I’m watching the sun rise over Interstate 10. It’s magnificent. My wife and I ride two hours until we land in Pace, Florida.
The high-school parking lot is full. The school is plain-looking, with Old Glory flying in front. The small campus sits across the road from a cotton field.
In the parking space beside me sits an old truck with Browning stickers on the back. Muddy tires.
This is Small-Town USA.
Miss Carrie gives us the dime tour. The school halls are lined with framed photos of seniors dating back to the Nixon administration. Each portrait is a history lesson in the evolution of bad American hairstyles.
“Our school’s special,” Miss Carrie says. “Our staff has tried really hard to make it this special.”
She leads us into the yearbook room. There’s a buffet loaded with biscuits, grits, and bacon.
My wife and I fix plates and meet the faculty. These are real folks—the sort with accents like your mama’s Wednesday night Bible-study group. Some teachers have been here forty years. Other are wet behind the ears. There’s something different about this lot.
They believe in this cinderblock building.
“You’re not gonna find many schools like us anymore,” says one woman. “We’re old-fashioned.”
Miss Carrie shows me a plaque with student names. “I want you to see our exceptional students.”
Exceptional. But not because of GPA’s. These are students who overcome adversity, who help others. The kinds of qualities Pace thinks are important.
She taps the plaque. “This girl had a cognitive disorder, she had to work twice as hard as other kids. We’re all really proud’a her. She deserves to be honored.”
This must be heaven.
So, why am I telling you about an ordinary high school, sitting behind a plow field? You already know why. Because this is the American South. And it’s precious.
Because this is a school with a hunting-fishing club that prints its own camouflage. Where teachers still call you “sweetie”—even when you’re in hot water. Where your principal knows your daddy personally, and your athletic director is the kind of moral gentleman you hope God might one day make you into.
This is a place where violence only happens on Friday-night fields. Where any child who hurts has real-life angels who will shake the earth for their cause.
“The way we see it,” says one woman. “We’re not just teachers, we’re the last line of defense. Our most important job is love. That’s how we better this world. That’s how we better America.”
When breakfast is over, I ask a teacher what the school mascot is. He shows me a red and blue logo on his shirt.
“We’re the Patriots,” he says.
Yes you are.
You certainly are.
Cherryl Shiver - January 12, 2017 11:50 am
Smalltown, USA . The best, ever. Ours is called Pinecrest. Pinecrest Pilots. Now it is only an elementary school, but back in 1968 my husband and his best friend Doc, graduated from the biggest class ever, 44 of them young folks were prepared to go out and face the world. Two of the best men that have entered my life, and I am even luck enough to share the last name with one of them.
Carol DeLater - January 12, 2017 11:57 am
In Northern Indiana, you won’t find a school like that, unless maybe way out in the country where the farmers send there kids. One comes to mind. Heck, the high school from my township is a dang CAMPUS. So huge I won’t go there for adult education classes because the last time I did, I got lost. Some law in the 60’s set the school boundaries so that high school just keeps getting bigger instead of building another. I ask all the time why the law can’t be changed. Rumor has it that it’s because we have a powerhouse football team in this region. I laugh, but secretly think that might be true. I don’t personally know much about the South except for two weeks spent in Knoxville visiting my brother-in-law’s family. I was 14. The first lasting memory that comes to mind was riding in the car with the brother’s wife. Her 4 year old son spilled an entire chocolate shake in the back seat. His mother’s reaction shocked me. She simply pulled over to clean it up and never once raised her voice. Boy that was NEW to ME. Funny what we remember.
Judy - January 12, 2017 2:38 pm
Sounds like my school. 500 students in K-12. 28 in my graduating class. We received an outstanding education. Our band was the biggest in the league–52 kids. I was in the band–started learning how to play French Horn in 5th grade. Football, basketball, baseball for the boys to play. Half-court basketball for the girls–I was too clumsy to run and dribble the ball at the same time, but I joined and sat the bench for 3 years–got to play 2 minutes in the last game of my Senior year.
If you got in trouble at school, your parents knew about it before you stepped off the bus and walked up the long driveway. The best of times!
Faye beck - January 12, 2017 10:23 pm
Being a southerner, really liked your observations.
Cindy Peaden - January 13, 2017 4:04 pm
Sean, I can’t tell you enough how we enjoyed your company at our school this week. You and your wife were so kind and generous to both our staff and students. I loved talking with you about my own “Mother Mary” and about my husband’s similar pear salad experience. Your blog description of your time with us captured an element of our school that many of us old-timers strive daily to never let slip away. The description of our previous Athletic Director and our former Princi-PAL are the very fiber woven into what has made Patriotland what it is today. Having someone like you come in and see that we still have it has been a tremendous morale boost for those of us in the trenches every day still trying to make sure each kid walking the halls knows he/she is enough. Thank you for everything you’ve done for us all. We love you around here and consider you to be an honorary Patriot.
