I wonder if you ever really leave high school.
Sure, you walk across the stage. Someone hands you a diploma. In the distance, an air horn blows. You toss that square hat with the tassel high in the air. It lands three rows over. High school ends. The rest of your life begins.
So yes, we graduate. But we never, fully, leave. Part of us stays behind, as if we've never fully cleaned out our locker.
If that wasn't true, nobody would have showed up last weekend.
"At least 150 on Saturday, right?" said Barri Harper, father of an incoming Red Bank High School freshman.
"Maybe 200," said Justin Robertson, who's starting his first year as Red Bank High principal.
Like an unofficial reunion, students, faculty, alums, parents, church members, business owners and community leaders are participating in "Be a Part of the Pride," a weeklong project that's kind of like a homecoming ... with paint buckets.
"I'm here to work," said Amanda Paradis on Tuesday morning.
She's an alum, mother of incoming freshman Megan, and stopped by to volunteer some time and sweat labor, just as hundreds did on Saturday and Sunday (after church).
Earlier this spring, a group of school supporters set a goal of renovating Red Bank High by raising $150,000 and pledging their own time, not unlike the school makeover that parents -- some of whom will have children attending Red Bank this fall -- gave Normal Park Museum Magnet School.
"Normal Park has been influential, but this is not Normal Park," said Robertson. "This is Red Bank High."
An open house -- originally scheduled for Sunday -- will happen on Aug. 5, and visitors can see the week's worth of work.
"Forty-two rooms," said Robertson. "Almost all are done."
Volunteers scraped baseboards, painted walls, cleaned floors at Red Bank. They argued over the correct shade of blue -- excuse me, "Red Bank blue" -- to paint in classrooms. Old-timers want this particular deep shade of blue -- like the sky on a perfect summer day -- while the students want to include a black stripe above the blue.
Members of the Student Council cleaned and repainted the teacher's lounge. (Yes, you read that correctly: Students cleaned the teacher's lounge.)
Football players show up, after practice, to landscape and spread mulch. On Saturday, the volleyball team scraped gum off desks. For two hours. Without air conditioning.
"There's a lot of character in these students," said Christel Brooks, math teacher and volleyball coach.
It's hard to write graffiti on walls you once painted. There is a lot to explore with this do-it-yourself ethic: What happens when students are given a chance to help clean -- and create -- their learning environment?
"Not caring is a problem," said Brooks' daughter Ansley Helton, a senior volleyball player and member of the Student Council. "That's why this is so important."
One of Ansley's classmates created a senior lounge; others just showed up to help paint.
"One senior is recording every single trophy from our sports history and reorganizing the trophy cases," she said. "Some of these trophies are really old, from 1980 or something."
"That was one of our goals," said her mom. "Not only to update the building ... but to restore the community pride."
Tuesday morning, I walked by my old locker (No. 420, still hard to close), saw the gym (varsity basketball, bench-warmer) and the classrooms where I learned to read -- really read -- literature and write sentences that would lead to a career in writing (Thanks, Mrs. Sparks, Mrs. Woomer).
I thought about Ansley and her classmates. We were all that age once.
"All of this goes back to a sense of pride," she said. "This is my school, and I did something to help improve this."
Next spring, she'll graduate. But not really.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...