Written by Reese Whitaker and Emma Swan
It is Sunday and I am busy preparing dinner for my family. It is a tradition we hold dear to our hearts, as the whole family gathers for dinner every Sunday after church. Today is a bit different, though; my great-grandkids have asked to interview me about my childhood.
The door opens and my tiny house is filled with the joyous sounds of children. I have two boys and a daughter visiting, along with their families. My only granddaughter, Elizabeth, has three gorgeous kids. The twins, Grace and Brooke, are doing a research paper about East Tennessee. They have chosen to write about my experiences as a student attending the Greenbrier Schoolhouse. I cherish this opportunity, eager to pass my enthusiasm for history on to their generation.
The sounds of their voices filled the room as soon as they trotted into the kitchen. I couldn’t help but smile as they talked about their project. At times, it’s hard for me to imagine how much the world has changed since I attended school. I’ve seen the invention of numerous items, lived through wars, visited every state in the country, and traveled to other parts of the world. Through the years, I’ve lived in various areas of the Southeast, but nowhere felt like home until I returned here.
Today I’ve chosen a typical Southern meal to prepare for the family: fried chicken, pinto beans, and cornbread, along with fresh veggies from the garden. The smells and tastes of this simple meal have my mind drifting to the past, and memories flow through me like fog flowing with a stream.
My eighty-seven years seem to be catching up to me, and I sit down at the table while my daughter, Lucy, takes over the cooking duties. She brings me a cup of tea and I try to gather my thoughts about what I would like to pass on to my grandchildren. I want them to know how different our lives were back then but also to know how very blessed we were.
I hear Grace say my pet name, Great-ma, and I turn to her. Her eyes shine with excitement at the chance to question me. I can understand. When I was her age, I loved the opportunity to question an adult’s life. I know Grace dreams of spending her days doing television interviews, so I do my best to encourage her interest. Brooke doesn’t share the same dream, but her interest is spiked through Grace.
“How old are you, Great-ma?” Grace questioned.
“My last birthday, I was 87 years young,” I say.
“Don’t you mean ‘old’?” Brooke chimed in.
“No, my dear, age is a mindset; you’re only as old as you think you are.”
Grace grinned and moved into their next question: “Tell us about your school; what was it like?”
“School was much different back then compared to now. We didn’t have school buses and had to walk several miles to school.”
“You had to walk to school?” Grace asked, shocked by my statement.
“Yes, Grace, we walked to school most days—church too. We had cars back when I was little, but most people couldn’t afford them. We didn’t have one for many years. In fact, when Papa had to travel to Maryville, he took a horse and it took him three days to get there. Now, when you go visit your Aunt Janie, it takes you less than an hour right?”
“Wow, three days is a long time, Great-ma. If we had to travel by horse, we’d never get to see Janie!” Brooke seemed to share in Grace’s earlier disbelief.
“We didn’t travel as much back then as we do now girls. Life was harder, but we were blessed in so many ways. Even though walking to school seems rough, it provided us with plenty of exercise. It also gave me the chance to bond with my sisters and brothers. The five of us walked to school together, and to be honest, we fought some along the way too, but riding a school bus isn’t the same.
“I think the closest home had to be the Walker residence, which was about a mile away. We lived further down from them. A few times, we were allowed to take turns riding Penny, our smallest horse, to school. We would stop and let her drink from the streams or the river and the Jenkins’ boy would bring her an apple from his farm. He had a fondness for horses.
“Once, a boy named Stephen Harrow tried to let Penny inside the school. He didn’t think it was fair that she was outside while he was stuck indoors doing his reading assignments. Stephen was the first boy I’d ever met who was constantly in trouble.”
“Did he get Penny inside the school?”
“No, Grace, she wouldn’t budge for him once he got her close to the door. She was a bit too smart for that boy.”
“That’s funny Great-ma,” Grace replied with a slight grin.
