Most kids are right in the middle of enjoying their summer vacation from school. But if you live in the mountains of Appalachia, summer vacation is just about to end. Because of the long, hard winters and the probability of many snow days off from school, kids all over these mountains will start back to school in the first couple of weeks of August. For many years, this WPA built rock building in Lansing opened its doors every August to the clatter of children’s feet from all over the the north end of Ashe County.
When the school was first built, it was Lansing High School, and teenagers from all the small community schools in the area attended there. Many, including my own mom and dad, met their future spouses there. When I was a child, though, Lansing was a 1-8 school. The Rock Building, as it was dubbed, housed grades 1-5, and the Brick Building (to the right of what you can see in the picture) served grades 6-8. It was the Rock Building that had all the personality, though.
You know that a place really means something when you can still hear its sounds and smell its smells and see the people inside. That’s the way it is for me with Lansing. I still remember the smell of those oiled floors that were stained dark with the oil that had soaked deep into the wood. I still remember the sound of the creaky stairs that took you to and from third, fourth, and fifth grades. I can still feel the heat from the hot water radiators that kept us warm in the winter. I can still smell the fresh air coming in through the open windows in the fall and spring, and I still remember how much I wished I could be outside playing. I loved going to the playground across the road where we jumped rope, and played Red Rover, Dodgeball, and Softball. We didn’t have to cross the road to get there, either. We had a tunnel built right under the road. I still remember how dark, damp, and cool that tunnel was and how it echoed with our laughter and the sound of bouncing balls as we walked through it.
School was so much different then. There weren’t many second chances. And most of us behaved most of the time because we knew if we got in big trouble at school, we would be in even bigger trouble when we got home. But it was also a place of safety and nurturing, and a place of book lessons and life lessons.
We did not have Kindergarten back then, and so we started all our skills in first grade. We memorized math facts,and sight words, and read all about Dick and Jane and Spot. Spot sure did run a lot, and it seemed to excite Dick and Jane every time he did for they kept exclaiming over and over, “See Spot run”! Run, Spot, run!”. One day, we gave Spot a rest and instead used our milk cartons to make Easter baskets. But the best part of first grade was the first grade boy who sat at the same table as I did. We fell in love sitting at that table and made secret plans to get married when we grew up…I wonder if he might still remember that long ago promise.
Mrs. Gunter was my first grade teacher, and her favorite form of discipline was to bend your hand back to expose the tender part of your palm and then to slap it with the ruler she always carried. One dose of this medicine was all it took for me to straighten up and fly right! Boy, did it ever sting!
I’m not too sure many of the kids liked our second grade teacher, Mrs.Pratt. I am sure that she scared most of us silly, in fact! She was an older woman who had taught many of our parents, and she had very little patience with little kids who didn’t sit in their seats and quietly read their SRA cards and answer the skill-related questions. One day, several of us didn’t understand what we were supposed to do, so before anyone realized it, we had gathered around her, all of us asking questions at the same time. I just happened to be the one she got hold of first . She grabbed me by the arm and walked me around the room as she spanked me with her hand and told me, “That’s a free sample; if you want the real thing, just try it again.” I was not nearly the only one who received a free sample that day.
In third grade, I loved Mrs. Williams so much that I would have done anything for her. She was young and pretty and all smiles and encouragement, which was just what I needed. She expected us to do our best work for her, though, and I did. Because I liked her so much, I wasn’t as afraid to talk, and that sometimes got me in a bit of trouble. Rather than smack little hands or spank tender bottoms, though, she would make us stay in at playtime and write sentences over and over extolling our promise to never engage in such undesirable behavior again. I got very good at writing, “I will not talk in class. I will not talk in class. I will not talk in class.”, etc, etc. etc.
My fourth grade teacher, Miss Owens, terrified me (and doubtless many others)! She was the only teacher Daddy ever came to school to see to discuss my well-being. And that’s all I have to say about fourth grade!
Two sisters who never married and still lived in the house they grew up in taught fifth grade. Miss Cora and Miss Ada were both wonderful. One whistled all the time, even though she came from what you might call a “genteel” family and even though it was against the rules, and one or both of them played the piano. Almost every day, the whole fifth grade would get together and sing to that piano. I still remember the words to “Red River Valley”, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “Life in the Army”, and so many others. Times have surely changed!
It’s a terrible shame and waste that this beautiful old stone building sets vacant now, but I bet if you were there and listened very carefully, you could still hear spelling bees and sight words, multiplication facts, and recitations. And if you listened even harder, I bet you could hear the faint sound of piano keys tinkling out a familiar tune and an old white headed lady whistling along…
**Names may have been changed to protect the privacy of the subjects of my writing and/or their families.
**These are my childhood memories of growing up in Appalachia. They are true but also subject to the normal foibles of the mind.