In the autumn of 1983, a few pioneering teachers and students took a chance on each other and showed up at a decrepit behemoth of a building in seedy downtown Nashville.
What happened next was bloody well magical.
A weird thing happened to me in high school. Brace yourself for it: I enjoyed the experience.
For a lot of people, this is almost impossible to fathom: that those four decisive years of adolescence could have been anything but awkward, painful, and best forgotten.
Until I was 14, I’d lived the classic nerd-kid story: I liked to read books. The kind without pictures. And for that, I wore Otherness like a Maori chin-tattoo. Nobody bullied me, but I was never quite One of Them. The social life of school was a party I wasn’t invited to.
All that changed in August of 1984, when I climbed the castle stairs at 700 Broadway. Hume-Fogg Academic High School was the city’s first public academic magnet, an experiment then in its second year. That year, we were only three small classes in that grand old edifice. We were a closely knit cadre of explorers pressing into the unknown together, and we were having a marvelous time.
The faculty entrusted us with unprecedented freedom and responsibility: We were to take charge of our own learning, in classrooms and stairwells, wooded paths and artists’ studios, and most of all, at our desks at home, late into many a night. In those four years, kids became published writers, accomplished musicians, and national merit scholars—and later, trailblazers from working-class homes who were the first high school and college graduates in their families. Cycles were broken, and new ones drawn.
And we wrote. How we wrote! Essays, poems, stories, and twenty-plus-page journals, in which we free-associated our thoughts about the literature we consumed. You heard that right—we were adolescents, having thoughts worth recording; we were learning to tame the chaos of a teenager’s mind, to corral it, and to render it ably on the page.
“When you just take a test, it means nothing to you except a grade,” said Bill Brown, a poet and writing teacher with a preternatural gift for conducting exalted word-music via children’s pens. “When you make something you’re proud of with your own hands and your own mind, then you’re getting an education. Then it means something to you.”
It meant something to us, all right, that Brown (somehow) managed to make poets out of us kids from Donelson and Bordeaux and Antioch; but what meant even more was that he seemed to live his own life as an epic poem, as a high-stakes tale starring quotidian hero-mentors and everyday adventurers of the mind.
They all did, that original HFA faculty, and they helped us imagine such lives for ourselves.
“When you want to build a ship…awaken in men the desire for the vast and endless sea.” —Antoine de Saint Exupery
“When you want to build a ship…” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “awaken in men the desire for the vast and endless sea.” But those yearned-for seas aren’t necessarily what you’d expect. In a lot of prestigious schools, the stated goal is: Get kids to Harvard, to Wall Street, to the halls of power. That wasn’t what HFA’s founders had in mind, specifically (unless that was what a student himself wanted).
When I interviewed our former teachers and principals for the mini-documentary posted below, I asked them the same question: What did you want for us? “Happiness,” said retired English teacher Alan Kaplan, “a life of the mind.” Former HFA principal J.D. Taylor told me he imagined that a lot of students would end up doing satisfying work that wasn’t necessarily lucrative, and that many of us would live according to our own visions of success, and not by society’s measure.
Secretly, I think, they hoped we’d be a little bit like them.
In fact, many of us did go into education, or we at least carried the love of it into our lives, as parents and part-time artists and curious souls of all kinds. And I do mean “all kinds”—because although we shared a mission for four years, we, as a whole, were not at all alike. We were wildly different from one another, and yet, we still managed to be kind to each other, and to forge community out of colorful miscellany. (Insert pointed societal metaphor here.)
My Hume-Fogg era was the best of times, but it was not the best time of my life—because even a happy high school experience should never be as good as life gets. It should, ideally, be the opening passages of a book you can’t bear to put down, an inciting incident that moves your story forward, inexorably, to a life of epic intellectual adventure.
Hume-Fogg was not a perfect society. But it was a pretty darned harmonious one—a safe place for nerds, we liked to call it. In the video that follows, you’ll meet a few of the people who created it.
Onscreen text: “I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well.” —Alexander the Great
NARRATION: It was the 1980s. Hair was big. Shorts were small. Downtown Nashville was a seedy ghost town. And city schools were struggling to find their footing, in the decades after desegregation.
(music: Headmint, “Number 6”)
J.D. TAYLOR: The magnet school, originally the idea was to put black and white students together on an equal footing, which was a tough thing for us because there was still this mentality, and this is even frightening today to even think about, but in those days, there was still a lot of common thought that black students couldn’t do what white students did. That was just ridiculous from the beginning.
NARRATION: Ridiculous. And Wrong. And a few bold educators set out to prove it. The city’s first magnet was set to launch in 1981, at the site of West End Junior High. But the day before the school should have opened, the courts stopped it, and told the city to put together a new busing plan.
J.D. Taylor, Hume-Fogg’s first principal, says it was devastating to have to start all over again. He wasn’t sure he could face it. But in April of ’83, the board told him he could have his magnet school—IF it could be ready by that fall, in a derelict monster of a building nobody else wanted. So he and assistant principal Mildred Saffell-Smith said, “OK,” headed to 700 Broadway, and got to work.
