A tragedy shows us what has changed — and what has not — about the community that raised us
Mt. Juliet, Tenn. — In 1983, my family moved from Stow, Ohio to the Clearview neighborhood in Mt. Juliet, Tenn. After several years of positions involving lots of travel and frequent moves, Dad had found a nice engineering job with good benefits and leadership potential in nearby Nashville, where the commercial construction business seemed promising. He even got a company car. Dad, who had grown up poor in inner-city Birmingham, had always talked wistfully of Mom’s “Father Knows Best” upbringing in suburbia. Raising his kids in Mt. Juliet felt like a great plan.
My brother and I, like the roughly 5,000 other people living in Mt. Juliet in those days, grew up in a suburb that was arguably still rural. It would be another 30 years or so before Nashville would become an “It City” and the surrounding areas would balloon along with it.
For perspective: U.S. Census data shows that in 2018, Mt. Juliet’s population was 35,725. In 1990, it was 5,389.
So when our parents bought the Clearview house, there were no planned, mixed-use developments in Mt. Juliet. No shopping centers, no retirement communities, no movie theaters, big box stores, sit-down restaurants or bars. You could not order a glass of wine anywhere because it was illegal.
Bill Staggs owned the pharmacy. Bill Robinson owned the newspaper. Bill Dance caught fish on the television in our living room every weekend.
Saturdays at the ball park, Fridays at the skating rink
The Little League park was the main attraction in those days, unless you count a nearby field we called “Flat Rock” where the older kids built bonfires and drank beer. We also had a skating rink, where junior high kids practiced their make-out skills in dark corners on Friday nights. We drove one county over to shop for groceries at the Hermitage Kroger. We drove 30 minutes in another direction to try on clothes at Hickory Hollow Mall, now boarded up with the exception of a couple spaces used as corporate offices.
In the summers, if we weren’t playing ball, our parents would drop us off at the Opryland theme park with 20 bucks, then pick us up at the end of the day. When they retrieved us in the evenings, we’d be sunburned, wet, irritated with our friends, and crushing on strangers from Gallatin who’d call us later on a landline.
As we got older, we ventured to Nashville proper — downtown — which was itself a much different city than it is in 2020. We had big record stores, where we spent hours. Broadway and 2nd Avenue were full of porn shops and strip clubs, with the exception of Demos’ Restaurant, which was sophisticated dining.
At the heart of all of this — arguably most formative and emblazoned in our memories — are the schools we attended.
And I think that’s why when tornadoes ripped through Middle Tennessee this week, killing at least 24 people, destroying entire neighborhoods and leaving a growing wake of property damage in their path, it was the destruction of the schools — Mt. Juliet Junior High School (now known as West Wilson Middle), Stoner Creek Elementary and Donelson Christian Academy — that cracked open such a wide range of communal emotions.
Third grade in a locker room
I remember when Stoner Creek opened. It had been long overdue, and construction ran behind schedule. The building didn’t open until the middle of the school year, which meant that the kids and teachers who were zoned to attend were crowded into odd, uncomfortable spaces at the old, overcrowding Mt. Juliet Elementary (which has since been intentionally demolished and rebuilt nearby).
While we were waiting for Stoner Creek to open, my brother’s third-grade class that year was held in the girl’s locker room at Mt. Juliet. My fifth-grade class was held in a hallway.
A stray dog was always wandering in and out of the school gym, where four sixth-grade teachers attempted to instruct their classes behind temporary plywood divider walls. The dog looked like Spuds MacKenzie from the Bud Light commercials. So we called the dog Spuds Mackenzie.
I now live in a county where even the whisper of a portable classroom as a solution for temporary overcrowding would get a superintendent fired or a school board overturned. I am not advocating for teaching kids in locker rooms, but sometimes I think we don’t understand what school is really about.
If most of our dads were working in an office in Nashville or a warehouse off Hwy 109 or a shop in Lebanon, our moms — if they worked outside our homes — were working in our schools.
Mine was no exception. She and her closest friends were among that original crew of Mt. Juliet Elementary teachers who opened up the then-new Stoner Creek. When it was new, Stoner Creek had an abundance of empty space, and we teachers’ kids took the opportunity to turn the place into our after-school play area where we held meetings for a venture we deemed the “Pies Club” after the free dessert we’d take from their teachers union meetings.
Our moms worked long hours, way after school ended for the day, and we roamed around the hallways, empty classrooms, playgrounds and school property well into the evening most nights. In their “off” hours, our moms were still together, planning and gossiping over dinner at the Southern Cooker (which was located in Hermitage, of course; people had to drive outside of Wilson County to order a glass of wine back then).
AERIAL VIDEO: Drone captures damage above Mount Juliet after deadly tornadoes
The Music City was also hit hard. Nashville's fire department responded to reports of 40 building collapses around the…
Mandatory hunter safety
When the tornadoes hit this week, old friends from those days took similar trips down memory lane as they watched aerial news footage of the wreckage, commiserated on social media, mourned the loss of landmarks and homes, and worried about loved ones still in town.
One, whom I remember as the funniest girl in our school, wrote on Facebook a particularly charming post about how we used to tease our bangs, cheer for the Bears and shoot skeet over the football practice field during mandatory hunter safety class.
It City Nashville has a hard time believing that 90s suburban Nashville taught its public school children to use shotguns during health class. But it’s true. And in addition to the class itself, we all remember the venison cookout we held in the parking lot upon completing the class, and that the practice field where we shot the guns was located between the junior high and the elementary school — which means we were shooting shotguns toward the elementary school.
Another Facebook friend, whom I remember as the prettiest girl in our school, posted an aerial photo of her devastated street, noting how weird it is to see one’s childhood neighborhood featured on every national news outlet. I know her street well, because I lived two blocks over in the same neighborhood. I watched that same aerial video a dozen times before I oriented myself enough to understand I was seeing my own childhood depicted in that terrible footage.
And a third, whose father was the minister of our church, called the evening the day after the storms to reflect and reminisce. His dad used to pick us up from the junior high every Wednesday to take us to church for Catechism classes. We’d pile into the back of his dad’s red pickup truck, which he’d outfitted with benches (no seat belts), like a makeshift cattle car for young Lutherans.
He told me about some of his neighborhood friends he’d been texting with that day, and he shared photos showing the devastation in his own childhood neighborhood, where two people died when their house collapsed on top of them. With several houses flattened, you can see clearly that my friend’s old neighborhood connects to mine — and that it must have always connected. Only — back then — I guess I didn’t realize how close everything actually was.
Mt. Juliet is not the same town it was a week ago, before a clash of high and low pressure systems laid waste to people’s lives, homes and our schools. And it is not the same as it was 30 years ago when my old friends and I were living out our Wonder Years at the Skate Inn and junior high.
But we are all products of our upbringing, and ours was in Mt. Juliet — in those schools and neighborhoods and places we’re watching on the news this week. And so we feel collectively scared and sentimental, worried and proud, softened and resolved because that’s our town whether we still live there or not, whether it’s 1983 or 2020, whether the school is called West Wilson Middle or Mt. Juliet Junior High, and regardless of whether buildings are torn down and rebuilt or forever gone.
Mt. Juliet is who we are.