Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Clear your mind and then thoughtfully consider your elementary school years. What do you remember? Were you the playground bully? Were you the leader of your group? Were you picked last for kickball teams? Were you on the hallway patrol? Were you a red bird or blue bird?
What were your feelings as you walked into the building each day? Was it a safe place for you or did you fear it? Did you feel loved by the adults in the building or did you feel like no one cared? Did you have a favorite part of the building?
How would you feel if you returned to your elementary school building today and was able to explore?
I attended Eastern Elementary School from first grade through seventh grade in a small hamlet called Red Oak, Georgia. Basically Red Oak is a post office stop between College Park and Fairburn. During the Civil War, Red Oak was where Union soldiers incapacitated the railroad and then separated into two columns as they marched towards Jonesboro. There used to be several buildings in the area that hinted at Red Oak’s past. The Sewell Hat Factory was an abandoned piece of property I passed each day on my way to school. It was one of just many pieces of property including plantations that the Sewell family owned in the area.
Red Oak was nice little community when I was young but began to slowly decline in the early 1980’s. During the late 80’s and 90’s Red Oak was a fairly dangerous place. A housing project had been built at the end of Campbell Drive, the street where my school is at. There were news stories all the time about people getting robbed and shot. The housing project finally shut down and later was torn down.
Currently Red Oak is on the verge of a comeback. I did a quick tax parcel check the other day (my legal background comes in handy) and I was surprised that I recognized a fairly high number of old Red Oak names. It appears many folks have held onto to their properties and it looks like they may have been actually smarter than all those folks who moved away.
I had looked for my old home all morning and had visited the old Campbell County Courthouse (see part two of my scavenger hunt here). My last stop of the day was a visit to my old school. It is amazing how you can drive up to a location where you spent a large amount of time as a child and as you motor down the road suddenly your memories take over because it all seems so familiar. It’s like your body goes on auto-pilot. As I turned down Campbell Road and passed by familiar homes I mentally stated each family’s name as I passed the homes they had long since moved out of. I felt the same familiar lurch in my body as I turned into the drive of the school that was flanked by the same old pine trees that used to greet me each morning.
The cornerstone of Eastern Elementary states it was built in 1941. It is a lovely old building that was added onto in the 1960s. The front canopy along the walkway and the front shrubbery was added in the 1970s. The outside looks exactly the same. I parked my car at the flag pole where I sat to have my sack lunch during our fifth grade picnic.
For the last several years the building has been used as a public safety training facility but as I approached the front door a sign told me things had changed. The hallway confirmed for me that I wouldn’t find policemen in the building anymore because the hallway was filled with voting machines. The same lovely hardwood floors greeted me and said a creaky hello as I walked down the hallway. Realizing there might be valid reasons why they wouldn’t want someone from off the street wondering around I quickly found the man in charge and told him why I was at his office door. Gerry M. welcomed me like an old friend. He was great…..in fact he walked around with me and I gave him the grand tour of his workplace.
They’ve placed carpet over the old hardwood floors but in my day they were simply lovely in the hallway and in the classrooms. The custodians would buff them to a high sheen. We would haggle with our teachers to get permission to work on a project in the hall. In no time our shoes would be off and we would test the slide factor of the floors.
This is a picture of Mrs. Posey’s classroom where I was for fifth grade.
Looking at the room from the perspective of a teacher it was fairly large. Notice the chalkboard and rack. They are built into the wall. Mrs. Posey always looked like a million bucks each day of the year. She had cute Jackie O. dresses with matching coats which were very stylish in the late 60s and early 70s for women her age. She wore high heels and stockings every day----she never wore pants. Her nails and red hair were always done. I used to watch her count the lunch money each day. “Click, click, click went her nails as she picked up the coins. I was mesmerized as she placed the money in the striped draw-string bags the office provided for the lunch count. When she was finished she would look up and sometimes we made eye contact. She would smile and then motion for me to come and get the bag so I could take it to the office. It was a great responsibility.
The cafeteria had been partitioned off for some reason but since the hallway doors were still in the same place we could piece together the route students took as they came in to get their trays and where they sat. I walked to the exit door to the wall where we would line up to leave. The first spot next to the door was the most desirable. The person who claimed this spot would be the line leader. Many times the “leader” would be directed to the back of the line due to the methods they had employed to claim first-in-line-status.
This is a picture of the auditorium. Up front is the stage where I made my debut as the narrator in the annual Christmas play.
During 7th grade, the first year we changed classes, our teachers would use the auditorium to show movies. These weren’t videos, but honest to goodness reel-to-reel films, usually a National Geographic title. I told Gerry all about how the pictures used to bounce sometimes, the whirring sound of the projector, and the inevitable flap, flap, flap as the film finally wound all the way through the machine.
The L-shaped library shelves, shown above, for the older grades were still in the same spot. I pointed out the locations where I would find Across Five Aprils, Homer Price, and the Beverly Cleary and Carolyn Haywood (B Is for Betsey) books. There were about six tables set up in two columns for kids to sit and read in the middle where you see all of the voting machines.
This is the classroom where I had Mrs. Olvey (third grade) and Mrs. Frye (fourth grade). Mrs. Olvey was close to retirement age when I had her. She always wore red lipstick. We had to write the pronunciations of each spelling word every week. I would sit by those windows and daydream instead of completing my work. Mrs. Frye was younger and more mysterious. She had been a nun….I had never known a Catholic before. I always wondered why she had decided not to be a nun anymore. We did a project in her room regarding birds. We even had to create and sew birds out of fabric. She made us do it at school and on our own. It was hard. My owl is at my Dad’s house somewhere.
Look at the great wall of windows. The view is exactly the same as I remember it.
I snapped a shot of the other side of the room too. I managed to get a picture of Gerry, my tour participant. It was simply a great classroom. They don’t design them like this anymore.
I enjoyed walking through my past today. I reconnected to memories that I need in my toolbox as a teacher. I want to hold fast to some of the emotions I felt as I entered the school office and saw the same counter where the secretary sat or entered the principal’s office. I need to remember the feelings of accomplishment as I mastered some bit of hard content. I also need to hold onto the frustration I felt when I was made to write the pronunciation of my spelling words. I need to hold fast to the notion that my students have many of the same emotions that I once had.
How will my students feel about their experiences with me thirty years from now? Am I doing all that I can to provide good memories?
What say you? :)
I want to thank Gerry M. and his staff for being so nice to me as I went on my grand tour. County employees get a bad rap sometimes. I know because I’m a county employee.
Tomorrow I will visit my old home site to see if I can pick up any clues to the whereabouts of my childhood home. Join me as I continue scavenging for my past!
You can see part four of this series here.
You can find my more current articles here.
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