Dunbar: A Grand Old School Was She

by on October 12, 2021 · 6 comments

in Education, From the Soul

by Ernie McCray

I just ran across an article about an old friend from when I was growing up in Tucson.

Among so many things I found interesting in the piece was something he said about a place I hold dear:

Dunbar. The “Colored” school.

He said: “I’m sorry I didn’t get a good education.”

And I hear him, somewhat, considering that our academic experiences at Dunbar were way more “Read Chapter Three and answer the questions when you’re done” than was my cup of tea – but that summarizes pretty much all of my education, from kindergarten through graduate school, to a large degree.

But I look at my Dunbar days in a different way. I mean I started school there when I was in fourth grade, an escapee from Blessed Martin de Porres Catholic School that was run by a nun who made Attila the Hun seem like a teddy bear.

She looked at us students like a lioness assessing her prey.

And she, via her yardstick, let me know that she didn’t appreciate me in any way.

So, when I got to Dunbar, I thought I had entered the gates of heaven. I’ve never received more love in any one place than what I basked in there.

I was hardly on the campus a month before I won a War Bond, for a story I penned about a Dodo bird for some scholastic publication. That did a whole lot for me when it comes to my education.

Then the next thing I knew I was representing the school, with other bright students, in a radio quiz show competition, which let me know in my young mind that whoever came up with the notion that Black folks were dumb was completely out of their mind.

That ended any chance that I would ever buy into the notion of “White supremacy.”

How many people can say they got that from their schooling in the 20th Century?

I learned a little bit of everything at Dunbar. With my early images of life having been scenes of war and rations and “No Colored” signs, I was already wondering about people around the world during those times – and then I find myself sitting with my class wearing Chinese attire in a multi-cultural celebration where each class is dressed in costumes from nations around the globe.

Made me dream that there could be a different reality, harmony, maybe, throughout humanity. That dream has lasted for decades.

When I remember Dunbar, I hear the sweet voices of our award winning choir; the tapping, in a parade, of our equally award winning marching band and majorettes’ feet on the street to a marching beat; doo-wop harmonizing and boogie-woogie playing at assemblies.

I see our sports teams playing colorfully and assuredly, among the finest in the city.

I remember vividly how we, generally, tried to find and make our way, carrying the legacy of a people once enslaved, as I hear a friend, struggling to hold his rage at bay, saying to somebody trying to block his way:

“You better be yo self, Jack!” cuz I might be a sober man, and if I am a sober man, I will f—k you up!”

Another image comes up of a friend reflecting what’s up with his family’s financial situation with:

“Listen here, man, if it took a penny to go around the world I couldn’t get out of sight.”

Based on my own family’s similar plight, I knew he was right.

There were a lot of things back then we had yet to get right as I recall a day when my generation’s sexism came to light, a day when a girl, a neighbor of mine (who was truly “fine”) was wearing a “Why me?” expression on her face, having to tolerate:

“Look here, grrl, I’m go’ throw all my money in the air, and what stays up is mine, and what hits the ground is yours! You unnerstan’ what I’m sayin’?”

To, which she replies, “What am I supposed to do with all those pennies, fool?” unable to hide the feeling of “I’m so tired of this drool” that showed in her eyes.

Hey, all that was our life and somewhere, in the midst of all that, a number of teachers who loved and appreciated me enough to let me be me somehow provided the 3 R’s I needed to make my way in this upside-down society.

And they sold me on a motto, “Be the Best,” that has guided me throughout my life.

Not in the sense of being better than anybody else but being my best self. I think I’m probably forever grateful to the school for that above all else.

As we used to sing: “Hail to Dunbar Jr. High! A grand old school is she!”

Yes, she was.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Lauren October 12, 2021 at 7:57 pm

What a lovely tribute.


Marie Johnson October 12, 2021 at 8:24 pm

This is beautiful. You a master storyteller. Thank you for all of your contributions.


Jay M Rochlin October 12, 2021 at 8:25 pm

Thank you for sharing this. I think of you frequently and can only imagine the number of people you have inspired to be “the best” through the decades.


Thomas Gayton October 12, 2021 at 10:18 pm

i wish my memories of grade school are as edifying and inspirational as Dunbar. You were blessed by attending that school.


Joni Halpern October 12, 2021 at 10:40 pm

You are the best, Ernie. Thanks for a story with hope.


Rev Alyce SmithCooper October 13, 2021 at 7:30 am

Stellar recollections dear friend Ernie!Brings me to memories of growing up in Riverside and going to Irving Elementary School where I met Mrs. Lot my only Black teacher until i got to college. She opened her heart and my eyes to the possibility of greatness. Thank you for the reminder.
Best joys. Alyce Smith Cooper


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