Hopkins County Ky Folk Lore

Hopkins County Folk Lore
Grade School in the 1950's

By Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin Eveland

Elementary School in the early nineteen fifties was considerably different than it is now. There were no vending machines, computers, or sex education classes held in our country school in the community of Charleston.

Coal Mining was Hopkins County's largest employer and nearly all the men I knew worked as miners. Women were stay at home Moms with a few exceptions. My mother, who was raising three young girls on her own after the death of our father, worked outside the home every day.

Charleston was a fairly large school at least in the eyes of a first grader. I can pass the old school now and remember thinking it took me ages to walk from one end of the hall to the other. That's right, I said hall, there was only one, and along this hall were all the class rooms, lunchroom, library and restrooms.

The bus came to my drive very bright and early each morning. Our house was the last stop before reaching the school and all the neighborhood kids who lived past me and behind me caught the bus at my driveway.

Our bus was a bus but was not a bus. It was a little cargo van painted bright yellow and was driven by, and for as long as I can remember, Mrs. Othella Sisk. I had to be on my best behavior because Othella went to our church and I just knew she would tell my Mom if I didn't behave. I don't know when she became Othella to me. She was always Mrs. Sisk back then. We were never allowed to call any elder by their first name unless it was a member of the family. We were taught never to take the liberty of using first names without that person's express permission, it was a matter of respect. There was always somebody watching me and Mrs. Sisk was added to my list of people to be careful of on my very first day of school. The bus had three wooden benches, two against the sides and one in the middle. I remember how the taller boys had to stoop to get inside and find their place on the bench. I was the smallest one at our stop, my short stature forced me to stand up in the front of the bus, taller people I was told, needed my seat. I would set my little book satchel down on the floor, lean my backside against the dash and screw up my face in self-pity for being the only one that had to stand up. I know I kept that scowl on my face for the first two years of school because that's how long I had to stand up. I'm still short and I have no doubt if I were riding that bus today I would be forced to stand at my old post holding onto the radio knobs to keep from falling.

I remember inching down the graveled drive in the rain. Being the tomboy that I was, I don't know why I had such an anti-muddy shoe regime going back then. I dreaded having my shoes caked with the ever-present mud when I went to school. It didn't bother me at home, I just kicked them off at the doorway knowing my Mom would do the cleanup job on them, and polish them with paste wax, and buff them to a high shine afterwards. School was a different story, even to a six-year-old.

The school had big mats in front of the doors and invariably some teacher would be standing there on guard just for rainy days. "Wipe those feet! Were you raised in a barn! Would you track mud into your own house like that!" There were only two sidewalks in front of the school, one lead from the front door past the gym, the other to the little parking lot by the highway. On rainy days, the sidewalks were full of students scraping mud from the soles of their shoes on the edges of those sidewalks.

Charleston was a high school and elementary school combined. There were no kindergarten classes at all. I remember how small, (all right, short) and intimidated I felt when I passed the high school boys lounging against the walls with their Wild Roots slicked back hair and white nylon jackets. There was always a comb sticking out of their back pockets. It seemed to me the only thing those boys showed any enthusiasm for at all was the constant combing of their hair. There they were, walking to class and combing their hair, sitting on the stage and combing their hair, coming out of the bathroom, again combing that hair. Now you know as well as I do that those guys had been standing in front of that bathroom mirror preening and combing in there. I suppose walking the few feet to the hallway door jarred a plastered lock or two out of place.

All the high school girls wore those nylon jackets too and if a boy and girl were sweet on each other, she got to wear his jacket everywhere, even home. We eyed their full skirts; bobby socks tucked into black and white saddle shoes and thought they were the coolest girls of any school. We wanted to be just like them.

Unfortunately, I, along with the rest of the young girls below the age of ten, was all decked out in little plaid or flowered dresses trimmed with Rick-Rack and bows. Bows were everywhere it seemed. Our hair was curled each night with pink rubber curlers clamped tight to our heads. In the mornings, the curls were brushed and a big bow would be placed right on top of our heads. Bows were on our blouses, dresses, shoes and sweaters, even little purses were decorated with bows. I was so glad when hair barrettes came into fashion.