J.D. TAYLOR: We went to look at the building, and she broke into tears, because, we can’t do this! The building was horrible. Just horrible. And the downtown was horrible, because then we had people sleeping all over the streets and the lawn. Wasn’t like it is today.
MILDRED SAFFELL-SMITH: Those first few weeks, getting ready for school to open, even being in the building, with the students, (long pause) I want to say, ethereal?
I had a sense of quiet adventure I guess, about what was taking place. You gotta remember, the setting was Hume Fogg High School. Four Floors! 132 students! Four floors! We could all get into two rooms. So it was like there was something going on, but you couldn’t see it. You could feel it, but you couldn’t see it. When classes changed, you knew that classes where changing, but where are the people? Where is the noise?
But what I will say about the smallness of the number, it made for an intimacy, a closeness, a bonding that probably would have never happened like that with a larger group. We knew every student by name, we knew their parents, we knew what their class schedule was—
J.D. TAYLOR: I knew every time somebody failed a test. I knew if somebody really got out of line a little bit. And sometimes just kind of saying Ahem! Maybe we’d better look at that, we didn’t have to make a big to do out of it. But I think just knowing that we were all there together and in it together and really depended on each other. I think that’s what made it work.
MILDRED SAFFELL-SMITH: We give a lot of lip service to multicultural education now. And cultural diversity and what all of that means. I think a person of average intelligence will agree that there is strength in diversity. Whether they accept that totally or not, what I saw at Hume Fogg, that first couple of years during its inception, was kids coming together, irrespective of where they lived, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, with just one purpose.
JD TAYLOR: And we didn’t know where this was going, but we knew it was not going where other schools have gone.
music: Bards of a Feather, “The Cruel Mother”
NARRATION: They also knew, to make it work, they’d have to find a bunch of risk-takers who loved their subjects, loved teaching kids, and were willing to try something crazy and impossible. They hired 13 of Nashville’s best teachers, and called them the “Original 13.”
Alan Kaplan was one of those 13. He taught English for the first few years and was assistant principal after that. He used to joke that starting Hume-Fogg was like building an airplane in flight—they pretty much made it up as they went. But that summer of ’83, two crazy administrators and their lunatic 13 had a chance to map out what they thought a dream school should be.
ALAN KAPLAN: The kind of vision I had for Hume-Fogg was a place where it was OK to be smart. Very bright kids very often at their zone schools encountered negativity, hostility from their peers, they weren’t comfortable, people treated them as outcasts or they were made fun of, they were picked on, and the response very often was withdrawal and being very quiet or being afraid or becoming aggressive about it and back in their face, and yeah I’m smart, what of it?
We worked hard to try to create that environment. I think a lot of us on the faculty had come from those kind of experiences ourselves!
ALICE SANFORD: The idea that you could take kids from any part of the county, from any socio-economic background, as long as they’re smart kids, and you can make a difference, is just a really powerful idea.
BILL BROWN: And the 1st 2 years, we killed it, the kids. The first 4 years! Parents would line up in front of our after school and say, “Why should a freshman in high school write a 25 handwritten page journal on 1984?” And we would say, “Because that’s what the best schools in the country are doing!”
ALAN KAPLAN: And pretty soon, we had a curriculum that would’ve choked a horse! I mean, it was incredible! And You guys just did it! It was, “Ooookaay! And you did it!” And it was like, “Whoa! They’re actually doing this stuff!” It was amazing to watch. It’s a miracle that we didn’t kill more of you. I mean it really is.
You know, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but we did some cruel and unusual things to you that we would never have done to students at other schools. And you did them and you did them well, and that just amazed us. We were delighted.
MILDRED SAFFELL-SMITH: When I would sit in a classroom, I would think sometimes, “How do they know these things? I could not be a student here! I would love to be a student here. I could have done more, I could have been more if I’d had an experience like this! This is incredible!”
I thought that, but I don’t think it ever occurred to kids. I don’t think it ever occurred at all. They were just kids being themselves, doing what they do, and loving learning, for the purpose of learning, and doing it with serious intent. It was absolutely amazing.
I definitely saw at that school, which was so important for me, that every child had a place. Every child felt ownership. Everybody had a friend, everybody had a circle. They were included! They were wanted! And what I saw was, in some students, they would have not felt that ownership, that inclusion, if they had been in their school of zone.
LYNDA WAGSTER: Hume-Fogg was absolutely a special place. The acceptance of faculty among each other and students, the camaraderie that we had, was something that I had never seen in a high school before. And it was a joy to witness, and be a part of it.
BILL BROWN: I think that every teacher that worked at Hume-Fogg would say this (and we have had this discussion before): Every child in America, in Nashville, should have the right to have a magnet school education.
Why wouldn’t we have magnet schools for the first five stanines, where the teachers are picked, where the teachers agree on “I will teach this way,” where the sizes are limited, the class sizes, where every child has the opportunity to work with an expert on a subject because they love that subject. And then that dream of Hume-Fogg could be made possible. Because we showed what kids could do coming from every junior high school.
