., I’m now teaching) and came back near the end of sixth. . . and about a year later, in the fall of 1977, we moved inside from the tennis courts and the cement picnic tables near the highway and into our “new” (read: converted old Fort Gordon army barracks) lunchroom. Twirling arrived at BA that year, too, and I began my days as a Buccanette. Meanwhile, we all learned loads of English and Georgia history from the incomparable Mrs. Jacquelyn P. Abbott.
And then high school: classes, four years of yearbook staff (Lollie Dee and I would not only have all six of our classes together senior year but would also serve together as co-editors. . . and miraculously never had one cross word or feeling between us), two years of literary, twirling competitions, long phone conversations with my best friend (LeGaye Mitchell, now Oliphant) and proms at Thomson Country Club. Thanks to Mrs. Julie Gerlach, I learned so much about choosing my words carefully when I wrote. . . from Mrs. Nancy Tucker, I learned enough math in three months to see my SAT score on that part of the test shoot up 70 points in one semester. On May 24, 1982, we graduated, and I completely stole Class of 1981 salutatorian Theresa Smith’s idea of giving a graduation speech recap of our twelve years together in my own first honor graduate speech. My classmate Suzanne Thigpen and I were off to Georgia Southern, and I began my days as a Georgia Southern Eagle.
I wasn’t gone for long, though. . . I came back five years later to begin my teaching career. At the time, I really intended for it to be a one-year gig as I commuted to Statesboro once a week to finish up my MBA and then get a “real job” in the field of business. (We see how that worked out.) By then, baseball and softball were part of the athletic program, and our longtime headmaster Barry Hemphill was gone and his position filled by my first boss, Wesley Ward. Coming back home to teach when you’re only five years removed from being in school on campus with many of your students - and when you’re just turning twenty-two (technically, I was twenty-one for the first two days of school) and look sixteen - is a bit of a character-building experience, but it was a meaningful one. Thankfully, Mrs. Mildred Wright was still here and was my confidante and encourager during those first three years. I worked with one-act play and taught Spanish and English. . . and thanks to a conversation with Mrs. Pat McGill at a basketball game, I began to realize that teaching wasn’t going to be for me a one-year gig but a profession. It was also thanks to a conversation with one of my students at the time, Johnny Cooper, that I ended up applying at what would be my teaching home for twenty-three years, Lincoln County High School, when I left in 1990. Sadly, both Mrs. Pat and Johnny are no longer with us, but the impact of those two conversations with them is still a part of my life to this day.
Twenty-seven years later, I retired from the Georgia public school system and came back to BA, this time not just as a teacher and an alum but also as a parent. . . my son Price enrolled as a second grader, and his teacher was Mrs. Lyn Abbott Neal, another BA student on that first day. The baseball field is now next to the softball field near the highway, and cross-country and girls’ soccer are part of the athletic program. When I left, our school curriculum didn’t include any AP courses. . . now it features nine of them. Those tennis courts on which I ate so many lunches back in the 1970s are gone, and a beautiful new building stands in their place. (I’m on the short list of people who ate in both lunchrooms on the day that they opened.) I’m now teaching the children of some of the students that I taught thirty years ago. . . one of them is Ella Johnson, whose father, Scott, was the Board of Trustees chairman when I was hired in 2017. I saw him on campus when I came to visit the April before I returned in August, and his greeting to me was, “Welcome home.” Indeed, I was home.
Our school is decidedly different in many ways from the one that I visited on that summer day back in 1970, but the spirit on which it was founded remains. And pep rallies then and now still close with the words that Mrs. Mildred Pilcher, mother of Mrs. Abbott and grandmother of Mrs. Neal, wrote in our alma mater fifty years ago. I’m not going to lie. . . as I sang those words at my first BA pep rally in nearly thirty years and watched as my then seven year-old son was standing with his class hearing them, I teared up, and I’m not really much of a crier. Those lyrics combine a sense of tradition and a statement of what has been the Briarwood experience these past fifty years:
“Hail to thee, the school we love!
May we ever loyal be,
Never failing in our youth,
Always seeking God and truth.
Give us wisdom, courage, too,
Peace and honor, faith in you.
Hail to thee, our alma mater.
Briarwood, hail to Thee!”
Lee Robinson is a high school English teacher at Briarwood Academy and was one of the school’s first grade students when it opened in September 1970.