“Mom, do you know any facts you could tell the girls? They need a few things they can research when we get home,” asked Lucy, who was standing by the stove. She turned and smiled at me as she continued to cook. I was so proud that my daughter was listening and offering suggestions for the girls.
“The school was built in 1882 and it’s the same exact building that is there today. Do you remember when your mom and dad took you girls there last month?”
“Yes!” the girls said at the exact same time.
“I remember the pictures you took for me. The schoolhouse surrounded by trees, their leaves, an orchestra of orange and yellow against a clear blue sky, seemed unchanging. The mountains stood tall and mighty, capped with the season’s first snow, even though the landscape below them was much different. When I lived near Greenbrier as a child, the land was cleared for farmland. Now trees cover the area; evidence of us living there has slowly been replaced. When I was born, the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company owned much of the area that makes up the Smoky Mountains Park. When I was about 10 years old, we left and moved to Knoxville. Life was quite different from that point on, but the government wanted to make the mountains into a park that everyone could enjoy.
“In that time, little went to waste, even our buildings, so the school was used as a church, like most other schoolhouses. During the week, the children would meet for classes, and then on Sunday, everyone would come for services, and some days we would have a giant picnic afterwards and the kids would head over to the creek and play.”
“Did you like going to school there? I saw the desks, and they didn’t look like the ones we have, Great-ma, and you didn’t have a playground either. I’m not sure that would be fun at all.” Brooke’s face scrunched up distastefully.
“Brooke, we didn’t need a playground like you have today. We played outside every day. Sometimes we would try to catch minnows that swam in the brook near the school. We used our imaginations and made up a lot of games to play. Although, we did play several games that you also play today, such as tag and jump rope. We were never bored at school; there was just too much going on. We also made a lot of our own toys out of anything we could find. All of our games had to include all the children at the school. I was one of the youngest, and the older kids had to come up with ideas to include me.”
“Did you ever get into trouble at school?” Grace asked with a slight giggle.
“Oh, a few times, but nothing serious. Once I pulled Sissy’s pigtails, and when the teacher asked me to stop, I didn’t. I had to write sentences for the rest of the day. But, for the most part, children were well behaved. When I finished my lessons, I’d listen to what the teacher would teach the other children, usually those who were ahead of me. We were always busy and eager to learn; the opportunity to attend school wasn’t always available to kids in this area of the country. We felt blessed to have our school and took pride in its upkeep.” I paused to take a drink of my tea.
Grace took advantage of the pause. “What do you mean by ‘its upkeep’?”
A smile spread across my face. “Well, we didn’t have janitors like you do; we had to make sure our school was kept clean ourselves. We took pride in the appearance of the schoolhouse. We planted flowers around the building one summer after I first started attending.”
The look of surprise simultaneously consumed their beautiful faces and I continued: “My grandfather helped build the school, and my momma went there, and then I also attended. I heard Papa often say how heavy those logs were and that two yoke of oxen were needed to haul them.”
“Did you have a TV in your classroom? We have a TV that we get to watch, and we also have computers.”
“No, we didn’t have TVs in the classroom or even at home. We didn’t have computers either; those weren’t around back then. In fact, we didn’t even have electricity in the schoolhouse. The teacher would come in and light the fire before we arrived in the mornings. Then, during the day, she would pick a child, usually one of the oldest, to tend to the fire on the cold days. He or she would bring in firewood that the parents would donate to the school. On Sundays the school was used for our church service, so a fire would also be built on those days.”
The girls sat silent, looking at each other as if completely lost on their next line of questions for me. Lucy jumped in again, saying, “Girls, make sure you are writing notes and checking your list of questions for Great-ma.”
“Wow, Great-ma it sounds so different from our schools. Did you learn the same things we do?” Grace responded, quicker than Brooke.
“Well, now, that is a great question. No, I don’t think our curriculum was quite the same as yours. There were many barriers that we had to get through to be able to get a good education. For one, we had to share textbooks, and some things we had no books for,” I started to explain.
