Its been 30 years since I walked out of the doors of Ohio County High School. I wasn’t actually ever supposed to be there, but fate landed my family in a new community and landed me in a new high school. On my father’s side of the family, my grandmother, a cousin who grew up in Louisville, and I am the only three members of our family who didn’t graduate high school in Hopkins County. Some dropped out before graduating, but literally, we’re the only non-Hopkins County graduates for generations.
In April 1979, I had never walked into a building (school, store, church, etc) that I didn’t know a single soul or wasn’t related to nearly everyone. No one knew who I was or understood what it meant (or cared) when I said that I was a Hailey from Hanson, KY. To say that it was daunting, overestimates the word “daunt.” I remember when my mother pulled up in front of the school that Monday morning, she offered to walk in with me. I considered it, but I knew it would be easier without her than with her. So off I went, into the great unknown.
What I found was a school completely unlike what I was used too. Back home, the preppy movement was in full-swing. But at Ohio County, concert t-shirts, blue jeans, and long hair ruled the hallways. I didn’t wear jeans. I didn’t wear t-shirts, and my dark curls were always kept short. I was either going to sink or swim. Standing in the office before the bell rang, I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be.
Our move wasn’t planned. It just happened. My father had been commuting to a coal mine in Ohio County, which meant that he drove an hour to work and an hour home. He had a heart attack the year before, so the long commute was difficult. So my parents rented a mobile home right beside the mine’s guard shack. If he was too tired to drive home, he’d stay there. Many nights, Mom and I made the trip to be with him. The next morning, we’d get up and head back to Madisonville, via the Livermore Ferry. Thanks to that ferry, many mornings we were late. Thankfully, my sister was on the school faculty. She clued my homeroom teacher and principal to what we were doing. My tardiness was often ignored, as I slid into my desk dazed and overwhelmed. By spring break, we were all exhausted.
I watched my mother worry. I watched my father struggle to get enough rest and recover from his heart attack. We knew that Daddy would most likely continue to work at that particular mine for awhile. For the first time in my life, he was working day shift. He had great job as a crane operator and the mines wasn’t in danger of closing. So, we knew he would be there a while, if he wanted. A decision needed to be made: we could either keep commuting or we could move. We spent spring break in Ohio County. It was amazing to see how much happier we all were with just a few days rest. On Sunday afternoon, we talked about our options. My parents left the decision up to me. Even though I was 14 years old, I knew moving was the best. So I choose to move. Rather than spend anytime thinking about it, I became a freshman at Ohio County High School the next day. Before we changed our minds. I can only image what my friends at home thought, when I didn’t show up for school. It must have seemed as if we simply disappeared.
My first day at Ohio County High School wasn’t easy. I spent first period getting enrolled. Of course, my new class schedule didn’t match up with my former curriculum. When the guidance counselor walked me to second period, I thought I was ready to face my new classmates. When I sat down, the boy sitting in from of me turned around and commented that I looked like I had been in a hurricane. If he only knew. After all, 24 hours before I walked into his Earth Science class, I never expected to be there.
Simply wanting to just get through the day, I went to each class and tried to melt into the furniture. Thinking about it now, I understand the students weren’t prepared for a new kid as much as I wasn’t prepared to be a new kid. After all, we hadn’t bought a house or moved into any neighborhood, so the local gossip network had failed. They had to work out all the details of who I was, where I had come from, and why I was wearing gaberdine pants. It wasn’t natural for a girl to simply show up. It took a few hours for everyone to work things out. Afterall, Twitter didn’t exist in 1982.
It got easier after lunch. By the time my last class rolled around, a small group of new friends walked me to the band room. Band rooms have a chaotic environment that is universal. I don’t remember who it was, but when they pushed open the double doors — time slowed. My vision refocused until I realized that my trumpet was in the band room in Madisonville. When the band director handed me a spare, found music and a place for me sit, the stress of the day evaporated as we warmed up by running scales. That’s when I knew everything was going to be okay.
And it was.
I spent three years at Ohio County High School and loved (almost) every minute of it. High school wouldn’t be high school with some drama. I had my share, but I survived. No, I thrived. The school was a lot smaller than North Hopkins, so I got involved in everything. I joined clubs and the student council. I performed in band, choir, and the drama club. Most importantly, I made friends. Lots of friends, who rolled their eyes and focused me back on the subject at hand, whenever I talked about life back in Hopkins County.
Eventually, I bought blue jeans and a few t-shirts. Looking back, I had probably a better high school experience at Ohio County than I would have had at Madisonville. In Ohio County, I had freedom to explore what I wanted, rather than be restricted to family expectations. My teachers couldn’t compare me to my older siblings and my sister wasn’t on the faculty. Everything seemed like it was a possibility except Mr. Berryman’s geometry class.
Band was the string that held everything together for me. You can’t stand on a parking lot for an untold number of hours, repeating and repeating field sets under a sweltering sun, without developing friendships that last a lifetime. One of my favorite memories was during my first OCHS band camp. I had marched with Madisonville, so I wasn’t a novice. But a cute trumpet player offered his insight on hitting the hash marks just right. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me. Come to find out, we were both new kids trying to simply start a conversation. He became one of my dearest friends.
After a few months, we moved from the mobile home into a pretty little brick house in a cozy Beaver Dam neighborhood. Thousands of my high school moments are woven into a tapestry of memories: riding around, hanging out at Pizza Hut, band trips, play rehearsals, learning how to parallel park, Space Invaders, church youth group events, football games, basketball games, dances, parties, sleepovers, and the constant rush to grow up. Tragic moments are intertwined with the happy ones. But they’re all there.
The spring before I graduated, we begun the process of moving home. Dad was working at a different coal mines, closer to home. By last week of school, we were no longer living in Beaver Dam. We kept a single packed box in the pretty little house, just for appearances. After graduation, sweet neighbors filled our front yard and watched us put the box in the car. As we drove away, they waved us good-bye.
My life in Ohio County was over.
Next week, my classmates are gathering in Bowling Green to relive memories and the music of 1982. I would love to be there with them, but it’s not possible. I hope that they know how much their friendship meant (and STILL means) to me. If there is one good thing about social media, it’s the fact that I have connected with many of my classmates again. I love observing their lives and being together again — if only via the internet. While they gather together and giggle at the changes in our 50 year old bodies, they will forever be 16 in my mind.