|This is one of a series of stories Sydney Underwood has written about coming of age in small-town West Virginia.|
"I have many memories of my years
attending the Grantsville Grade School"
By Sidney Underwood 2013
My mother accompanied me on my first day. Everything was new and strange and the stone building looked large and imposing to me. That early September day in 1948 was the beginning of my formal education.
For six years I would progress through the grades there and make many friends. I actually started school one year too soon. Although I was six years old, I was not ready for school. That first year was difficult for me and my parents. Looking back now, I can tell you that I was not one of Mrs. Lela Ball’s favorite students.
The one bright spot of that first year was sitting next to Judy and Dottie Moore who were twins. I thought they were really neat as they looked alike and dressed alike.
If I am a normal individual and exhibit normal behavior today, I owe a debt of gratitude to Elva Yoak who was my second grade teacher. She saw that I was very shy and needed guidance in order to become a successful student.
She encouraged me to learn and helped me gain a semblance of confidence. She spent extra time with me making sure that I understood the assignments. She slowly and surely pulled me out of my shell and in time I began to think of classroom activities as fun.
Miss Yoak divided our class into three groups. We were the blue birds, the yellow birds and the red birds. The blue birds were the quick learners, the yellow birds were the average students, and incredibly, I was selected to be in that group. Finally, the red birds were those students that needed extra attention.
She was able to manage these groups in such a way that we were always busy with our workbooks in preparation for moving to the front of the room for individual instruction when our particular group was called. She had the ability to spot slackers in the back of the room.
Many times she would call out an individual who would be whispering to another student or staring dreamily out the window. Naturally, there were always those students who tested her patience in class.
As an example of that, I remember the Freshour twins, Robert and Harold. They relished the spotlight and took full advantage of every opportunity to make everyone laugh. They were the class clowns. Miss Yoak was mildly amused by them, but tried to keep them on a short leash.
Robert and Harold would “accidentally” drop their books when the room was quiet and we were studying our assignments. Miss Yoak would intercede and read them the riot act. Sometimes when the recess bell sounded, they would “fall” down the stairs causing everyone to wonder if they were really hurt.
They developed the art of the pratfall to such a level that Red Skelton would be proud of them. We students enjoyed the entertainment that the Freshour boys provided much to the chagrin of Miss Yoak. The Freshours were free spirits who liked to have a good time. I’m sure that other members of my class will recall them and smile when remembering their antics.
Tessie Poling was my third grade teacher. She let us know the first day that she expected us to comport ourselves in a proper manner. Mrs. Poling was an excellent teacher in that she motivated us to do well because we wanted to please her. She had this mannerism of looking sad when we did wrong, and that was worse than the paddle that she never had to use.
I remember that she would pick individuals at random to read aloud during reading class. This forced everyone to stay alert and follow along. Strangely enough, I looked forward to reading aloud when called upon to do so. I may not have absorbed what I was reading, but I sounded good.
Ivy Lee Myers had a position with the school system, and she occasionally came to our school. Often, she would take us students individually into a separate area and have us read aloud to her. I remember that I read perfectly for her, but had difficulty repeating to her what I had just read. She asked me to read it again, only more slowly. That time I did much better. She looked at me and said for me to remember that reading was not a race to be won, but it was a skill to be mastered.
I never forgot that.
Ota Mae Marshall taught fourth grade. She was a stout imposing woman and demanded discipline. Many times, she would look at me and say, “You can do better than that. You will do better and you will make me proud of you.” After a pep talk like that, of course, I did better.
The best memory of her class was that after lunch and recess, we would start 4th period with Mrs. Marshall reading the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mystery stories to us. We would all sit quietly and listen as she read several chapters to us each day.
During that school year, she read many of those books to us and we looked forward to each daily installment.
It was during that time that I first saw Don Burch who had transferred from Mt. Zion School. He was big and strong and could hit a soft ball out of our school playground far onto the Hamilton property. He was a take charge kind of guy and everyone wanted to be on his team during recess.
I was a tall kid, but beside Don I looked frail and undernourished. Dean Burrows, David Reed and I were the fastest runners. That was the correct order because in the impromptu foot races, I was always third.
