AS I APPROACHED an old building on Beverly Hill Street on a sunny day, my mind shuffled through memories of my time there: walking down noisy halls; hearing the clanking of green lockers; gathering books and materials for my next class; and making a mad dash before the tardy bell rang.
Those were some of the small moments I lived as a student at Lee High School. Oh, excuse me—Margaret Long Wisdom High School. One of the first landmarks I spotted, besides the adjacent new building, was the legendary mural painted on the wall facing west. The mural greeted you when you entered as a freshman and served as backdrop for the senior class picture.
Though I didn't start high school until 2003, our tale begins in 1962, when Robert E. Lee High School was built and opened to the west side of Houston at the time. The demographic was, well, pretty white. Students attended the school with a great sense of pride, striving for academic excellence and participating in a vast array of extracurricular activities.
The next four decades brought gradual yet drastic change in the student body, so much that by the time I was a student the Robert E. part of the name was dropped to herald the second era of the school (although the general was still our mascot). Now, Lee High was much more diverse to the point that it was like the whole world in one building. The claim to fame was that there were students from something like 70 different countries speaking 40 different languages. We didn't even have an American football team. Soccer homecoming, anyone?
I was in the humanities magnet program, so our group was a bit more of a melting pot. Aside from knowing students from Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia and Guatemala, I knew of a family of Pakistani siblings and a few girls from Croatia. Even in my awkward teenage years, I was becoming exposed to different types of people a little earlier than many people in America.
Today I got to walk the hallways of my high school for the very last time before it gets tear down. This high school has been the Ellis Island for many young immigrants & refugees that arrive to Houston. 40 countries & 60+ languages were spoken at this school. 80% of students were ESL. My friends were from: Russia, Africa, the Middle East, Central America, etc & we all had something in common: we didn't speak English so we communicated in signs. This is the place where I also found out about college & where I met wonderful humans beings called teachers! Gracias Escuela!!
Beyond my personal experiences, I was starting to see more into the lives of others. Around 2006, a television crew visited the school to interview the principal about the undocumented students attending the school. At that moment, I felt for my fellow peers traveling to another country with their parents and assimilating to American culture while simultaneously being tested by a statewide standard without much leeway.
By the time I graduated and moved on, I had made quite a few friends without really realizing it, and some of those wonderful people I keep in contact with to this very day. So many good memories were made that I had to return to the source. I hadn't visited the school since 2008, so I was able to notice some differences.
I walked down the empty halls and classrooms in what is now Wisdom High School—the third era, scrubbed of its Confederate namesake. Technology is more prevalent these days, and the lockers are used as display boards to hang up cool classwork. Soccer is still the popular sport of choice, but American football has since been brought back into the fold.
The L.A. Times recently reported about the school, painting an even more diverse portrait than ever before. The same spirit of academic excellence has resurged, with students taking AP exams left and right. Wisdom is growing into a healthier high school, providing not just a safe haven, but a place to grow and thrive as a student in what it notes as the most diverse city in the nation.
I am sad to see the old building officially demolished next month to become—among other things—a parking lot for the new Wisdom building constructed next door. Even so, I am more encouraged as an alum to watch the school—formerly known as Robert E. Lee High School—progress to bigger and better things.