Here in Louisiana, members of the state legislature are pushing through an effort to change the name of the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, a public boarding school for gifted and talented kids that’s been around since 1983. They want to call it the Jimmy D. Long Sr. Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, after the deceased state legislator who was instrumental in creating the school back in the early 1980s.
The school’s alumni, both in the state and nationwide, have been raising a ruckus in fighting this proposal. The hearings have been emotional. Legislators have been quoted in the Baton Rouge paper as saying they’ve never seen a lobbying effort like this one. So far it has been unsuccessful. State Sen. Francis Thompson, who originated the legislation, has called alumni ingrates for opposing it. A reader of this blog, knowing that I am an alumnus of LSMSA (I was in the Class of ’85, the first graduating class), wrote to ask why on earth we alumni are so upset about this issue.
I haven’t talked to any other alumni about the issue, but here is my answer.
Most people love their alma mater, I suppose, or at least feel some affection for it. The relationship between LSMSA and its alumni is more intense than most, because the Louisiana School is not just a school to the people who studied there. It surely has something to do with the fact that the school’s students — high school juniors and seniors, and some sophomores — live on campus in dorms. It’s a relatively small community, fewer than 300 kids, and they have unusually close relationships with their teachers. All of this tends to form tight bonds. But it doesn’t fully explain the passion Louisiana School alumni feel towards the place.
I suspect that most of them had some version of the experience I had there in the 1980s. I came from a public school in a small town. I had been bullied there. Besides which, it was not a school where a nerdy kid who liked to read was suited to thrive. I wasn’t getting along at all with my father, who was distressed over what he correctly saw as my depression. His way of dealing with it was to bark at me to “be normal.”
When I heard that the state was opening a new school for people like me, I applied with a certain desperation in mind, as if I were a hard-pressed political dissident seeking an exit visa to a country of exile. That analogy might seem emotionally overwrought to you, but even today, over three decades later, it accurately describes my state of mind.
One late spring day in 1983, I drove my old blue Chevy pickup by the post office to check the mail. There was in our box a letter from the school, addressed to me. Breathless, I hurried out to the truck to open it, and to see if I had been accepted.
I had. Sitting here this morning recalling that moment, all the details are crystal clear in my mind. It was an overwhelming feeling. I’m saved, I thought. I’m saved. My father didn’t want me to go, but my mother, God bless her, prevailed, and I moved to Natchitoches that fall to take my place in the first class of the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts.
I noticed something interesting that first month. Some of my classmates came from big-city magnet schools. They seemed happy to be there, but only that. We kids who came from small town and rural schools were different. For us, the school was a haven. I can’t speak for all my classmates, but for me and for others like me, we were the walking wounded. This was the first time we had gone to school and been in a school community in which we didn’t have to keep our heads down, or suppress in some way our love of books and learning so as not to attract the attention of the cool kids and the bullies. At LSMSA, it was okay to be a nerd, a square peg, an outcast, a weirdo. People loved you anyway, in part because they too had been nerds, square pegs, outcasts, weirdos.
We had found our tribe. It is impossible to overstate how powerful an experience that is for a teenager who has had to deal with outsiderness and rejection as a normal condition of life in school, and sometimes outside of it. Before Louisiana School, I was constantly on the defensive, both at school and at home, with my father. That sense of siege marked me deeply, and still does. But at LSMSA, I saw that life could be different, that it could be so much better. That one could be accepted and loved and cherished by one’s community of teachers and students.
Yes, the classes at LSMSA were advanced in content, but that’s not what was most distinctive about them, not to my young eyes. I saw that teachers did not have to fight every day to keep their classes quiet and attentive. What a revelation it was to be in a classroom where everybody wanted to learn, where one’s teachers didn’t have to fight a constant battle with knuckleheads who didn’t want to be in school in the first place. The idea of school as a cooperative community of learning, a place where everybody shared a commitment to the same mission, was new to me. The idea that academic excellence was a goal everybody shared, and not an invitation to be mocked and derided by one’s peers — this too was novel. My God, did I love it.
In 1985, I graduated from Louisiana School a different person than the downcast 16-year-old who showed up that fall of ’83. Where I had been depressed and lonely, I was now joyful, mostly because I had made the best friends I would ever know (this is still true, by the way). I learned at LSMSA to have confidence in myself, my ideas, and my future. I came out of that school with a powerful sense of belonging and mission, and with the sure knowledge that life was beautiful. I had not been sure of that before.
It is scarcely overstating it to say that Louisiana School gave me my life. I don’t know where I would be today, personally or professionally, if not for that place. Its memory is sacred to me, and to many, many of the students who followed in the path of the first class.