(music: Bards of a Feather, “The Little Beggarman”)
NARRATION: Most of us will probably never know all the quiet acts of heroism that went on in those creaky old halls. Dr. Saffell-Smith hosted a girl-bonding slumber party, to help kids stick it out that first lean year. She set up a relief bucket for a homeless man who kept “anointing” the stairwell. A big-hearted janitor agreed to keep it emptied. Teachers helped kids find places to live, helped them with money. One even adopted a kid who was living in a homeless shelter. Brown and Kaplan read essays aloud and graded them together—until their wives told them they needed to get a life.
What’s so amazing is, this was their life: Spending their free time team-grading essays for fun, taking students to the woods, to Spain, to math contests and Certamen. Making the world a little bit safer for nerds. Doing something that mattered in the world. And showing kids what that looked like.
LORI BEAN FLEMMING: My name is Lori Bean Flemming, I graduated from Hume-Fogg in 1988, and I’m a principal at Warner Enhanced Option School in East Nashville.
NARRATION: You may remember her as “Loria.” Stick-thin and athletic, she had ringlet curls and a playful sense of calm that made her seem mature and childlike at the same time. Those are the same qualities that make her a great principal now. She talks about how important it is for educators to take care of the whole kid—their academic and emotional needs.
Flemming has wanted to be a teacher since she was six years old. She was the 11th of 14 kids, a bookworm who hid in the library while her brothers threw rocks at each other in the yard. Her friends teased her by calling her “schoolteacher.” But her junior year, she found out she was gonna be a mom.
LORI BEAN FLEMMING: It was really difficult to tell my parents I was pregnant. And when I told my mom, she looked at me and she said, “How are you ever going to be a teacher now?” And that just broke my heart. And her very next sentence was “I’m going to help you.” And she did.
NARRATION: She left Hume-Fogg for her zone school, but she felt lost there. She needed a place where people knew her name, and cared whether she succeeded. So she called Dr. Taylor and asked to come back senior year.
LORI BEAN FLEMMING: You know, at Hume Fogg, I never felt set apart in any way shape form or fashion. And coming back and being a new mom, I just got more support that way, I felt. Workload didn’t get any easier! But all in all, the emotional, the social—that type of support—was there.
The adults in the building were very supportive in their words and in their actions, encouraging me because they knew how hard it would be if I didn’t finish school, you know, if I didn’t go to college. There are so many statistics about teen moms and graduating and all of that, and I’m not a statistic.
It’s really easy to get caught up in things and have things for excuses as to why you didn’t do. And I didn’t need to have a “Why I Didn’t Do.” I needed to do.
(music: Bards of a Feather, “Tom Morrison’s”)
NARRATION: Flemming graduated first in her class at TSU and breezed through grad school at Vandy. Now she’s doing a life’s work she loves. That’s exactly what the original 13, and all the others who have taught and administered at 700 Broadway over the years, have always wanted for their students. That’s what they had, and still have. Because sure—for most of us, Hume-Fogg is a memory. But really, it’s a work in progress—for hundreds of new students every year, and for Original Thirteener, Alice Sanford.
ALICE SANFORD: My favorite philosopher, Bob Dylan, once said, “That which is not busy being born is busy dying.” So Hume Fogg still feels as though it’s busy being born. I think of it as something that’s still moving forward, something that’s still changing. Do I like my students? Yes. Why do I keep teaching? I like my students.
BILL BROWN: All of this had to do with our love for life. It was the greatest gift that could be given me, to have the students that I had at Hume-Fogg. It became my life, pretty much, and still is to this day.
ALAN KAPLAN: I taught for 36 years. And could I have made more money doing anything else? I’d like to think I could’ve! But the reality is, it’s what I wanted to do. And what I want for all of you is to be as happy and as excited about doing what you do as I was doing what I did. That’s the goal I have for all of you.
(music: Bards of a Feather, “Bonnie Barbry-O”)
ALAN KAPLAN I am incredibly glad I did it. It’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve done, and I never ever wanted to do it again. I don’t think I could’ve gone through it a second time. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” —Henry Adams
Dedicated to all Hume-Fogg teachers and administrators, past and present.
Written, Produced, and Directed by
Kim Green, HFA class of 1988
Editor and Post-Production
Audio and Narration
All technical failures courtesy of
Bill Brown, HFA English and creative writing
Lori Bean Flemming, HFA class of 1988 and principal of Warner Enhanced Option school
Cara Highsmith, HFA class of 1989
Alan Kaplan, HFA English teacher and assistant principal
Dr. Mildred Saffell-Smith, HFA’s first assistant principal
Alice Sanford, HFA Latin, 1983-present
Katherine Sanford, HFA class of 1988, current guidance counselor
Dr. J.D. Taylor, HFA’s first principal
Lynda Wagster, HFA math
Josh Culley, HFA class of 1987, Bards of a Feather founder
Bards of a Feather
Rupert Byrdsong, HFA class of 1987
Metro Historical Commission
Michele Busen, HFA class of 1987
Lisa Curtis, HFA class of 1988