The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Olden Golden Rule Days - Part 5 of 6

By Virginia Webb Mitchell © 1986

Issue: January, 1986

Boy students constantly carved their initials onto the desk tops, making desktop writing with paper an impossibility. We had to cushion our paper to make our writing legible because of all the ridges on the surface of the desk. Each desk accommodated two students. Tardiness posed no problem for the teacher on the first day of school; the student arrived early so that he would have ample time to choose his own "desk-mate" and not be obliged to sit out the school year beside an undesirable co-occupant. Despite these efforts, it was inevitable that spats would and did occur during the year. The offended student would then move abruptly to a more compatible location until differences could be resolved amiably.

I encountered no such problem in the upper grades, because I had the good fortune to share a desk with cousin Arlee. We did a lot of silent communicating with our own set of facial expressions and grimaces, which, in turn, produced a lot of giggling. And we engaged in a plethora of note writing. To our horror, a few of those notes fell into the wrong hands. Worse yet, into the hands of the teacher, who promptly read them to the entire room as we cringed in humiliation, dreading the teasing that surely would ensue during the next recess. Such episodes put a damper on our note writing for a while, but dauntlessly and surreptitiously we resumed our missives, cautiously using a manufactured language which was esoteric to us and unintelligible to others as insurance against further embarrassment.

If a student was caught fighting on the playground, he was usually confined to the classroom during the next recess. The school's penal system appeared to exempt female students from the paddle. As punishment, the girl student was made to stand in the corner with her nose in a ring drawn on the blackboard. For a girl with a lively imagination, this form of punishment was torturous; she felt the eyes of fellow students piercing her back as she read into the silence their many negative thoughts that probably never existed. This prolonged form of chastisement seemed to me to be more excruciating and more devastating than the application of the paddle. If I had had my "druthers," I would have preferred the paddling which was briefly painful, quickly over with, and sooner forgotten. Whenever a boy student did receive a paddling for some disorderly act, a death-like silence descended, permeating the atmosphere of the classroom for the balance of the day.

Somewhere between the blackboard and the stove stood a long bench which was used to seat the students as classes were called up alternately to the back of the room. We faced the teacher as we recited our lessons. We spelled from spellers, read from readers, repeated the multiplication tables until we knew them "by heart." We were drilled in grammar, learned something about history and geography, and, in some instances, I fear, learned to "mispronounce" names of certain geographical locations so well that the mispronunciations are imbued within our memories for life!

The recitations of the upper classmen always seemed to hold a fascination for the younger students. While pretending to be busy about their lessons, these younger students did a lot of eavesdropping, assimilating much of the advanced teaching. In later years, repetition of these lessons reinforced what the student had been exposed to previously. As a result, these classrooms produced many students who had little trouble with reading, spelling, etc., as they went on to higher levels of schooling.

In the cloak room, we hung our coats and hats, deposited our galoshes (overshoes) and our lunch pails (dinner buckets). These pails were not painted or fancy containers with Snoopy, nor did they contain thermos bottles (I doubt that we'd ever seen any). Ours were Kara Syrup and Jewel Lard buckets, sometimes with holes penetrating the lid to provide ventilation so that condensation of moisture would not cause our food to "sweat." These pails served a dual purpose; while we used them primarily to carry our lunches, we also used them to shield ourselves against the boys' favorite pastime of rock throwing. The resultant dents later helped us to identify our pails in the cloakroom.

We would have given our eye teeth for a sandwich made from yeast-risen loaf bread (light bread), but that delicacy was only available once a year at August Meeting (the annual two-day communion meeting of the Primitive Baptist Church). That loaf bread tasted better then than any cake or torte I've sampled since. Lunches usually consisted of homemade biscuits with apple butter, jelly or blackberry jam (which turned the baking powder biscuits to an unappetizing shade of blue). Those with biscuits considered themselves fortunate for some had only buckwheat cakes to eat. After the hogs were butchered, we feasted on pork tenderloin, pork chops and sausage.