Wandering Billy

Old School

Ballinger Academy, downtown Eye candy and an ode to Dear Old Dad

By Billy Eye

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” — Kurt Vonnegut

Just weeks ago, I lost a very dear friend of mine. After a long and protracted battle, he finally succumbed to his wife’s demand that he not hang out with that bum Billy Eye anymore.

Perhaps as conciliation, my pal Caleb Gross, knowing how much I love a mystery, pulled up a Google satellite image of a large, manufacturing plant–sized building at the end of a winding, unpaved trail off Friendway Road near West Market Street. Caleb’s dad had lived in the Westwind Area neighborhood years ago, and that elephantine structure sequestered behind a row of mid-century homes had always fascinated him, being so completely out of place and long ago abandoned.

It has no discernible address, doesn’t seem to appear on any map, nor is the property listed on Zillow. Eye became intrigued as well, so we went urban excavating, motoring past the “No Trespassing: Violators Will Be Prosecuted” signs to steal a closer look. Caleb, by the way, is the drummer for our region’s banging-est punk band, Basement Life, whose latest album Devour is one of my all-time favorites. In addition to being a ferocious skin beater, Caleb’s a devoted father and hard-working professional.

What we discovered at the end of that dirt trail was a low-slung, one-story building fronting a Georgian Colonial-–inspired, four-story structure, a bit disheveled but totally intact, with unusually high ceilings. The windows weren’t broken — imagine that — but all entrances and lower floor windows have been boarded up to prevent egress. My first thought was, what a great event space this would make.

Surrounded by five acres of slightly overgrown lawn, there is no signage or anything identifying the property, but an adjacent athletic field suggested that this may have been a school of some sort. Sure enough, after asking around, it was Lady Katei Cranford who informed me that this was once Ballinger Preparatory Academy, also known as The Little Red Schoolhouse.

Attorney Max Ballinger and his wife Patsy bought this former preschool not far from their 100-acre Guilford College farmstead. After 12 years teaching at Sternberger Elementary, this was a dream come true for Patsy Ballinger, to be headmistress of her own academic enterprise.

Beginning in 1971, students attended kindergarten through 8th grade at Ballinger Prep, with class sizes ranging from 10–12 students. Under Patsy’s tutelage, pupils were immersed in a curriculum emphasizing geography, science, social studies, government, history, mathematics, as well as gaining fluency in French. Each day, students attended classes in the arts — music, drama, painting and creative writing.

It wasn’t unusual for Ballinger attendees to win the national Geography Bee. Students were encouraged to write books, many of which were published and achieved acclaim. Ballinger’s motto: “You don’t have to do it, You get to do it!”

First to arrive each morning and last to leave, Patsy directed and often times composed two dramatic or musical productions each term, insuring every child had a chance to participate in some way. Field trips afforded older students an opportunity to experience a variety of distant locales such as the Outer Banks, Williamsburg, Cape Canaveral, our nation’s capital, even white water-rafting down the New River.

When Ballinger Prep closed after the 2002 term, enrollment had dropped to just a few dozen, that year’s seventh grade class was just four students.

Caleb and I didn’t go as far as pulling particle board off the windows of the now vacant academy, not my style, but a visitor to this property in 2011 got a good look at the inside and discovered classrooms with desks and chairs in place, graded papers and a pair of glasses resting on a teacher’s desk.

On a related note . . .

Downtown the other day, on the corner of Elm and Washington, waiting for a light to change, I overheard a young man say to his wife, who was strolling their baby, “Look, there’s a candy factory. You want to go check it out?” They were referring to a building across the street from the Depot. “Don’t bother,” I told them. “There’s no candy factory there nor has there ever been.” They were puzzled, “Then why did they paint ‘Gate City Candy Factory’ in large letters on top of that building?” Beats me.

That brick, multilevel structure at 301 South Church Street, is currently home to The Experiential School of Greensboro, where, coincidentally, Caleb is hoping to enroll his 6-year old son this fall. This tuition-free collaborative for K-7 students opened its doors only last year, yet there’s already a waiting list.

The charter’s mission statement declares, “The Experiential School of Greensboro educates creative critically engaged citizens using an experiential curriculum that extends the classroom into the downtown Greensboro community.” That’s why you’ll occasionally witness a gaggle of youngsters taking part in a field trip making their way in a neat little row across downtown sidewalks.

A benefit concert for the school was held in May, “Songs of Peace and Community,” featuring many of the city’s finest singer-songwriters including Rhiannon Giddens, Laurelyn Dossett, Charlie Hunter and Molly McGinn, among others.

Meanwhile, talk about taking it back to old school, Caleb Gross and Basement Life have a show on June 8th at The Blind Tiger on Spring Garden, Eye’ll see you there?

***

I often wax nostalgic about members of the well-named Greatest Generation. Something about living through The Depression, World War II, the economic boom of the 1950s and ’60s, gave them an almost singular perspective, embodying the American Dream that subsequent generations squandered.

I was unexpectedly reminded of two friends of my parents, Tom and Leenette Wimbish (Wimbish Insurance) both departed, she just last year. Pulling a book from my library, an 8 x 7 pamphlet I’d never seen before dropped into my hands, a collection of poetry self-published by Tom Wimbish.

The final verse in his booklet, one entitled “My Dad,” is a clear-eyed portrait of the quintessential Depression-era Southern gentleman:

Standing straight and tall in the worldly wind,

Rigid in his beliefs, to the very end.

Arbitrate, not he; and need we ask,

An unwavering devotion to every task.

Love, he showed in a particular fashion,

Patience, he had as if on ration.

But, good he was in every pore,

His memory engraved forever more.

And, thus these lines thought somewhat sad,

Do honor and glory, my Dear Ole Dad. OH

Billy Eye is O.G. — Original Greensboro.

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