This past week I heard a young man make an exasperated comment about boomers and their tendencies to resist change. Given my membership in that group of senior citizens, I smiled to myself at his assessment of us. Monumental changes in this country — both good and bad — came at the hands of persons now labeled boomers. As an old college professor of mine often intoned, what goes around comes around.
Lest I return to the generation gap of the past on the other side of the gap, I try to understand my children and grandchildren and students who are way, way younger than I am. I remind myself that most of my students these days have no memories of life before the internet, video games, and cellphones. They do not remember schools before the onset of mass shootings and active shooter drills.
Sometimes I try to help the young understand my generation even though, at times, they are hard-pressed to believe me. They laugh when I tell them that my high school had a designated smoking area for students who wanted to smoke at recess, but when I tell them about my eighth-grade school trip to Raleigh, they say NO WAY. Sometimes I marvel at it myself, but the times were so different back then.
Back in the 1960s students in eighth grade had a full year of North Carolina history instruction, along with a thick textbook covering the centuries of N.C.’s territories and peoples. We took that book home and used it to read and study, but like I said, things were quite different in those days.
To encourage our pride and love for The Old North State, the principal arranged a spring field trip to Raleigh as the capstone of our history class. Since most of us came from tobacco-farming families, we had not traveled widely, so the trip on that big silver tour bus to Raleigh gave us experiences we would not have gotten otherwise. I often reflect on our teacher, Mrs. Lawson, and her courage to teach us proper conduct, herding us to the state capitol and back home without losing anyone. At one point on the Raleigh tour, she had no trouble with us whatsoever because we were too scared to misbehave.
Besides the usual stops like the Governor’s Mansion, the Legislative Building, and the N.C. Museum of History, our trip included Central Prison, the old one. Now, this is what my students today cannot believe. We got off that bus and walked into some part of the prison, where they had us move single-file past a window where we viewed the gas chamber. I have never forgotten looking through that thick glass at the execution chair where real people were strapped in to die. Our principal wanted us to fear that place, and we did! A prison riot a few years later probably ended school students being on that prison campus.
On the way home from Raleigh, we made a stop in Winston-Salem to tour Whitaker Park, where R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. manufactured cigarettes. That facility was the largest cigarette manufacturing plant in the world. At this point in my field trip story, my students today insist that stop could not have happened, that a school would never take kids to see cigarettes produced. But our school did. A part of our N.C. pride at that time involved our number one agricultural crop — tobacco. I remember feeling a sense wonder that some of our families’ tobacco might have been right there in that beautiful place. In case you are wondering, no, we did not get samples!
Whitaker Park is no longer a cigarette factory; after 50 years of production, Reynolds closed that site. The big wooden chair from the gas chamber is now in a museum since lethal injection is the only means of execution today. My history is now history!
Someday, if this world holds together, my students will talk about their past and childhood technologies long outdated. I hope they remember the old teacher who reminded them that every generation must give way to the next, Boomers 2.0, 3.0 ...
Arlene Neal will be at Tybria Books in downtown Lenoir on Saturday, May 1, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to sign copies of her book “What Came To Me,” which is a collection of her favorite columns that ran in the News-Topic.