We wore knee socks that matched our little dresses or anklets as they were called back then. Anklets were thin white socks turned down one flap. Bobby socks were worn also and they could be folded over two or three times. We wore saddle shoes or sturdy loafers. We were never, ever allowed to wear pants to school. We couldn't even sneak and change into pants after we left home. Teachers would have delivered a stern lecture and did so. A call to the parents was not unheard of either. Even on the coldest days, we wore dresses. Quite a few of the girls had to walk to school in the cold or rain. A few mothers, concerned for their daughters' welfare, dressed them warmly in pants but with a dress over them. As soon as they arrived at school, they fled to the bathroom, taking off the forbidden garments before class began. There was just no way the donning of "boys clothes" by a girl would be tolerated in those days. By the time we hit fourth grade, pants were worn by girls daily if they chose. The times, they were a changing but not in our first few years of school.

Our little male counterparts wore bluejeans with plaid button down shirts. T-shirts were undershirts and were worn under the shirt. The first accepted forms of T-shirts were called Polo Shirts. The shirts were always striped or the dreaded plaid squares. There were never slogans on the shirts and they were never white. In the winter, they wore little plaid flannel shirts. I don't recall seeing any small boys wearing sweaters in those first few years, but I'm sure if they had, the sweaters would have been plaid.

It seems that plaid was a big thing back then. Everywhere you looked plaid was the chosen pattern, especially in the fall and winter. In the spring, we changed to "flowered" schemes. Boys were in plaid shirts, green, red, brown, and navy blue. Girls paraded their plaid in jumpers, dresses, or wool pleated skirts. Female teachers were all decked out in plaid too. Even the stuffed bears some of us received at Christmas were donned with plaid bow ties or shirts. It was a plaid conspiracy I tell you.

To this day, I do not like plaid and never wear it, besides I was told it doesn't look good on short people. Anyway that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Do you think it was possible to become burned out on plaid during those early formative years, sensor overload occurring by the forced wearing of that hated pattern at least three times a week for years. Today I could call it child abuse and file some sort of paper within the court system. I could declare the constant wearing of plaid was responsible for my poor eyesight and the lowering of my self-esteem by taking away my right of individuality. Just think, I could have worn comfortable flannel like the boys every day of my school life and been a most happy child.

Upon entering the front door, boys removed their hats. On the right was the principle's office. If a boy entered without removing his cap, the principle was only too glad to call out to him loudly, without ever rising from his desk, "Get that cap off your head Son, you're indoors now!" THE OFFICE could also be a place of fear and dread if one ended up there for the wrong reasons. Our principle was Lewis Good. He was a spiffy dresser and I never saw a hair out of place for it was slicked down too. His suits were always perfectly tailored with coordinating ties and shirts. I remember his shoes the most of anything he wore. They were always polished to perfection and he wore many different kinds, a trait unheard of in most men back then. He was a smallish man but seemed ten feet tall to us and I was his pet.

Next to his office were the doors leading to the stage and gymnasium. That was the most fascinating place of all for the young children. This was no man's land for us, reserved for the high school boys and girls. They ate lunch on the stage, they practiced basketball in the gym, it was no place for little kids, and we were unceremoniously kicked out if we ventured into their domain. There was a glorious piano sitting there where the glee club practiced and little stubby fingers just loved to tickle the ivories. We always managed to get in a thump or two before we were banished. The school colors were blue and white and heavy blue velvet drapes could be drawn across the stage from each side. Often a few of us stubborn little kids, incensed at the treatment we were receiving, would hide in the depths of those drapes, eavesdropping on the very snobs that banned us from their throne room.

High school plays were performed here and the crowning of the Halloween Queens and Kings, not to mention the biggest night of all, the crowning of the Basketball Queen. It was sacred ground not to be treaded upon by little girls in bows and boys wearing button down shirts.

The gymnasium was an awesome cavern during our first year in school. Eventually the day to day familiarity with it depleted the splendor of the waxed boards and the tallest basketball hoops we had ever seen. If the weather was bad outside, playtime was spent in the gym. We had to remove our shoes, which was all the better. Shooting across the floor, we ran as fast as we could. At the centerline upon the floor, knees locked into place as we slid for a yard on two on white downy socks, waving our arms to keep in balance. The child who slid the farthest was declared the winner. Basketballs would be brought out with boys and girls alike shooting free throws at the hoops.

The bleachers were across the gym from the stage. The wall to the right of the stage was the entrance and ticket door for games and school functions. The opposite wall was just one of concrete with a small space behind the goal for running from the hall to the bleachers. Above the bleachers was the Bear Cat box. Here the scores of vying basketball teams were lit up on the big clock above the box. Dressing rooms and showers for visiting teams and our own Bear Cats Basketball Team were located beneath the bleachers. These rooms were revered not for the dressing rooms they were, but for the site of the annual Halloween "crazy house" staged in those very rooms every year.

