D. Ray Hill says he grew up in a small place about three hours south of Atlanta whose claim to fame is its title as the Peanut Capital of the World.
That’s not true.
He grew up in the back seat of a brown 1976 Caprice Classic.
Each year, Hill’s family — dad Frank, mom Frankie, Hill and his twin sister Fay — piled into that Caprice Classic for another adventure. The world awaited them.
Frank was a truck driver with only an eighth-grade education. Frankie made it through 11th grade. “But they were smarter than what everybody figured,” Hill said Thursday morning. “It was just the times that they grew up in.”
Frank wanted Ray and Fay to see what he saw — a world much grander than their hometown of Sylvester, Ga., a world of splendor and sites and wild differences. Today, D. Ray Hill is the new superintendent of Anniston City Schools, where classes began this week.
“I’m not going to say my parents were poor, but I can tell you that I don’t think we were rich,” Hill said, laughing. “But we did things. My mother and father stretched. We got in the car, we packed sandwiches, we drove to different places, we took vacations out of state. It’s stuff like that, that’s how we expose our kids.”
Fueled by gasoline and homemade sandwiches and truck-stop visits, Frank and Frankie took the twins anywhere roads would go. The options were limitless. And, “I’ll never forget (that Caprice Classic) because that was my car in high school,” Hill said. He laughed, again. “I remember having an eight-track tape player in there because my dad loved music.”
They drove to nearby places like Florida. But they also traveled to faraway sites Frank saw while driving his rig. And they never flew. Distances didn’t matter.
They drove to Mexico.
They drove to the Grand Canyon.
They drove to the Hoover Dam.
The drove to the Petrified Forest National Park.
They drove to see the redwood forests in California.
After Ray and Fay left for college, Frank and Frankie took their youngest son, Robby, to Alaska.
That’s right, they drove from Sylvester, Ga., to Alaska. And back. That’s roughly 8,000 miles, round trip.
The amount of time the Hill children spent in the back seat of that brown 1976 Caprice Classic is staggering.
“I remember they would wake us up and say, ‘Hey, hey, hey, let us show you all this — look, look, look,’” Hill said. They bought a blanket on one of their trips; Frank and Frankie kept it for decades. Hill, then a child, bought a sombrero while in Mexico; Frank and Frankie didn’t discard it until a few years ago.
The memories — the education of a youngster’s mind — haven’t faded.
“It showed me there was a lot more out there than I was accustomed to seeing every day,” Hill said. “Think about it.
“It’s access. If our kids don’t see anything but the borderlines of Anniston, what do they have?”
If you want to know anything about the man now piloting Anniston’s often-criticized schools, this is it.
Yes, he values transparency and openness and civic partnerships and empowering his principals and teachers. He isn’t a non-traditionalist. He wants more algebra and foreign-language classes. He wants to add a violin program to the elementary schools. He wants to ramp up the system’s work-training programs for students hungry for paychecks. He wants to revive the high school’s drama program.
He sees opportunities while acknowledging the roadblocks — Anniston’s poverty, Anniston’s racial divisions, even the concerns about the system’s financial stability. If you care for Anniston and its students, pray that the city’s political headaches don’t beat him down.
But it’s experiences and opportunities, lessons that transcend and transform, that he resolutely values. He’s never far from the back seat of that Caprice Classic. He recalls that his parents “just wanted us to be exposed” to the world, to see what’s there and what’s possible.
Years ago, as principal at North Clayton High School in Georgia, he helped arrange a trip for 35 or so students to attend Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.
You can imagine him today climbing into an Anniston City Schools bus, filling it with students and taking them on their own adventures, adventures fueled by financial partnerships from a business community reinvested in Anniston’s schools. An education for life to go along with an education from the classroom.
“Exposure is my biggest thing for our kids,” he said. “I have so many things I want to do.”