The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Olden Golden Rule Days - Part 1 of 6

By Virginia Webb Mitchell © 1985

Issue: September, 1985

This is the start of a column that will run for the next several months about different aspects of old timey schools - from recess to spelling bees. We hope you enjoy it.

Genealogical research has revealed to me that many of my ancestors and relatives were school teachers (my father, his father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather, numerous aunts, uncles and cousins), teaching in one-room and two-room schools in the southwestern section of Virginia and sometimes in the northwestern North Carolina area. These dedicated souls surmounted many obstacles in pursuit of their teaching careers. The automobile had not yet supplanted horse-drawn vehicles, making travel a hardship in order to obtain the necessary education. I have often heard my father recount his feelings of determination and the many miles he walked because of his choice of a teaching vocation.

After obtaining their teaching certificates, many of these teachers found it necessary to move for the winter into the community in which they taught, usually boarding with a family residing within a proximity of the schoolhouse. If these teachers did not board in the home of a family, then they had to take with them, amongst other things, their food provisions for the entire winter.

I have always enjoyed hearing stories about lifestyles of yesteryears and often begged my parents to tell me about the "olden days" when they were young. I was to regret my choice of words later when my own children began to preface their queries about my youth with this same expression. Their questions were pretty much the same as mine: "...did they have cars? ...did they have radios?" Wincingly, I could imagine my progeny visualizing me in a covered wagon or stagecoach. I recall in particular an instance when my daughter went to utter extreme (making me feel like a prehistoric creature) when she asked "Back in the olden days when you were a little girl, did they have grass?" And she didn't mean marijuana or "pot!" (The kind of pot we used, you couldn't smoke.)

At any rate, such queries no longer put me on the defensive, so for those members of succeeding generations who might wish to envision what it was like for those of us who did attend the country grade school, it gives me much pleasure to share with you my version and my memories of "back in the olden days…"

I consider myself fortunate to have been among those students whose first introduction to education was in those one-room and two-room schools. A testimonial of our teachers, I quote with her permission, the words of cousin Irene, "We emerged from those schoolrooms without suffering from an identity crisis or lack of self esteem; we knew who we were and we were not afraid. Most, if not all, of us came from hard working families and we, in turn, expected to work hard after we were through school. I doubt that many of these students encountered difficulty on their jobs because of a fear of or an unwillingness to work." I also doubt that many later expended time or money on psychotherapy in order to cope with life.

In these schools (during the 1930's and early 1940's), we didn't have computers, video tape instructors, movie or slide projectors, carpeting, central heating, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, auditoriums, libraries, gymnasiums, paved playgrounds or tennis courts, baseball or football fields. But we did have more freedom, more fresh air, much less playground supervision, and the privilege of making more decisions for ourselves. Some of these decisions, my brothers, sisters and I have since concluded, were not necessarily the best ones, as evidenced by our mother's prematurely gray hair (which turned white after we grew up and confessed other decisions' to her). She was stunned to learn that she could have been so disillusioned; she had always thought us to be model children.