Brooke spoke up. “How would you learn without schoolbooks?”
I smiled, pleasantly surprised about their interest and the perceptiveness of my girls. “We worked on the basics and learned from history more than anything. In fact, some of our history was taken from religious studies, which I know is much different than what you get in school today.”
“How did you get history from religion? That seems weird,” Grace mentioned, as both girls nodded.
“I know you girls are young, but the Bible and other religious books are texts of history. At that time, it wasn’t considered a bad thing to pray in school or to have a Christmas celebration. Our faith was very much entwined in our teachings.”
“We aren’t allowed to pray in school, because we might offend someone.” Brooke looked confused.
“Oh, I know, Honey, but religion wasn’t seen that way then. We weren’t trying to offend anyone; we just prayed because that is what we did. It was just a different environment, a different way of life.”
Brooke nodded, seeming to decide to just accept it and move on. “Great-ma, how many kids were in your class?”
“That’s a tough question; we were all in one room, the whole school, so we weren’t separated into classes like you are today. Let’s see, we had I think twelve kids there when I was about your age.”
“Do you have any funny stories? We want to put something funny in our report if we can,” Grace said. She smiled and leaned forward on the edge of her seat as if I were about to let her in on a huge secret.
“Oh, sure, that’s easy. There was this boy, Alex (he was a couple of years older than me), and he decided to play a trick on our teacher. She was just getting us all in the classroom and he had snuck around the back of the schoolhouse. There was a ladder back there from when one of the men a couple of farms down had been working on the roof. I was the last one to go inside, and I saw him peeking over the edge. Mrs. Smith had no idea where he was; we all just sat there and claimed we had no idea where he’d run off to. She was calling his name over and over, when she finally gave up and went back outside to track him down. Just after she went through the door, Alex jumped down behind her. She yelped, spinning on her heels, and nearly fainted when she saw it was him behind her. The whole room erupted with laughter. We were nearly crying before we stopped!”
Grace’s eyes grew huge as I replayed the story for her. Brooke was smiling wide and I knew she was wondering if she would be brave enough to attempt something similar.
“Did he get in trouble?” Grace asked.
“Oh, yes, the teacher spanked Alex, and then he had to chop firewood for an extra two weeks for his father and deliver it to the school.” I could see that the punishment was enough to make Brooke rethink her idea of trying this herself. “If my memories are correct, I think I tried the same thing a year or two later at home but met with different results: a sprained ankle and a very scuffed and torn dress.”
“Girls,” Lucy said as she came over to the table, “we are going to have to ask Great-ma the rest of the questions after we have our dinner. Can you both please put your notebooks away and wash up? Oh, and tell everyone else it’s time to eat, please.”
“Yes, Grandmother, we will,” the twins replied in unison. Then they gathered their supplies and ran off to the bathroom, chattering about the school.
“Mom, thank you so much for helping them with their project. I know this means a lot to them. I have to say, I loved hearing you talk about the past. It makes me want to travel back in time, to see the school and the cove when others lived there.”
I smiled at Lucy and realized how much of myself I see in her, her daughter Elizabeth, and the twins. I decided right then that I would not stop with today. I will continue to tell my stories to my children and their children so that none of them will ever forget the blessings that have been passed down through the years. My schoolhouse memories will not be forgotten as long as we keep the past alive through our stories.
Reese Whitaker lives in East Tennessee, along with her husband and daughter. She is a DBA/Programmer by day, writer by night. After a fourteen-year break from writing, Reese’s first story won an honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest Annual Short Story Competition. Reese has taken her love for writing to a new level by encouraging and teaching others in writing.
Emma Swan is a network engineer by trade—not exactly creative. After years of following her mother’s example of reading, Emma decided it was time to write her own story, and during the process, Emma discovered that she no longer had to hide that side of herself. She hopes to pass along the love of reading and writing to her three children.
Copyright, 2012. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, April 2012. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.