Centersongs*

A Photo Essay

Centersongs

Kansas City, Mo.
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High school Homecoming Week is perhaps one of the most storied American traditions we have. Every fall during the football season, schools around the country mark one home game on their calendar around which the history and community of that school are celebrated. For the game, past alumni are encouraged to come and show support. For the students, the week is generally capped by the Homecoming dance — typically the first major dance of the academic year. Homecoming kings and queens are crowned, and in many places around the country where football is an especially big deal, schools might also throw float parades that drive through the community. Local business owners chip in sponsorship support. In a sense, Homecoming Week is a way for schools and their surrounding communities to recognise their own cultural identities. 

Roughly twenty years ago, I attended high schools in three different states, but my best experience was at Center Senior High School in Missouri. Set in the middle of a prototypically middle class suburb in South Kansas City, the school was perhaps the best illustration of a cross-section of midwest American life in the mid-90s. Back then, America’s economic situation was favourable and there was an influx of working class families who were purchasing their first homes in record numbers. During this time, white flight also happened; as black families were buying up homes, white families were moving further and further away to new subdivisions that were less diverse. Center was a predominantly white school when I attended there twenty-something years ago, but today, 75% of the students currently attending are African American. Despite the fact that Center still resides in a relatively middle-class suburban community (it very much looks the same), it is now considered an inner-city school largely due to its changed demographics. It is not … in the inner-city. 

I decided to spend the week preceding my class reunion at the school to see just how much (if anything) had changed over the past two decades — if the current racial makeup of the school made for a new school identity, or if the students of Generation Z were the same as my micro generation that attended back in the 90s. As part of my documentary, I spent time with eight different students — two from each class — that had varying degrees of involvement with the Homecoming festivities. Among them were two varsity football players, three members of the marching band, a cheerleader, and one student involved in a club tasked with helping with decorating the dance and floats. 

Jeremiah wilson

It was important for me to have contact with a good cross section of students, both racially and with gender. I found that for the most part, the teenagers in this part of the country are nothing like the ones I’m used to encountering in bigger cities like New York (where I live) or London; here, collective social media “bubble” think are not chief societal concerns. While Center has a predominantly black student body, the surrounding community and state are largely conservative leaning. This is a community with liberal people who exist on top of conservative principles. In speaking with the students, most all of them emphasised the importance of their parents or other extended family members in their lives, often without being prompted. They often referred to my documentary team as sir and ma’am, even after we graciously expressed that they didn’t have to. While it’s not uncommon for teenagers to code switch out of their natural behaviour when being interviewed by strangers who also happen to be adults, it was surprising to see how proper they were during casual one-on-one time. I would call it church manners, sitting up straight with measured, respectful expressions. 

I was presented one student whom there was a consensus possessed a gift for gab and comedy; mostly what I experienced during our times together was a consistent, humbled shyness.

Another student who was described to me by the faculty as being an outstanding student, confided in me that they didn’t see themselves this way at all; their academic standing, this student said, was merely a bi-product of their home situation, which had previously been beset with some challenges.

When I asked the captain of the football team if he ever got nervous before games, he immediately said, “No,” with the kind of assertion that was a final, definite, no. When I asked the team’s placekicker the same question, he chuckled once and admitted to having nerves all of the time, “Until that first kick of the game.”

I was shocked to learn that many of these kids do not use Facebook. I don’t know if this is an indictment on the future of the social platform, but most of the students I spoke to said that while they used Snapchat, Facebook was of little everyday value to them. But it makes sense — we’re talking about an area of the country that isn’t very international and doesn’t see a high number of transient young people. It makes sense when you think about it; a 17-year-old in New York could meet a couple hundred people over the course of a year who may only be passing through, but in Kansas City, movement is more static, and many of these people have known the same faces as long as they’ve been in school. There’s little reason to exchange thought content with each other on Facebook when they spend the majority of their days physically together, anyway. Many of the students, when asked, didn’t seem so apprehensive to the notion of losing their phones for an entire week. That said, there were substantially more headphones and earbuds in the halls in between classes than I remember in my day. 

In interviewing a student from one of the more affluent families left at the school, they mentioned that their mother attended the same high school some thirty years ago. When asked what they thought were some of the changes between then and now, this student immediately spoke about issue of white flight. That this student — who was not black — was both able to articulate this and go on to explain how their family made the decision to remain in the district and attend public school for the purpose of choosing diversity was something that frankly blew me away. Indeed, one of the reasons I’ve had such fond memories of Center was because it was perhaps the only experience I’ve ever had living in a place where relationships and acceptance were commonly formed across racial and socioeconomic lines. (This isn’t to say that race didn’t exist, because it most certainly did. But — specifically at Center — it was never a barrier of either acceptance or success.) That said, all around South Kansas City you could feel these deepening divisions, families moving across state lines from Missouri to Kansas to escape certain perceived adversities. It was heartening to know that in 2017 when many of the white families in the district have either moved away or elected to send their children to other schools, there [are] still students at Center who both want to be there and appreciate the value in living a life not homogeneously washed.

Given America’s current political climate and an “us vs. them” mentality between progressives and conservatives, what makes Center as a school and community unique at large is the fact that many of the students and faculty here represent an ideological bipartisanship that the “middle of America” used to stand for. One can be a liberal who identifies as a Christian and who stands for the national anthem. And prays. 

One can be a conservative who understands the inherent social benefit of helping others. Most importantly though, it’s not about all-or-nothing politics and dissociating with those who might think or be different. 

Twenty years since the time I attended Center, a lot has changed. Our school alma mater, which used to be an epic ballad whose words we sang at every game and rally telling the world who we were, exists now as an instrumental score, a melancholy echo to the nostalgia that once was. The current students don’t know the words. 

Although the current state of Center is representative of that aforementioned dissociation, what has emerged is a community that still strives to succeed with a set of values that have not been abandoned. It still wants to be a place worth coming home to. 

Cameras Used:

Pentax 67, Pentax 645n
Pentax K1000, Yashica Electro 35 GSN
Contax G2

Film Stocks Used:

Kodak Portra 400, 800
Fuji Natura 1600