David was small in stature, but he was like quicksilver. Dean was simply fast and no one could beat him. The book learning was ok, but I lived for the recess bell. We boys played touch football, tackle when the teachers were not watching, dodge ball, softball and base.
To run and jump and be free for 15 minutes did wonders for my ability to concentrate when we returned to class.
When the bell rang twice in succession, it was the signal for the fire drill. We always knew where to assemble on the playground, and I enjoyed this interruption of classroom activities. I still wonder today if the teachers were given advance notice of the drills by Mr. Paul Powell who was our Principal.
Wilma Stump was my fifth grade teacher and was very influential in teaching me how to summarize material. She taught us to use economy of words when writing something. Quite often, she would look at our writing and then ask if we actually needed all those words.
Be brief and to the point was her mantra. Perhaps, I should have remembered her words in this piece. She was responsible for coaching and encouraging those students who would go on to win Golden Horseshoes. Those elusive golden icons are still cherished today by the students who earned them.
Grace Long taught sixth grade. She could be rather stern at times, but always praised hard work when it was deserved. I remember that she seemed not to feel well and that her health was questionable. We students tried to perform well for her in the hope that it would ease her burden.
She helped us if we were deficient in any of our studies because she wanted us to do well when we transferred to the high school for the final two years of grade school.
Other teachers on staff at that time included Eloise Hathaway and Ira Stemple, a former bomber pilot in the World War II, who would later be the principal.
My memories of that time include Watt Stump, the kindly janitor who tended to the boiler and kept the rooms warm in winter. I remember the window radiators making knocking sounds and the shimmering heat they produced.
Inside the front doors on the left was a vending machine that offered candy for five cents. My personal favorite was the Clark Bar. Over the years, I put many buffalo nickels into that machine, and today I have several amalgams and crowns as a result of that sweet addiction.
I recall that the upper grade classes walked down town in the spring time to the Kanawha Theatre for a matinee performance of the minstrel.
The men of Grantsville would dress up in black face and sing and dance and tell jokes that were cleaned up just for us. I also remember a darker time when we students walked down town to the funeral home for the special visitation of Butch Strader who was tragically killed while chasing a ball out into the road during recess. That was a somber time, indeed.
Because of that terrible event, many new safety rules and precautions were implemented including the new school safety patrol program.
I remember that we sold seed packets in the spring to earn money for school activities. I should have known then that Paul Mollohan would be successful in life because he was such a good salesman. We were the top money earners for several years. Mainly, I carried the boxes that held the seed packets and Paul would knock on the doors and sweet talk the old ladies in town into buying the seeds and in an hour or two, we were sold out.
As Paul fondly recalls, he was the front man and I was the bagman.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see J. C. Richards’ old number 5 International school bus entering the school ground and swinging in a wide arc toward the sidewalk to take kids home in the afternoon.
That old bus had a long hood and was the largest one in service at that time. I think it was a 1948 model with a capacity of 60 students. Mr. Richards was a skilled old time driver because his bus did not have power steering and the manual transmission was not synchronized.
I remember the Easter egg hunts when the students would be taken by bus to the field above the NYA building. One time when we were riding back to the school, I was seated next to Bill Umstead. He had found nine eggs and I had found only three.
I asked him if he would like to share since we were friends and I had not been as lucky as he in the search that day. He said that he was not going to share his eggs. He said that he had worked hard to find them and that he was going to eat all of them.
I asked him if he was going to eat all of them before we got back to school. He said that he would. But, I watched him and I saw that he only ate four eggs while on the bus and kept the rest. I remember thinking that he had exhibited a rather poor attitude in this matter.
That old school building still stands today as a silent sentinel of a time gone by. Literally thousands of young people have passed through its doorways. I’m sure that everyone who attended that school will recall their own special time there.
It was definitely a kinder, more gentile and innocent time.
The building has been deserted for years. The rooms are empty now and the hallways and cloakrooms are dark. Perhaps the blackboards still remain. But, I have this feeling that some things about that old school building will never change.
The familiar somewhat musty smell of old books, chalk dust and oiled wooden floors might awaken even more memories. I’m sure that the doors to the little boys’ room still squeak, the wooden floors still creak and the upstairs windows still rattle when the wind blows.
I believe that if one would listen carefully near that beloved old building, one might still hear that long ago sound of the recess bell ringing and the happy murmur of children’s voices.