During the twenty-five year tenure of Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins’s leadership as state school superintendent (1933-1957), Georgia schools went from seven to nine months of school. Having long times out when schools were closed for farm work was to be a thing of the past in Georgia. But memories of those times when farm work was coordinated with school sessions were a part of growing up on the farm. I recall how I started to the brand new building at Choestoe School in July of 1936, after “laying by” of crops when the summer session began.
“Time to get ready for school,” my mother gently shook my shoulder, awakening me.
Immediately I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Maybe I could beg off, tell her I felt ‘sick to my stomach’ and I wouldn’t have to go to school. It’s not that I didn’t want to go. I just dreaded the unknown. I liked staying home, the familiar places and routines. I liked watching my three-year old brother Bluford while Mother worked.
Things with which I was comfortable and familiar were about to change for an adventure called school. I reluctantly crawled out of bed, washed my face and eyes with the warm wet washcloth my mother handed me. Then I put on my new flowered dress with a white collar trimmed in rick-rack. Mother had made it especially for me to wear on my first day at school. It was a pretty “feed-sack” dress. My father had let me select the pattern of cloth on the feed bags when I went with him to the store to buy the feed. After the bags were empty of their contents and carefully laundered and ironed, then my mother cut out my dress and made it on her Singer treadle-powered sewing machine. I felt very dressed up. It would be interesting to see if any of the other girls at school would have a dress made from the same pattern of cloth as mine. If that happened, it would be all right, for we all knew that our mothers made use of feed sacks to fashion our wardrobes.
After a breakfast of oatmeal, scrambled egg, bacon, biscuits, gravy and a glass of milk, I was well fed and ready to leave for school after brushing my teeth. My mother walked the mile with me on this first day to get me used to going to school. After talking to my teacher, Mrs. Mert Collins, probably giving her information about my birthdate, my mother left. It was not long until Miss Opal Sullivan, the teacher of the upper grades, and considered the principal, too, rang a bell she held in her hands, the signal that “books” (as I learned the term later) or school-time was to begin.
We lined up in two rows in front of our beautiful, brand new Choestoe School building that had just been finished by men of the community working hard on it. This new building replaced a very old two-stories, two-room building that had served the community for years, with an upstairs where the Lodge met. The old building had been torn down to make way for the new one. The new schoolhouse had two rooms and was only one-story. One room was for grades Primer through third, and one for grades four through seven. Each room also had a “cloak” room, a small anteroom where, in wintertime, we hung our coats on pegs, with book shelves for textbooks built in one end of the room, and a low shelf running the length of the room on which we set our lunch pails we had brought with us.
Once inside, a sense of excitement prevailed. Mrs. Mert kindly showed each of the pupils where we were to sit by grades, although the size of the desks helped with that seating arrangement. The primer/first grade desks were smaller than those of the second and third graders. She explained that we were to go to the recitation bench alongside her teacher’s desk when we were having our lesson. When it was not our time to recite (I learned that meant to read or do our numbers), we were to work quietly at our desks, practicing our letters and numbers or reading quietly. She opened a cabinet in one corner of the room up front. She explained that it had additional books that we could get—one at a time—and take to our seat to read. She encouraged us to do this, assuring the primer/first graders that we, too, would soon know how to read.
And then class began. We stood and said the pledge of allegiance to the United States flag which was at the front of the room, in a little stand. Mrs. Mert (as she wanted us to call her) read a Psalm from the Bible and led in a prayer. And the first graders were called first to go up to the bench to begin learning how to read. Some of my classmates did not know the alphabet and the sounds associated with each letter, but I already knew my letters and their sounds. In fact, the little “Dick and Jane” reader Mrs. Mert gave us seemed so simple to me. I had already learned to read at home. My older sister, Louise, and my brother, Eugene (who were already in high school and met the bus at Morris Ford to ride it to Blairsville), had helped me with reading. So had my mother and father. I could already read straight through the Primer Reader. Mrs. Mert must have wondered what she would do with me to keep me on task and working. But I was to learn that she was attuned to pupils and had a good grasp of how to meet their needs.
When she showed us the books cabinet at the front of the room, I made a personal resolution to read all the books in that cabinet, one at a time, until I had read through all of them during the three years I was in this first through third grade classroom. That small library in the corner of our classroom held such a fascination for me that I was never bored while in that room. Later, to bolster our desire to read, Mrs. Mert made a reading chart with each pupil’s name. As we finished a book, and satisfied her that we had read it by giving an oral or a written report, she would place a star after our name.
We had a mid-morning short recess for water (we brought our own glass from home) and rest room break (outside toilets, one for girls and one for boys fulfilled this need). Then came more lessons, and at noon, we had a longer break. We took our tin lunch pails, got water in our glass from the water bucket in the cloak room (Mrs. Mert poured it so we wouldn’t spill it and make a wet mess), and then went outside to find a seat under the shade of the trees. In my lunch pail Mother had packed a piece of boiled corn and a baked sweet potato, a biscuit with bacon, and a piece of gingerbread. This fare was sufficient and would do until I went home in mid-afternoon when a snack would surely await me. Lunch break was a longer time. The upper grades played a game of ball. Some pupils laid off a hop-scotch form on the ground and played that in competition. We younger children had pretend games, made a playhouse under the trees, or played tag. No playground equipment was available for use. We made our own games.
Inside the school building, I began to feel quite at home. The dread of something new and different had quickly dissipated. That first day of school, in my first six-weeks session in July and August during the “summer school” and before we were out in the fall for harvesting crops—especially in my case working in the cane and assisting with sorghum syrup making—we had an idyllic summer. Books opened up for me to wonderful worlds of adventure. I liked my teacher and my classmates. In fact, I liked school. Maybe it was even then, in that wonderful primary grades classroom, that I gained my desire to become a teacher when I grew up.
Thirteen years into the future from my first day of school, I would return to the same school in 1949, then as the only teacher in a school that had been reduced from two-teachers to one because of school population. I was a brand new teacher, fresh out of Truett McConnell College with a two-year degree and a Georgia provisional teaching certificate. I had twenty-five students in my class that fall, grades primer through seventh, at least one in every grade, with the largest class being fifth grade with five pupils. To be able to teach was both a challenge and an opportunity. I remembered my first day of school in that very building, and had as my aim making school both enjoyable and profitable, as my teacher Mrs. Mert had done for me in 1936.
c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 7, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.