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TideWriters Tales
Back to School
By Catherine C. Brooks

     By Labor Day weekend 1935, I hankered for school to open. I wanted to learn more arithmetic, grammar, read bigger and harder books and learn more spelling words, studying history for the first time. I’d be in the fourth grade, and Mother had made me two new cotton dresses, purchasing new shoes with socks to match my dresses. I thought, Oh boy, it won’t be like last year. I will dress in a new outfit the first day of school like the older girls.

     We had just begun our study of Virginia history when Miss Maxine Morgan, our new teacher in the third grade, told us we needed to gather and make figures of white men and Indians, as well as miniature buildings and fences for a sand box, which she had someone building. It appeared on Monday of the week after Miss Maxine had given us the instructions. The box stood on four sturdy-hand-planed pine legs, with smooth matching sides and rough boards in the bottom. We lined the bottom with paper from the grocery store, which the owner had given Miss Maxine for the sandbox, overlapping the edges, then bending the sides and ends up so sand couldn’t leak through to the floor. The boys poured buckets of sand into the box, smoothing it. Since we were making a part of Jamestown Island, we laid a narrow strip of lining paper to one side, having colored it with blue watercolors to represent the James River.

     The boys loaned wooden and metal figures of Indians and men in rugged clothes from their games. We drew and colored crude houses on cardboard, cutting doors and windows. The boys whittled strips of wood from the woodpile out back of our classroom, making rail fences and miniature stacks of firewood. Tepees, which we made of short-straight branches from hardwood trees and pieces of cloth from washed feed sacks, sat outside the fence with tin Indians standing among them. The white men stood here and there inside the fence (fort). My, how clear the picture became when we studied with a model of the village to view.

     The first week in November Miss Maxine told us to lay our history textbooks aside for a few days. She read us the story about the Mayflower’s arrival and the Plymouth, Massachusetts, colony. We made black construction paper hats for the men, removed the fence that formed the Jamestown fort and made a cardboard table. Then the girls, who drew well, sketched a turkey, green leafy vegetables, turnips, pumpkins and other foods, colored them before cutting them out and placing them on the table. Again we had a visible image of the first Thanksgiving in the northern states.

     In December we made a nativity scene in our sand box that we had learned to enjoy. In early winter and in spring, the scenes changed. And so it went until school closed, but I remember the model of Jamestown more clearly than the others.

     We learned to check books from our small library, which consisted of shelves on one section of the wall, to read and write our first book reports. Just as Miss Mae had encouraged us to learn, Miss Maxine led us into harder studies. But we had fun learning with sand boxes as models of the places described, and books I still enjoy—Little Women for instance. 

     I continued to learn with sand boxes under Miss Otey through the fifth grade. Then Miss Doris Eason added pantomiming characters from history books and readers to our skills in the sixth grade at Milford Haven Elementary School. (I always wanted to speak when I shouldn’t). 

     I found Mrs. Nottingham also used sandboxes and pantomiming in the seventh grade at Lee Jackson School, which in 1938—1939 school term included all grades from first through high school. And she kept potted plants in the classroom through winter to teach us how plants supplied oxygen to the air. We felt we learned by experiencing many times.

     Through these grades, spelling bees often became a weekly event. We made a long line down one side of the room. When anyone missed a word, he or she took a seat until two were left. They battered the letters one after the other until a word spelt wrong sent one to his seat. Other students honored the one winning the spelling bee, or on the other hand some students felt jealous or left out so called the winner: “Smarty” or “Bookworm.” In some grades, the teacher often used the spelling bee as our weekly test. Then one didn’t mind being called names if grades seemed important. I preferred the teachers, who sounded the syllables slowly when she called the words.

     In the lower grades, teachers sometimes made the spelling bee a contest. She chose two leaders, who in turn chose members of the class one by one until everyone stood in a line. It became a game instead of just trying to make good grades.

     When I hear some of the words winning students spell in today’s national spelling bees, I’m amazed. Even the best of we students, who attended school in the first half of the twentieth century, marvel because they are words we didn’t use or hear.

     I entered the central consolidated “Mathews High School” as a freshman when it opened with 105 students in the freshman class. New Point, Cobbs Creek and Lee Jackson only housed grades one through seven. High School students were grades eight through eleven—before we had a middle school or 12 grades. When C .E. Kline introduced himself as the agricultural teacher in the first assembly at the new school, he said: “This is a new and bigger school than any of you have known, and you are afraid. It is my first school and I’m afraid too. So let’s relax and learn together to know each other and enjoy learning.” His short talk made me feel better—all was different. But we learned to enjoy our school that was small to our present Mathews High School.

     Students went to their homeroom in the morning, leaving all books and lunches under the desk they didn’t need in the first class. None of we freshman had changed classes before so that was another change. We returned to the homeroom between classes to retrieve the book we needed in the next class, and so it went all day because there were no lockers. 

     My sophomore year, we had a new student in the freshman class, who moved to the county from New York City. Since we didn’t have lockers, she brought a large leather book bag, carrying her books and supplies from class to class all day. She never purchased lunch from the cafeteria so had that packed in a side pocket of the leather case until we ate. She was different, but I learned to accept her for her own self, and several students in both freshman and sophomore classes became her friends. Two of us kept in touch with her at least once a year, at Christmas, for thirty years. Then neither of us heard from her one December. We learned she had died suddenly in November—the last member of her family except a nephew.

     We had some strict and demanding teachers, but they were the ones that I learned the most under. Today I wish I could thank them for the efforts they made that we learn lessons we would need in the real world.
Our class graduated in the dark days of World War II with almost everything rationed, especially gasoline. When we learned we couldn’t have a graduation night, many faces became downcast. Yet since we could have a worship service, learning a baccalaureate service was included, we had our graduation exercises afterwards. The war changed many of our plans, and one lost his life due to the war.

     If you are a school student reading this article, take advantage of the privilege you have to learn academic subjects whether it’s arithmetic (or math), spelling, science, history or some other subject. Don’t just depend on calculators to do figures—some day you may find yourself without an instrument to use, so know how. If you use Word or Word Perfect on your computer, don’t depend on that to correct all your spelling because sometimes computers use the wrong word, changing the meaning. Exercise your mind as you do your body, making an overall healthy person. You will be richer for it.

© 2003 Catherine C. Brooks. All rights reserved. Contact Catherine Brooks @

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