The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

One-Room School Days

By Sophia Servis © 1990

Issue: September, 1990

Forest Oak School, Carroll County, Virginia.Forest Oak School, Carroll County, Virginia.September was the time for starting back to school in my early years. The morning air was nippy and the leaves had begun to crunch beneath our feet as we walked a mile and a half to catch an old school bus that was barely held together by bailing wire and epithets. Our destination was one of the last little one room school houses in Virginia.

Tucked away in the rolling hills of Carroll County, Virginia, Forest Oak School set on a small hill surrounded by grounds that had only an occasional tuft of grass. Its grounds joined that of a little white church where they shared not only the same name, but the same outdoor toilets.

The building consisted of two identical rooms, but only one was used. It was a large room with no electricity, filled with two seater bench seats with a desk attached to the back in which if one person wiggled, it set off a chain reaction. There were great high ceilings which made it difficult to heat in the winter with the single pot bellied stove. To our backs was a row of large windows extending the length of the room which let in the only light, but also the cold winter wind. Facing us was a large blackboard which ran the length of the room and was wide enough for both the shortest and tallest student to work on comfortably.

The cloak room was a dark, narrow room that ran the width of the building. It had pegs to hang our coats on one side and a shelf with a water cooler on the other. Everyone brought his own glass for drinking, but since almost everyone brought empty snuff glasses which were identical, no one knew whose glass he drank from anyway.

The older boys filled the water cooler each day with water from the spring of a neighboring farm. There they were greeted by the most ferocious sounding two and a half legged dog that one ever saw. The story goes that he had gotten in the way of a horse-drawn mowing machine and lost not only his legs, but his disposition. Therefore, the boys were a little more tolerant of him in their sympathy, but they were never quite sure if today would be the day he would carry out all his ferocious threats and take one of their legs off.

We were spewed forth from the smoking groaning bus with our lunches of jelly biscuits and apples in an empty syrup bucket clutched in our hands. The girls were dressed in new back to school dresses; often made of chopsack print and the boys were in stiff new bibbed overalls. Almost everyone sported new brown brogue shoes which pinched at the heels and felt extremely clumsy on feet that had been free of the cumbersome bother of shoes all summer.

Our teacher, Mrs. Noblett, was always a welcome sight after summer vacation. She was more than a mere teacher to us. She was extended family in our little community. She soothed our tears, doctored our cuts and bruises and taught us our manners and proper deportment along with our three R's. And if we got too far out of line, she spanked our bottoms with a ping-pong paddle.

We welcomed our day with the Lord's Prayer and a few songs. My favorites were the black spirituals, but we also sang patriotic songs and old favorites such as "Clementine" and "You Are My Sunshine."

Our workday differed from other students in that Mrs. Noblett worked out a system whereby older students helped younger students when they were free to do so. The math problems were worked on the blackboard with fellow classmates and sometimes upper-classmen helping if the one working the problem got stuck. It was a great feeling to be able to help someone else and the students were never allowed to ridicule or embarrass another for something he didn't understand. It was a much more familial setting than in consolidated schools and learning was made easier under Mrs. Noblett's tutelage.

During our free periods we jumped rope on a red clay dirt ground which was the bane of our mothers on wash day. When we tired of that we might play dare base or dodge ball with a ball that had long since gone flat. The older children were usually occupied with a game of five-catch-one, as they didn't have enough to make up a team for soft ball.

When school was out in the afternoon we dragged tired, sore feet homeward. Our path led us by the house of an elderly neighbor, Molly. Most days, as long as the weather permitted, Molly was sitting in her rocking chair on the front porch crocheting. There was an open invitation to help ourselves to the apples beneath their trees knowing that our lunch calories had long since been burned up. Molly always had funny anecdotes to share with us and I loved to hear her laugh. She had a cackle that I was sure sounded just like a witch laugh. Our visits with Molly were brief as we had chores awaiting us at home and homework to do in preparation of another school day tomorrow.

Forest Oak School closed its doors for the last time in May of 1952. The students were consolidated with Woodlawn Elementary School. The old building has been used for the storage of hay.