The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

1927: Miss Essie's Seventh Grade Class

By Grace Cash © 1988

Issue: October, 1988

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

In 1927, I was twelve years old and in the Seventh Grade, not an ordinary seventh grade, but a grade that started with capital letters. That school year the big boys and big girls, who had dropped out of school in past years, came back to Miss Essie's room to get more education. Some came back who had completed seven grades, but wanted to review Arithmetic and English, needed for the jobs they hoped to get, now that the Chicopee Manufacturing Company had set up a big plant eight miles north of Chestnut Mountain. Other cotton mills were opening their doors to workers who didn't live in the villages. Several farm girls worked as housekeepers in the homes of public workers, and they got paid three dollars and board for each week's work.

The big boys and big girls were preparing for jobs and new clothes and Model-A Fords and Chevrolets. The regular ages of the sixth and seventh grade students ranged around eleven to thirteen years, but these older boys and girls were of marriageable age, and in normal times they would have already had the things they were striving, and hoping for in the future.

The consolidation in 1927 of Poplar Springs Seventh Grade School with Chestnut Mountain Tenth Grade School caused the seventh grade class to bulge, not to mention the return of the older boys and girls in our own community. The students filled Miss Essie's room till there was hardly seating room. We sat two at a desk, except in cases when a student had grown too big to share a seat with a classmate. The room was warmed by a potbellied stove, fired by wood the boys cut and brought in, an excuse to get out of the classroom. Most of the grown up girls were already spoken for, and they wouldn't ever be graduating from the tenth grade, and dressed in long white voile dresses and black velvet sashes and holding a bouquet of home grown lilacs in their arms, sitting there with the boys, dressed up in their Sunday suits, and some of the boy graduates stiff boned from plowing fields all day before coming to the schoolhouse for their graduation.

Whatever the ages of the schoolgirls, we were all fashion conscious. It was the style for grown up girls to wear billowy black bloomers and white middy blouses on the basketball court, and mothers stitched bloomer-dresses for their littlest girls on pedal sewing machines. Most of the bloomer-dresses were made from scraps of older sisters' dresses, usually cotton print, voile, percale, dimity, pongee, linen or rayon. The dress was buttoned down the back and reached halfway below the waistband for the matching bloomers, which bloused into narrow cuffs above the knees.

The older girls wore sateen bloomers of various colors. If they had been hung side by side on a clothesline, the shiny garments would have made a lustrous rainbow of colors: pink, blue, green, yellow, orange, red and purple. The word "bloomers" was a giggling word, and not mentioned in mixed company. Miss Essie got word that a boy student of hers said he knew the color of bloomers every girl in her class wore, and she called the girls together, and told us to wear skirts below the three row elastic band that served a dual purpose by covering our homemade elastic garters.

Yet there were times when there didn't seem such a great difference between boys and girls. One day a big boy and a big girl had a fight on the way home from school. Each threw the same number of flat rocks and each used about the same words (not in school books) and each flailed the other with angry clutched fists. The fight between school children called for a trial in Miss Essie's room the next day, but I got my orders at home that I was to say I hadn't seen anything.

The next day at the trial, Miss Essie standing at her desk, tried to act fair to both sides. She tried various ways to get the truth from any of us who had seen the fight. The big boy who sat at the desk in front of me hadn't seen the fight, but he knew I hadn't missed a fist blow, nor the whizzing of whatever roadside rocks were at hand, nor a word they called each other. He would die laughing every time Miss Essie asked me a direct question, and I just sat there and said I hadn't seen anything. Who started the fight and why, was never decided, and things went on as before.

In spite of all the pleasant things - school and church and square dances and couples falling in love and courting and getting married, and having babies, usually within a years time after the wedding, a private occasion in the presence of family and friends, and sometimes with only one witness the Justice of the Peace or the Preacher brought in - there were still lots of things to worry about. There was always the sick and ailing, and the old folks answering, when asked how they were getting along, 'Just tol'ble." There were the deaths of some, but it didn't come out in the Tri-Weekly unless the deceased was rich or famous, or had killed somebody or had been killed. The news came from the market places, and public gathering places, and from one person to another.