The crazy house was a big draw at our yearly Fall Festivals. These days, the houses are called "Spook Houses, Haunted Castles and Houses of Horror" but back then they were known all over the county as Crazy Houses. Mental asylums were also called crazy houses but had a completely different meaning of course. To gain permanent admission to a Crazy House one had to be "crazy" in the first place. To gain admission to our house beneath the bleachers, first you had to pay a dime to enter, and it helped business if one appeared scared crazy upon leaving it, which usually required no stretching of the imagination.

I remember one year the theme was Frankenstein's Haunted Laboratory. Pronounced as Boris Karloff called it, the La bor a tory. Only two or three persons could visit at a time. Upon descending the darkened stairs, one was met with fiendish purple and red lights, glowing dim and faint. A hideous creature wearing a black cape appeared to take you on the tour. A black hood covered his head and partially concealed the skeleton mask worn beneath it. Ha ha, we thought, this isn't scary at all. First, we were led to the lab table where spare parts for the monster were kept. The guide took each of our hands and thoroughly doused them in a bowl of mushy brains and blood. Next, we were shown a bowl of extra eyes for the Frankenstein monster in case he should lose one of his. A small flashlight covered in red paper beamed upon a mound of glistening eyeballs. We were forced to touch these slimy things also and thus we shuddered and trembled. A headless body was draped upon a chair where Christmas tree lights illuminated the scene in an eerie shade of blue. As we were led past the body, it suddenly sprang from its chair and seized us, pulling on arms and shaking our shoulders while horrible moans escaped beneath its robe. We screamed! Out and out terror took over. Nothing could hold us back now! We ran screaming to the opposite stair case, ready to vacate these rooms of horror forever! Oh no, the stairway was blocked. Forced to stop running at this point, a pale spotlight suddenly directed our gaze towards the opposite wall. There hung a white ghoulish head with black mouth agape, bodiless; it swung upon the curtains. The head thrust itself from the draperies and yelled, "My body, where is my body"! That's all it took. We ran, frenzied and screaming, back through the crazy house and up the stairs, taking them in three giant leaps! We shot out of that stairway like Fourth of July bottle rockets.

Years later when we were the high schoolers who "put on" the crazy house, we learned that the blood and brains were bowls of canned spaghetti and meatballs. The extra monster eyes were actual fish eyes gathered from recent fishing trips having been saved for just this purpose.

Across the hall was the library. A rather small room now that I look back on it but a world full of books that I could not enter let alone read. It too was for high school kids. Mr. Good's wife taught English and Literature here. She was as big as he was small. We used to snicker behind little grubby hands when we saw them standing together and wondered if she made him walk the line like she did us. I was not her pet. Your mother had to attend PTA meetings for that to happen.

The school lunchroom was a long rectangular room that was once a storage closet or so they say. The cooks only had to turn around to stir the soup on the stove or put their hands into dishwater at the sink behind them. We children lined up in the hallway and were given our trays of food. The ladies that ran the lunchroom were Dicey Menser and Ollie Hale when I was in grade school. They made the best homemade vegetable soup there ever was and I have yet to find the equal of it. When my children were enrolled in this same school there was a new kitchen and cafeteria further down the hall. Not once while visiting the school on some errand or other did I ever pass the old lunchroom without craving a bowl of Dicey's soup.

Ironically right next to the little kitchen was the girl's one and only bathroom. It was a big room to us and had at least three or four stalls. My first years in that bathroom consisted of plunking myself down on the toilet seat and discovering that I couldn't reach the curtain that drew across the stall. For some reason I could never remember to pull it shut before I sat down. Over the sink was a mirror and there were always big girls clamoring for room. Putting on lipstick, powdering a nose, combing hair, it was a busy spot. Often we little girls had to squeeze between them and the sink to wash our hands. Their conversation never halted while lips were painted the newest color craze, they never knew that a little girl was washing her hands and listening in on secret conversations right under their noses. We heard and we told EVERYTHING! Those conversations were our secret weapon against the big kids. Running for our lives when being chased from the hallowed confines of the STAGE, we would shout back in sheer spite, "We know who you love! Ruthie loves Billy! Ruthie loves Billy! And we're gonna tell him. And so we did.

