Buckhead Tales: The Grand Experiment

On October 4, 1957 an event occurred that brought Buckhead, and the rest of the free world, into the iron grip of The Big Fear. That was the date that Russia launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite into orbit. It was a Friday, Dwight Eisenhower was president, and I was 6 years old.

I had been raised in the post-World War II paradigm that the USA was sitting in the cat bird’s seat. We had it going on. You know the story. We had never lost a war and had invented everything from zippers to the cotton gin. Hell, even God was on our side. Any threats were minimal and only came from those races on the other side of the globe that didn’t have any better sense than to challenge us. No way was any country going to push us around. We were a polite sort, but everyone knew we had the Big Bomb and wouldn’t hesitate to use it. So, all those foreign folks just needed to stay cool and let us eat our Cracker Jacks and watch Winky Dink in peace. 

Don’t mess with Uncle Sam. 

We had a red button we could push just about any ole’ time we wanted.

Russian Satellite Sputnik

Overnight the launch of Sputnik 1 ended that charade. With one stroke everyone knew that Russia had beaten us to space. Even my mom talked about it being a big deal. I remember her saying, “Jimmy, they could be looking at us right now!” All of the adults were freaked out. They had believed the propaganda that the USA was untouchable, and we would forevermore be first in everything. Now an event had occurred without warning and everything had to be reexamined. The dam had broken and we were in new territory fraught with risk. It was time to start digging those bomb shelters and have the kids practice “duck and cover.”

The USA had to get back to the drawing board, something had to be done and “right quick” as my grandfather used to say. And so “science” would become the Deliverer, or so we thought.

Almost overnight public schools pushed art and music courses out the window. What was needed was more science and math, and boy howdy, we needed it fast. Only the education of a new wave of students indoctrinated in equations and spatial algorithms could save the day and hold back the godless hordes across the sea. Just how fast could young children be accelerated in school and what were the most effective methods? 

So began the great social experiment of 1960 at Sarah Smith Elementary.

The question was this: if you combined 5th and 7th graders in one class what effect would it have on the students? Would the 5th graders in this mixed class leapfrog beyond their fellow students in another class that only contained 5th graders? And what about the 7th graders in the mixed class; would they be held back by the presence of 5th graders in their classroom? 

So, there had to be 3 classrooms in the experiment, one with 5th graders, one with 7th graders, and one mixed with an equal number of students from each grade. The experimental and control subjects were chosen, and the Grand Experiment was launched at Sarah Rawson Smith Elementary in the Atlanta suburb of Buckhead in September 1960.

I never thought at all about this until a few years ago when my buddy Marvin Jackson happened to mention we had been guinea pigs in a social experiment in 5th grade. At that moment the light bulb went off and it all made sense. To this day I have never heard of mixing students that were two years apart into one classroom. I wonder if our parents knew anything about this. Were they asked for permission on behalf of their children? What were they told about this abnormal mixing of young people? Did our teacher know? Did our principal, Mrs. Cannon, know? Was this same study being conducted at other schools across the country? Maybe in some dusty old file at the Atlanta Board of Education those records and data still exist. I don’t know. I doubt if we will ever know. 

Now, this was during the Cold War which was a wild, strange, and dark time. Actions were taken that were to affect all levels of public and private education. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958 to ensure that education supported “defense needs.” This was the culmination of a long-term propaganda campaign that convinced me, by the age of 10, that the Russians were evil. Hell, they didn’t believe in God. We sure believed in God, after all, hadn’t the Pledge of Allegiance been altered in 1952 to include the words “Under God”? That Cold War time hit me with nonstop stream of orchestrated political and cultural beliefs that found their mark within me. I might not have been brainwashed, but I sure was dry cleaned. 

Give me a slide rule and an American flag and I’m ready to go to fight the Good Fight.

Recently I happened to dig out that class photo of the 5th and 7thgrade combined class and realized something was missing. It was Mrs. Blackwell, our teacher. In every class photo I ever had the teacher is always present, but not in this one. Maybe she knew what was going on and her absence was the only way she could signal she didn’t approve of what was going on. I don’t know. The truth of what happened almost 60 years is lost to the passage of time. I can’t remember too much of what it was like to be in that class, but I do recall a few things. I remember feeling special to be chosen, being allowed to use an ink pen when I did arithmetic, and that I was teamed up with a 7th grader in a “buddy system.” 

Test subjects of the Grand Experiment. Author on the front row, extreme right.

Truth is, I don’t know what was really going on. At the time I knew something different was occurring, but I didn’t fully understand. It reminds me of that line from Bob Dylan, “You know something is going on, but you don’t know what it is.”

Sometimes we are the puppets and sometimes we are the ones pulling the strings. At times it is easy to tell what is true but all too often the White Knight is talking backwards. During that turbulent time long ago my mom’s response to all the Cold War fear and propaganda was simple; “Just give us a story that is easy to believe. If we knew the truth we would all go crazy. Just don’t expect us to believe that the moon is made of cheese.”


Jim Tate
Author, Buckhead Tales
jimtate@charter.net