Sweet Jesus. It was hot, like really, really hot. But what do you expect on an August afternoon in the middle of a football field just 90 miles from the Gulf of Mexico?
I was there to watch the 2019 version of the Fruitdale Pirates practice. Fruitdale is one of five high schools in Washington County. It’s a 1A school, the smallest classification in Alabama high school sports. There are dozens and dozens of such schools across the state, places where Dollar General coming to town is a big deal. (Fruitdale recently opened one.)
Places where community and school are joined at the hip. Take away the school and you’ve jerked the heart from the community.
This August afternoon coach Johnny Carpenter was getting his 32 players ready for their first game against A. L. Johnson of Marengo County. Carpenter grew up just down the road in Citronelle, played football at Mississippi State and met a cheerleader in college who later became both his wife and an M.D. This is his first year as a head coach.
When you coach at this level, you do it all. From teaching class, to cooking ribs for a fund-raiser, to lining the field, to selling signs to merchants to help pay the bills and to actually coaching. His staff is another teacher/coach, John Hobbs. Former player Michael Dubose is a volunteer coach.
There was a pep rally before the first game. Elementary, middle and high school students sweated and yelled. Cheerleaders cheered. Players were introduced. Later that afternoon, fifth grade boys went home and ran around their yard with a football dreaming of the day they could be a Pirate scoring touchdowns and making tackles. Fourth grade girls jumped and pumped their arms and yelled for their team.
I know about dreams and memories. Fifty-nine years ago this fall number 83 of the Theodore Bobcats scored the only touchdown of his high school football career. Quarterback Charles Bryant threw a short pass to his left end, a 160 pound farm boy, standing in the end zone. That touchdown catch will always be mine. No one can take it away from me.
More than anything, that is what Fruitdale is all about. A small school in a small place where dreams are realized and memories are made.
What once was
There was once a time when Fruitdale was bustling. A time before cars were common and interstates unheard of. A time before the internet and hand-held devices shrunk the world. A place where farmers came to town on a wagon pulled by mules and merchants were busy on Saturdays.
Just over 100 years ago Fruitdale was home to three hotels, two sawmills, a cannery, a bakery, a bank, drugstore, post office and even The Fruitdale Herald. It had a telephone system and shipped boxcars of peaches, pears, persimmons, melons, vegetable and strawberries north on the Mobile & Ohio railroad.
Even before this the Fruitdale Seminary proclaimed to one and all that education was important in the community. The red brick high school still in use, complete with hardwood floors and wainscoting on the walls, was built in 1904, the same year as the Union Chapel Methodist church.
But time waits for no one.
The hotels and sawmills are gone. Just as they are in communities I know well like Repton and Mckenzie and Red Level. Places where empty buildings stand as silent sentinels to what once was.
But the school is still in Fruithdale. As is Union Chapel Methodist.
A proud graduate
I met Aimee Rainey in 2008 when she was principal at Calcedever elementary in north Mobile County and I was involved in a research effort we called Lessons Learned from Rural Schools. She had a great school, in spite of the fact it was probably in the poorest physical facility I have ever seen called a school. Aimee was impressive and one knew she would not be a principal the rest of her life.
Today she is Dr. Aimee Rainey, an assistant superintendent in the Vestavia city school system on the south side of Birmingham. On my first visit to Fruitdale high school I found her picture on the wall with the class of 1992. She was Aimee Turner then. This was before she went to the University of Southern Mississippi and then to graduate school.
Aimee’s family has close ties to this school. Her mother and grandmother went to Fruitdale. Her great grandmother worked there. A first cousin and aunt teach there now. Her mother drove a school bus.
“I am incredibility thankful for being raised in a small community and going to a small school,” she says. “We had the opportunity to do everything.” Aimee was a cheerleader, in the band and played softball. She marched with the band in her cheerleader outfit.
“Growing up in a small community surrounded by a large, close family is one of the best blessings of my life. My core values were developed by wise, hard-working and loving souls,” Aimee says.
A charlatan arrives
Soner Tarim does not know Aimee Rainy or coach Johnny Carpenter or Fruitdale principal Curt Stagner. Nor does he know anything about Fruitdale high school, its roots and its relationships. Nor does he care. While this charter school consultant proclaims he only wants to help children in struggling schools, his six bedroom, four bath mansion in a toney Houston suburb tells us something else.
His real mission is making money.
Tarim is the consultant hired by the board of the proposed Woodland Prep charter school in Washington County. The same guy now being sued for fraud by the Alabama Education Association. The same guy the Texas state board of education told in June that he could not open four charter schools in Austin. The same guy who says he wrote the application for Woodland Prep charter school that the National Association of Charter School Authorizers recommended not be approved.
The same guy engineering a school that will potentially take $2.2 million from the Washington County public school system and do irreparable harm to the capacity of Fruitdale and other county schools to meet their needs.
I am a realist. I know that rural Alabama has been being hollowed out for at least a century by forces that are as certain as the tide coming in. Circumstances have forced school closings time and time again. This will not stop.
But we darn sure don’t need to be hastening this process with policies handed down by Montgomery bureaucrats and lawmakers and carried out by mercenaries like Soner Tarim. Washington County needs a charter school about as much as cotton needed the boll weevil.
Instead, we should value the words of people like Aimee Rainy and the dreams of yet-to-be quarterbacks and cheerleaders. We should take to heart the lessons Fruitdale has taught us for more than 100 years. We should cling to our small communities and their schools, not sacrifice them because someone wants to make a few bucks.
Editor’s note: Fruitdale won its first game of the season on Aug. 23 by the score of 53-0. It was only their second win in the last three years. Quarterback Dalon Hill scored two touchdowns. If he is fortunate enough to be around in 59 years, he will still remember them.