I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.
Grandsons, you’ll be in situations where one man can make a difference:
The difference in a win or loss.
The difference in the right outcome or cowardly way.
The following is a remarkable story of one high school student who changed history: the history of East Beauregard High School in 1973.
Even though this story happened forty-five years ago, there are still bruised feelings in our community. I’ll catch a little flak for re-telling it, but it is too valuable of a story to left untold.
His name is simple: Bob Smith and he was seventeen. He showed how one young person can make a difference in the world around him.
But there was nothing simple or weak about Bob Smith. The president of the East Beauregard Senior Class of 1973 was respected by students and teachers alike.
I’ve always said if we’d had a football team, Bob Smith would’ve been the middle linebacker and team captain. If he’d been in the military, he’d been an officer. He had that quality and aura about him.
So, on an October school morning in 1972, Bob Smith met the high schoolers coming off the buses and parking lot; he said, “All right, we’re going to meet in the gym. Everyone to the gym.”
The majority of the high school, probably about one hundred students, came to the gym.
Bob Smith stood before us and said, “Last night, the school board met and fired our principal. Well, let me rephrase that: they moved him to Hyatt High, demoted the principal there while giving her a raise.”
A hand shot up. “Well, then, who is our principal?”
“Mr. Barrett has been promoted to acting principal,” Bob said.
Now some background is in order. No one had ever been more beloved at East Beauregard than Jimmie Barrett, who had been a coach and teacher before becoming assistant principal.
There was also a close personal relationship between Mr. Barrett and Bob Smith. Mr. Barrett, who taught driver’s education, often picked Bob and his brother Mark up each morning, teaching them to drive on the way to school.
However, Bob Smith’s indignation at how the school board had acted transcended this. “The School Board has done us wrong, and I’ll be doggone if they’re going to ruin our senior year with shenanigans like this.”
Bob walked along the ball court, speaking quietly but firmly to us in the bleachers. “We’re going on strike. We’re not leaving this gym until the school board rescinds what they’ve done.”
A buzz went through the high school student body. This was a serious thing. Sensing this, Bob Smith raised his hand, “If we stick together, we can win this thing, but we must hold firm.”
A few students, who were on the other side of the political fence against the principal, slipped out. I felt so sorry for my best friend, Jimmy Garner. His dad was the new school board member who’d run on a platform of removing the principal.
I turned to my classmate, Pierre Benoit. “Pierre, what are you doing here? I thought you hated the principal?”
“I do, but I’ll do anything to get out of class.”
Regardless of mixed motives, our strike, or sit-in, continued.
Soon, Mr. Barrett came to talk to us. I remember how pale he was and how his voice shook. I felt sorry for him. He was a low-key leader and spoke softly. “Students, you need to return to class. This is not the way we run a school, especially this school. I am asking you personally to leave the gym and go to class.”
An electric tension filled the air but was broken by Bob Smith. “Mr. Barrett, we respect you, but cannot do what you’re asking. The way this whole thing was done stinks to high heaven and we’re not going to take it.”
Further pleading from Mr. Barrett did no good with our spokesperson Bob Smith. “I’m sorry, but we won’t leave until this is reconsidered and changed.”
Mr. Barrett, still pale, left the gym.
Later a teacher, strong in the anti-principal faction, walked through the gym waving his blue Gradebook. His bald head was red with anger. “Every one of you who isn’t in my class today will fail for the year. I promise you: I will fail you.”
Needless to say, that was the wrong approach. It only hardened the resolve of the students.
I’m sure you’re thinking, “Curt, were you there, and if so, why?”
You bet I was there. Like Bob, I smelled a rat in how the whole thing was accomplished. Secondly, I had a secret crush on the principal’s pretty long-legged daughter. That probably played a part in it. Thirdly, I liked our principal.
Several students made protest signs and walked the grounds. You’ve got to remember, this was the early 70’s and the radical late 60’s had just arrived in the rural hamlets of Dry Creek and Sugartown.
About noon, a television truck from Lake Charles showed up and interviewed Bob Smith and several others.
In spite of it being lunch, the students refused to leave the gym.
After lunch, they called the buses and dismissed classes for the day.
Mr. Barrett appeared with one more plea to the students. “When you return tomorrow, you need to report directly to class.”
Bob Smith, his voice calm but strong said, “Mr. Barrett, if this action isn’t changed by the School Board, we’ll be right back here tomorrow morning.”
As school dismissed, Bob said to us, “I’ll see all of you here in the morning.” He repeated. “If we stick together, we can win.”
The next day, Thursday, was a disappointment for my sister Colleen (a freshman) and me (a junior). Our parents refused to allow us to go to school. Daddy said, “There’s going to be trouble there, and you two won’t be in the middle of it. You’re staying home.”
So, the Iles siblings sat out the second day of the famous East Beauregard strike. However, the vast majority, led once again by Captain Bob Smith, were back in the bleachers.
According to those there, about mid-morning, several school board officers showed up. Their leader said, “We understand you’re upset, but we can’t let you just take over the school.”
No one moved.
The school official continued. “I’m here to offer a compromise. If you’ll return to class, we’ll have a special school board meeting tomorrow night and reconsider our decision.”
“So, you promise to reconsider it?” Bob said.
“We’ve already called the meeting for Friday night at 6:00 pm. Now, will y’all please go back to class?”
Bob Smith led the troops out of the gym and classes resumed, somewhat normally.
The promised meeting was held on Friday night. The School Board rescinded their actions from Tuesday night. Alas, the poor Hyatt principal lost her demotion raise, and we had our principal back.
He finished the year before moving on to bigger and better things. I can show you a yearbook photo of him handing Bob Smith his diploma in May 1973.
Mr. Barrett later became principal and retired as one of East Beauregard’s most respected school leaders. He hired me as a teacher at my alma mater. Last year, I helped conduct his funeral. There was an outpouring of love from our school community for this man who’d meant so much to so many.
I received a good education at East Beauregard High. Among my lessons, there was one that began as a question: Can a young person change the course of history?
The answer is yes. I saw Bob Smith do it.
And he did it with steadfast courage.
He did one of the most difficult things a younger person can do: he spoke truth to power. He wasn’t arrogant or angry. He was just bulldog-determined and committed.
He stood for what he believed, and because he had the emotional capital of being so respected by the student body of our small rural school, we were willing to stand with him.
And we won because of a leader who rose to the occasion. An unusual leader with a simple name and a ton of courage: His name was Bob Smith.
- Compare fear and courage? How does one overcome fear to be courageous?
- What words you use to describe Bob Smith’s courageous stand against the system?
- How did Bob Smith show both courage and courtesy in his response to Mr. Barrett?