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Quit making school names so boring – Shaffer

Josh Shaffer

Former N.C. Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock
Former N.C. Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock

This week, our educational leaders put their noggins together and chose names for a pair of new schools, aiming for titles to inspire young minds as they enter Wake County’s newest temples of learning.

Their first selection: Kennebec Road High – a stirring choice that honors the new school’s street address.

The second: Honeycutt Road Elementary – a name so dynamic it demands to be sung rather than spoken.

Sarcasm aside, I will point out that members of the Wake school board described their own choices as “boring.”

“It doesn’t roll off the tongue that great,” Susan Evans said of Kennebec.

But there’s a reason for these ho-hum proposals, and I’m here to bash it. For years now, Wake County school folk have declined to name academic institutions after real people, opting instead for bland, inoffensive titles that vaguely describe the school’s surroundings. River Bend. Rogers Lane.

Avoiding real people on school buildings isn’t even official policy anymore. A former school board, dominated by Republicans, eased the proper noun ban in 2010. But still, no recent Wake school bears the name of a historic or locally memorable human being – a well-intentioned practice that I’m nonetheless going to call a tad cowardly in its aim to avoid controversy.

Real people’s lives, after all, are messy and complex. Few of them can withstand scrutiny in their own time let alone the life of the average school building.

W.G. Enloe, the onetime Raleigh mayor whose namesake high school consistently ranks among the nation’s best, criticized black students who participated in lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement, calling it regrettable that they would “risk endangering Raleigh’s friendly and cooperative race relations by seeking to change a long-standing custom.”

Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, champion of white supremacy more than a century ago, has seen his name stripped off buildings at three universities in the state: Duke, East Carolina and UNC-Greensboro.

I am not, of course, calling for Klansmen to appear on what ought to be our proudest buildings. Having belonged to that ignominius band, William Saunders deserved to see his name wiped off a hall at UNC-Chapel Hill. But weren’t there any other deserving candidates out there? Was Carolina Hall really the best suggestion anyone could muster? Must we stop chiseling the names of any human beings on our school buildings because we occasionally pick the wrong ones? Can’t we agree on the merits of anyone’s life? How about Kermit the Frog Elementary? I’d rather see that on a kid’s T-shirt than, say, Mills Park. Forgive me, Panthers.

Here’s why I think this matters. As a young teen, I attended Matthew Henson Middle School, which is named for the son of Maryland sharecroppers. At age 12, Henson walked from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore and signed on as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. In a lifetime of exploring, he made it to China, North Africa and the Black Sea. He made six voyages in search of the North Pole, the first black Arctic explorer, a fellow Marylander who mastered the Inuit language and learned to make igloos.

Even as an adolescent, it meant something to wear our shirts with Henson’s parka-clad face on the front. We were the Huskies in honor of the remarkable man who grew up in the same swampy boondock. But our brick alma mater could just as easily have been named Livingston Road Middle School, depriving us of a connection to his perseverance through frostbite.

Maybe if I combed through the details of Henson’s life I could find some unsavory detail, some seldom-mentioned unkindness in his character or political view that society no longer tolerates. But even if it did, I would remain a proud Husky, glad to have to a genuine human being as the emblem of my education.

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