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School Days in the 1930’s Part I
By Catherine C. Brooks

     Even we grandparents think of school opening when September draws near—a custom as far back as today’s oldest folk remember. Now many children attend preschool as early as age three and continue until old enough for the public school. Kindergarten has become a part of the regular school system with subjects more advanced when students reach first grade than when I, or my children, attended school.

     School in the 1930’s presented another picture in all aspects. I walked two miles to and from Milford Haven School, and in another section of the county my future husband, unknown to me at the time, walked seven miles to and from Winter Harbor School. The dark green school bus took children from my area to Lee Jackson School for grades seven through high school. The African American children only had one school in the lower portion of the county and no bus. Many walked 10 miles or more each way to acquire an education.

     Without a vaccination for smallpox, one didn’t start to school. However shots to ward off other common childhood diseases were unknown. I well remember the day in August 1932 when Momma walked with me into Dr. Hoskins’ inner office. The doctor explained the procedure that he would perform to vaccinate me before he began, saying, “You’ll feel a needle scratching your arm, but I’ll try not to hurt.”

     I felt proud when I left the office without a tear. Yet a few days later, I lay on a pallet under the kitchen table so I could feel any breeze that may blow from east, west, north or south since the open doors and windows allowed that luxury. The weather was very hot, and I had a bursting headache, an inflamed left arm and high fever. Momma said, “You have a mild case of smallpox, and therefore you’ll be immune to the deadly disease that has killed so many.” I was back to normal a week later except for a large scab on my arm that I guarded constantly.

     On the second Friday in September, Daddy borrowed Grandpa Callis’s Plymouth to take Momma to register me in the first grade. He stayed with my younger sister while we went into the schoolhouse that my parents had attended some years previously. 

     The three-room schoolhouse with two classes in each room delighted me. Momma probably spent all the money that she and Daddy could scrape together to pay for my second hand Peter and Peggy First Reader and spelling book plus a new coloring book. Granddaddy and Granny Richardson had already given me a new book bag and metal lunch box with pictures painted on each side. I had paper, pencils and crayons tucked in the book bag ready to add my books. Excitement filled me—I’d be able to figure numbers, read and write.
Each room of the school had a large-pot-bellied-wood-burning stove in the center between the double desks for the two grades. A table sat against one wall, holding a water bucket, dipper and washbasin for drinking and for students to wash their hands. 

     An L-shaped building, with the foot across the school’s front, provided a secluded space for the water pump and woodpile. They sat back of the room where the third and fourth grades met, but outside the door to the first and second grades where I would be. Beyond that, to the back corner of the yard, the boys’ outer-house sat with the girls’ on the back of the opposite corner. We had a large front yard, in which to play ball and other games, with the local Community Hall to the far right of the school. All school functions except May Day, with parents involved, took place in the Hall, including school plays and PTA meetings.

     On Monday after I received my books, I left home by 7:30 a.m. to walk the two miles, dressed in my new school clothes that had been sewed at home except for my shoes and socks. I met other classmates along the way. Everyone chatted as we walked, pairing off—the girls with the girls and the boys with the boys. I walked with Virginia Kellum, who I hadn’t met before, but she was in my class. Virginia didn’t know Miss Mae, our teacher, who had just finished the six-week course at college, preparing her to teach elementary school. I had known her as a leader in Sunday School since I became old enough to go on a class. She played the piano, leading the song service for the beginner and primary classes, and taught the primaries that were ages six through nine. We all loved her at church, and I knew that I would in school.

     If we were to eat lunch, we carried it. Children’s lunches varied. Most days I had a spread known as potted meat between two slices of white bread and either a slice of homemade cake or cookies wrapped in waxed paper with water from the water bucket in my tin cup. Sometimes I’d have an apple if Momma had plenty. Many ate grape jelly sandwiches on biscuits or white bread while others had home-baked biscuits with ham or preserves between them in a bread or other store wrapper. Many of the boys brought a cold sweet potato, which I thought yucky. Some only brought cornbread coarsely wrapped. We lived in days of the Great Depression and welcomed anything that stopped hunger.

     Granddaddy and Granny Richardson spent every other weekend at our home. When he worked night shift in the shipyard, they didn’t leave until after an early breakfast on Monday morning. A Monday, in the spring of my first year in school, they told me they would take me part the way to school if I waited. Momma had prepared a special lunch for me with a fried chicken breast left over from Sunday, a banana from the bunch Granddaddy had brought, bread wrapped separately, and a yummy slice of chocolate cake. I had never had as tasty a lunch before this one for school. When I got out of the car, my grandparents both wanted me to hug and kiss them goodbye. After all the parting greetings, I got my book bag and shut the car door. Just as the car pulled away, I realized that I didn’t have my lunch and began to run after the car and yell, “Granddaddy, stop.” But to no avail. I cried all the way to school, imagining the chicken breast spoilt before Granddaddy found it. Miss Mae shared part of her lunch with me that day, but I never forgot my lunch again.

     I found learning to read, write and doing arithmetic exciting. Coloring my pictures in the coloring book didn’t always look as neat as some of the other girls but better than the boys. After I helped Momma with supper dishes in the evening, I sat and practiced reading or writing letters and numbers rather than play. When school closed in May 1933, Momma and Daddy said I had a wonderful report card. And Granny Richardson rewarded me with a porch swing for passing to second grade.

© 2002 Catherine C. Brooks All rights reserved


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