Deanna - April 8, 2017 10:59 am
We lived in Pace, Fl. For 5 years, and our family loved it!, the school is truly as u describe it! My daughter was one of Pace success stories! She had a liver disease and had fallen behind from sickness, and The Patroits have a program that helps children that have fallen behind for 2 yrs, it is called second wind, our daughter and one of her friends were able to do this over the summer, and were forgiven and put up in there original classes, this is a wonderful school, they are all they say they are!!
Meggy Martin - April 8, 2017 3:25 pm
My brother was also a product of the second wind program. He was a boy not interested in school while in Elementary and Middle school therefore fell behind and was held back 2 years. Noone wants to be 20 and still in high school. I believe if it hadn’t been for that program he would not have graduated. He took 8th grade over the summer and caught up one of his years and ended up graduating just 1 year later than he originally was supposed to instead of 2. He hit high school with flying colors making a/b honor roll the entire time in high school and graduating with a technical degree in plumbing from locklin vo-tech. He has since gotten his master plumbers licence and is doing well supporting his wife and 2 boys. He still lives in the area of Munson. Another example of the second wind program success.
Deanna - April 8, 2017 11:00 am
I love your stories, we live in Gainestown Al, I am the rural mail carrier! I really enjoy your stories!!
Dale Entrekin - April 8, 2017 11:49 am
I don’t know how I got so lucky, but I get to read you twice a day-once on FB and another by email. I live in Pike Road AL and our little town has just started it’s own school system. The Patriots. From everything I can tell the goal is to make it just like this one. At least that is my hope for my grandchildren who go there. Your writings inspire so many people every day. I even read you before the newspaper!
Peggy Black - April 8, 2017 12:11 pm
Beautiful! One of your best! As a teacher who taught in three Southern states in schools of varying socioeconomic makeups and sizes, I saw these same qualities, and, sadly, I have seen them change. Though a “townie,” I went to schools like this. We have now gotten too test focused, and our communities aren’t as close as they once were either. Change isn’t always positive!
Julia Hart - April 8, 2017 12:21 pm
Thanks for this beautiful description of my alma mater. Yes, I was and always will be a Pace Patriot. My picture is in one of those that line the school hallways. I can’t say enough about how blessed I was to be in a place in which your teachers actually care about you. I’ll never forget them and my time at Pace High!
Julie - April 8, 2017 12:21 pm
Thank you for stopping by to visit and for writing this piece. Pace is my hometown. I grew up here and spent over 50 years on the same land that my grandparents and parents once owned. Once upon a time, it truly was a small town. I’m told we were dirt poor, but I know, I’ve lived a privileged life.
Jack Jackson - April 8, 2017 12:22 pm
Sean, God bless You! I especially love this one! I love small towns.
GOD BLESS AMERICA !!!
Meggy - April 8, 2017 12:34 pm
“Once a Pace Patriot” always a Pace Patriot. My picture (class of 1985), along with my 2 older sisters (class of 1980 and 1981) and my younger brother (class of 1991) and my daughter (class of 2014) and my (soon to be-class of 2017) niece and nephew (class of 2014) are among those pictures on the wall. Thank you for this story.
Lisa Palmer - January 21, 2018 1:50 pm
I teach high school in Georgia, but in a medium sized city. I sure wish we could be this kind of school and be these kinds of teachers. But everything now is ruled by the almighty test score. Nothing else matters. It is so frustrating and I’m just counting the time until retirement. Our kids are really being short changed and teaching is no fun any longer.
Ashley Hendrickson - January 24, 2018 3:48 pm
This is wonderful! I grew up in Pace. Went to every school leading up to Pace High School. Needless to say, it has made me a Patriot for life! I will always cherish the time I had during my high school days. I take pride in the fact that I am from Pace. Thank you for your kind words, it helps us to realize how great we had it!
Jesse - March 20, 2018 3:24 pm
“Once a patriot, Always a patriot” graduating class of 2013. The best high school experience. I love my hometown.
N - March 20, 2018 11:28 pm
N - March 20, 2018 11:24 pm
I grew up here i went to school at pace thank you Sean been waiting for this!
April Jones - March 23, 2018 5:55 pm
Class of 1979! Once a patriot always a patriot!
Renee Gay Michael - March 24, 2018 6:16 am
Class of 1982…..once a Patriot ALWAYS a Patriot! I wouldn’t trade one day of my high school days! They are what shaped my future and one of the reasons why I work in an Elementary School now.