Our first grade class was further down the hall on the right. There were no desks for us to sit at that first year. There were long tables placed in the tiny room and we hung our coats on hooks sticking from the walls. One of my first teachers was Miss Gleora Poe and I dearly loved her. I sat next to my boyfriend Larry, who was a whole 3 months older than I. He and I held hands beneath the table and turned the pages of our reading books with one hand. The students read "Run Jane Run" and wrote ABC's on wide lined paper using huge, fat pencils that were easy to hold in our small mitts. The pencil sharpener was usually attached to the teacher's desk. When playtime was near, we kids were like ants in a bed of hot ashes. The trimmer was kept busy by students too restless to sit still any longer.

The day started with a prayer from the teacher. Each student had a Bible verse to repeat aloud. We stood each day placing hands upon hearts, orally reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag. Although we didn't have religious instruction per se, it was part of our school life in a subtle way that needed no declarations. The teachers and principles prayed before every school function, the basketball team prayed before each game, the Ten Commandments were posted on our class room walls.

Mrs. Anne Fitzpatrick, a retired teacher now living in McAllen, Texas had this to say about her teaching days. "Classroom public schools before the mid sixties was quite a different educational experience for both students and teachers. The private schools and the home schools are turning out future citizens with the old respect for God, country and fellowman. It is the Golden Rule that has not been demonstrated and taught well in the past few decades which seems to be missing." Anne, I could not agree with you more.

Playtime was the best part of the day. We had to leave the classroom in an orderly fashion but once we were past the doors, order was dumped on the steps. We had no playground equipment to speak of, only a few old swings attached to hollow iron pipes. They had been painted black but pieces of rust still stuck our hands and punctured our fingers. There were a few seesaws mounted on the same kind of iron pipes nearby. The girls played Drop the Handkerchief, Ring Around the Rosy and Tag, which we played with the boys. We teased and chased, ran and played Hopscotch without a care in the world. It took a long time for the teacher to round us up when playtime ended. Our teachers lost patience with us and only as the threats from them grew serious did we line up for the procession back inside.

Some of the more unruly kids were punished for improper behavior. This behavior could be anything from not paying attention to the teacher or talking in class. A little chair was placed in the hall and the unruly student was made to sit there for the entire world to see, sometimes with a sign hanging from the neck to announce the crime. Another little point of getting the student's attention was to stand them in a corner for a brief period of time with their face to the wall. If the student sassed the teacher, the ruler was brought out. At this point the entire class became absolutely still and quiet. Usually the offender managed to have a grin upon his face projecting bravery to his companions. The ruler was slapped hard and sharp upon his hand. Most boys never cried and if they did, were instantly dubbed sissies for a week afterwards. One thing was for sure, that grin of bravery wasn't shining nearly so brightly after the palm slapping was over.

More serious punishments were brought about by disobedience to the teacher, fighting with other students, cursing, or some other comparable act. At these times the teacher would bring out the big gun, the dreaded PADDLE. It was about ten inches long with a short handle and showed three holes bored into the length of it. We were very familiar with it as it lay upon the teacher's desk every day. Punishment took place in front of the class as a warning of what could happen to us if we were so inclined to act this foolishly ourselves. The perpetuator was made to bend over the table. After the first lick from the paddle, hands flew to the backside. The kid had to cry, it seemed to be a requirement. If he didn't cry, the teacher gave him an extra swat or two. It usually only took three or four strikes of the paddle to bring about the desired results. Worse yet, when the child got home, his backside was spanked again by his father for misbehaving in class. I must say that neither our parents nor we ever thought of yelling child abuse. It was a way of discipline that we were all very familiar with. When in the fourth grade several girls including myself, repeatedly defied our teacher's instructions and kept passing notes during class, each of us had our hair yanked by the teacher. Children learned to have respect for authority and that our actions called for certain consequences.

The older a child was determined the severity of his punishment. I have seen boys in one of our high school classes and from one teacher only, receive open handed slaps to the face for cheating on tests or back talking. His usual form of punishment was to expel the kid from the classroom for that period. While I do not approve of slapping as a form of correction at all, this teacher was one of the most respected, not only respected, but also one of the most loved teachers there.

In only a few cases did I see a child actually physically abused. That was from another teacher many years later and that person had to deal with very irate fathers on several occasions, and rightly so.

I dearly loved school and have only best memories of my grade school years except for a few occasions. On one of these occasions a normally loving and giving teacher did something to a student that to this day is burned into my memory forever.