Sometimes school took a backseat to square dances, such as the one at a farmhouse where I went with my oldest sister and my brothers in 1927. We walked two miles on a cold December night, having no heavier clothes than short jackets and sweaters and the dresses we wore to school and church. I had on a navy wool serge dress with a pleated skirt. Mama made it from one of her outgrown dresses, and I wore my high topped shoes and black corded stockings. When there was a special occasion, like a dance, we got out the liquid shoe polish, and we gave our shoes a Sunday shine. The whole house smelled rancid of shoe polish, which we dipped into heavy to cover scuffed heels and toes, and to die a pair of strings, cut from raveled guano sacks, if the shoestrings had been knotted so many times they wouldn't hold the laces in place.

The people at the farmhouse had invited a lively string band, and the farmer known for being the finest of any when it came to calling sets at a square dance was there. The fiddlers played tunes like "Dixieland" and "Down Yonder," which was a fast number that set feet wild, stamping out dust from cracks in the oak lumber floor. When they played "Arkansas Girl," everybody would sing snatches of the song, 'Arkansas girl, won't you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight, Arkansas girl won't you come out tonight, and dance by the light of the moon."

Nobody noticed the dust, kicked up by dancing feet, not the picture of Calvin Coolidge, hanging on a nail on the wall. It was the only picture, but there was a calendar put out by a fertilizer company, which had a picture at the top of "December" - a picture for each month - and this one showed a young farmer in blue overalls and a hickory shirt and a ragged straw hat perched on the back of his head, stopping his plow stock, drawn by two mules, welcoming with a broad smile a girl in a rose printed dress and a field bonnet, come to bring him a bucket of water. All the furniture had been moved from the room, but a lighted kerosene lamp set on a corner table by the chairs where the fiddlers sat in a row.

When the set ended and it came time to change partner, the caller would order; "Partners in their places like horses in their traces!" Then the couples would fall in line around the room, and he would shout: "Put the bird in the cage; now the crow; your partner, boys; on to the next couple; four hands across, the ladies bow, now to the gents; back to your partners; and promenade home!" The sets would vary, and he revised and designed sets as he wished. The sets and figures were followed without a hitch.

The big shouldered man who called the sets had a strong speaking and singing voice, and he would sometimes sing, and just let the dancers whirl themselves around without pattern. When the band played "Dixieland" he sang out, in tune with the fiddlers' spirited music: "I wish I was in the land of cotton, Old times there are not forgotten, Look away, look away, Dixieland!, Then I wish I was in Dixie, Hoo-ray, hoo-ray!, In Dixieland I'll take my stand, To live or die in Dixie..., Away, away, away down south in Dixie, Away, away, away down south in Dixie, In Dixieland where I was born, Early on one frost morn', Look away, look away, Dixieland!" His singing made all of us happy. The last one of us, old and young, thought there was no place in the world like Dixie.

School came to an end in the early spring so we could all get out in the fields and plow and plant and hoe. That summer some of the big boys and the big girls got married to each other, or someone they met elsewhere. Others got jobs at the industrial plants, and married people they met there. Several girls got jobs clerking in stores at the county seat.

That fall none of the big boys, and none of the big girls, came back to the eighth grade, never to climb the steep flight of dark steps to the upstairs of the monstrously built three story school house, never to play basketball on rainy days in the lower half of the long hall, and go onto Latin and Algebra and Geometry in the other half, the high school classroom. Playing in the lower half of the upstairs was about all the girls got of basketball, except the quarter lunch hours when the principal sometimes forced the boys to allow our feet to touch the court.

None of that was to ever worry the big boys and big girls - not such trifling matters - on their way to getting "town jobs," and shopping on the town square for new clothes, and on to the side streets to buy shiny new cars. Whatever they learned in the seventh grade, they hadn't learned as much from their school books and from Miss Essie, as I had learned from them about what goes on in life outside of books.