The late Rep. Jimmy Long was one of the handful of men responsible for the extraordinary blessing of LSMSA. His memory must be honored and cherished by every student who benefited from his vision. The greater the gift, the more grateful we must be to the giver.
If the Louisiana legislature goes through with renaming the school after Rep. Long, his name, through no fault of his own, will never again be spoken of with respect by the school’s alumni. It will be regarded as a sign of the legislature’s disrespect for tradition and an institution that has become hallowed to those whose hearts and minds were formed by it. The name of Jimmy Long ought to be revered in the LSMSA community, but if the legislature has its way, it will achieve the opposite effect.
It’s like this. Gov. Huey P. Long played a central role in helping build up LSU back in the 1930s. If the state legislature renamed the flagship university “The Huey P. Long Louisiana State University,” how well would that be received?
Tradition matters. Sen. Francis Thompson believes sincerely that he is honoring his late friend by forcing this name change on a community that does not want it. So does State Sen. Gerald Long, Jimmy Long’s brother. They are wrong. The reason so many LSMSA alumni are so upset about this is because the school is so precious to us — far more precious than it could ever be to a state senator and his legislative colleagues. It’s not their fault, but they don’t love the school. How could they, not having gone there? But they ought to love tradition, and they ought to respect the Louisiana men and women who studied there, and taught there, or otherwise served in that extraordinary and beloved community of learning.
The Louisiana School itself is Jimmy Long’s monument. I understand why so many alumni say it should stand on its own, with the name it has always had. Their argument that to force this name change onto the school would be to bring the visionary Jimmy Long’s name into permanent disrepute among the community that ought to love and honor him as a benefactor. And it will have deeply antagonized thousands of Louisianians — including voters like me — who will not forget this act of disrespect for our alma mater, its traditions, and its people.
Louisiana legislators should reflect on what they are doing here. Passing this law will have the inadvertent effect of bringing Jimmy Long’s good name into dishonor. Is that what the legislature really wants? Is that what Jimmy Long’s family would have happen? Because this is exactly what is going to happen.
Plus, there’s not a single legislator who will benefit politically from it; in fact, just the opposite will happen. Some things are sacred, and should not be trifled with, or treated as the playthings of politicians who want to pat each other on the back instead of be faithful to the institutions and traditions that they have been elected to steward.
Much ink has been spilled over the last few months on the state of our democracy — how political discourse is dead, how the people are no longer represented, how the system is broken. Unfortunately for all of us, I’m here to spill just a bit more.
I’ve had the opportunity to watch our democracy in action over the last few weeks in the Louisiana Legislature. I’ve taken part in the process, lobbying with hundreds of others in the fight over Senate Bill 1, a bill that would rename the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts — my alma mater.
At this point, I’m not going to litigate the merits of the bill — the alumni are united in opposition to it for good reasons. What’s important now is to illuminate how this process played out.
Democracy is supposed to be for the people. It’s our government, organized according to our wishes, and enacted by our representatives. They are there to serve us, to carry out our agenda. That is far from what I experienced.
SB 1 passed swimmingly through both the Senate and House against the express wishes of the people. The constituents it affects — namely, the students, parents, faculty, staff and alumni of LSMSA — have made it clear we don’t want this bill. We have collectively spent hours testifying in committee, have sent thousands of emails, and called hundreds of times.
Through all of that action, how many votes did we sway? Just four — two senators on the floor and two representatives in committee.
Of the entire Legislature, are there really only four principled among you?
Watching this unfold has been stunning. It should be the easiest vote in the world. It’s left me disillusioned, frustrated and disconcerted. Two senators used their position to push a bill upon the people — people who don’t want it. And everyone — all but four — ignored their constituents in order to gratify the ego of their colleagues.
I’m deeply perturbed by how this process has played out. It’s a gross abuse of power by the authors and a callous, willful disregard of constituent wishes by everyone else. The system broke for SB 1, but there’s one vote left. Will anyone join these four brave men and women? Sen. Dan Claitor, Sen. Fred Mills Jr., Rep. Beryl Amedee and Rep. Polly Thomas.
As a matter of political reality, legislators should understand that not a single person will vote for or work for your re-election because you changed the name of this school. Outside of the LSMSA community, nobody cares about this. (Maybe the Long family does, but it seems to me that they would not want the name of their kin regarded with anger and disdain.) If they go through with this, though, and they will have a small army of angry alumni who will be more than happy to donate money to, work for, and vote for future opponents who promise to reverse your move and restore tradition.
My niece just graduated from LSMSA, making two generations of my family that have gone through the Louisiana School. This has happened a lot in this state: LSMSA having become a family tradition. This is personal. This is family. Family traditions don’t make sense to outsiders, but they are strongly felt and loved within the family. Legislators have nothing to gain from antagonizing the Louisiana School family, and much to lose.