There was a student, a boy, in our third grade class. He was from a very poor home where the many children in his family went hungry most of the time. He never had clean clothes to wear and they were always dirty with smeared stains upon stains covering them from front to back. I remember him as being so skinny and his uncut hair hung in strings around his ears. The free lunches he received at school were often his only meal of the day as we heard years later. His shoe was held together on one occasion by a cord tied around the sole and over the toe. He tried in vain to fit in with us. He promoted himself as protector of the girls on the playground especially me, as we were distant cousins although I never knew him until that year in class. I had known of him and his siblings but had never been inside his home or even knew where he lived. He would tell whatever older boy or girl I was arguing with or teasing that he or she had better make tracks or they would be answering to him, and the kid would do just that. If any one of us girls was being treated unfairly, or just thought we were, all we had to do was yell and Lee would come running to our rescue. Boys had nothing to do with him except one other boy who was nearly as poor as he was.

The incident took place during the period of Health and Hygiene that day. As the teacher warmed to her task she pointed out Lee as an example of how improper care of our teeth could cause them to be rotten and decayed. Again she lectured on the need for cleanliness and used him as an example. You are not going to believe what happened next. Our teacher sent one of the boys to fill the big can with water that was normally used for cleaning the blackboard. Sitting the can upon her desk, she produced a washcloth and bar of soap from her desk. Then she called Lee forward. She stripped off his ragged shirt exposing bony ribs sticking through skin so pale it looked like paste. She washed him in front of the entire class. She made him bend over the can and as she sudsed and rinsed his hair. She scrubbed his neck, face, and ears, all the time continuing with the lesson on hygiene as if he was a chalk doll she was demonstrating on. The big gap toothed smile never left Lee's face as she scoured his long thin arms, back and chest. Oh yes, the smile stayed glued to his face but those big green eyes looked only at the floor. The teacher told him he was old enough to wash his own clothes in a creek if he didn't have a washtub, that there was no excuse for a boy of ten years old to come to school so filthy.

The rest of us sat unsmiling and completely stunned at the scene taking place before us. Even the smart mouthed boys who usually laid in wait for such an opportunity were frozen in their seats, speechless. What could we say, what could we have done? We were just children ourselves. My mother said she shouldn't have done it. Other parents told their kids the same thing but as far as I know not one person protested the humiliation a little boy was made to suffer that day. A teachers conduct inside the classroom was rarely questioned in those days, at least not publicly.

I have no doubt at all when I say this teacher was a good person never realizing, at least that day, what embarrassment she caused a child to bare. I have no doubt that her actions were not based upon humiliating him purposely but rather on teaching the class and him the value of good health. I don't think it ever crossed her mind on that day so long ago that she had taught us an even bigger lesson than hygiene, that underneath those ragged clothes and dirty skin was a person, a self, a soul just like the rest of us. I have to thank her for inadvertently teaching me this lesson. I have not always acted upon it, but have never, ever forgotten it.

Lee and his son were killed several years ago in a freak accident on Hwy. 109 just about a mile from his old school. I never told him how badly I felt for him that day in third grade class. I never told him how I wanted to yell at that teacher to stop it for God's sake! And I never thanked him for protecting me on the playground. I've always felt that I should have. The actions of that day have stayed in my mind all these years. Each time I pass the spot where he died, I think of it. I can't tell him to his face now but maybe somewhere up there, through whatever powers there may be, he knows I'm sorry there was no one there to "take up for him" when he needed it. I never told him that at all, but I should have.

Lessons were learned in the classroom for sure but school has a way of teaching us about life as well. Somewhere down the line those lessons will come forward no matter how deeply they are buried in our sub-conscious minds or how long ago it was we learned them. We learned the three R's, learned how to socialize with others, learned responsibility by doing our homework correctly and on time, learned of far away places in the world that we never knew existed. We acquired a thirst for knowledge about other people on the planet, their customs and beliefs. We learned that America was the greatest nation on earth and it still is to me. We learned that whatever we did, we could expect to see the harvest from it, good or bad. Most of us learned to take responsibility for our actions. Yes, we learned; we leaned discipline, teamwork, and respect for our elders.

What we also learned in school was that bias and ignorance did exist among us all, young and old alike. We must take what we have learned, dig it out from beneath years of memories, stressed minds and the day to day job of just living. We must bring those lessons to the surface again. The lessons we were taught of respect, God, and country, were not just for living in the fifties, they were lessons for both students and teachers and they remain tools for living now.

As we recall the experiences of our early school days, it is easy to remember the faces, the sights and smells of a new world of activities; it is good to remember all the fun we had in those childhood days. Let us also remember the other lessons of life we have learned there as well, that life is not perfect and there are no perfect people, that clothes do not make the man or the child and that respect for each other happens to be a very big deal. It was then and it should be now.

Copyright 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland



  Nancy Trice, © 2000