Transcribed by Kathleen Hastings Whitlock
October 27, 1949 – Reprinted June 9, 1977
* CAL’S COLUMN *
We started to school when slightly past seven years of age. Perhaps the main reason for this was that our younger brother, Thomas Morgan Gregory, 15 months younger than the writer, could not attend school when we arrived at the age of six years. So we had to wait until he was old enough to attend school. We have sometimes wondered why our parents held back their first-born in so many ways for his brother. But this is true. We could not start to school until he was old enough to attend. We had to wear dresses until our brother was large enough to discard such garments. We could not have a shirt until our brother was old enough to wear a shirt. We recall very distinctly our first shirt. We had worn pants for a number of years with the old-fashioned “bodies,” with the buttons all around the bottom part. These buttons fastened into the top of the pants, but the “bodies” had no “tails” on them. We recall that we longed for a shirt like other boys our age. Finally our brother was old enough to wear a shirt. Our mother made those first shirts, of a striped material, with fairly long tails. We put on our first shirt one morning about 46 years ago. We were proud of that first shirt as a young rooster ever was of his ability to crow for the first time. Watching the proceedings was a put we called “Blue,” About the time that shirt dropped over our head and settled into proper position, that dog began to bark and we started to run. We were swift on foot then if we do say so, and the dog was quite young. With that barking dog almost at our heels, we “sold out Dock,” running with about all the speed we could make. The dog was close behind and the tail of that shirt fairly flattened out in the wind as we fled from the dog, which “reared up” and tried time after time to grab the flying shirt tail. But we managed to elude the dog until he gave up the chase.
While on the subject of shirts and “tails,” we recall that one of our neighbors who never did have a shirt long enough, so he complained, blamed the short shirts on his wife who made his shirts. She was of a fun-loving nature and finally decided she would make her husband a shirt with enough “tail.” So she made a shirt with the tail reaching to her husband’s knees and then, for good measure, added a ruffle. The shirt then reached perhaps two or three inches below the knees. This cured the grumbling husband and so far as we ever learned, he never again squawked about the length of his shirts.
This brings us to another custom of the long ago. Boys wore nothing but shirts until they were perhaps ten or eleven years of age in many instances. With on underwear whatever, they put on their long shirts which reached to about their knees and in these romped, played, fought, and sometimes worked. Going in such garb was for “home consumption only,” these boys never going away from home thus clothed. The writer never had to go like this, but many boys did. Out of this custom of wearing long shirts and nothing else came the old statement of “going in his shirt tail.”
We started to school on Tuesday, August 9, 1898, a barfooted, bashful boy then slightly past seven years of age. Our father pulled two of our teeth that morning before we started to the little school house that sat upon the hillside some three hundred and fity feet above the level of our home and on “Mace Hill>” we have since learned that the elevation at the school house is 853 feet above sea level at the place where we were born.
On that first morning, we had our dinner in a little split basket, the top part of which opened back, exposing to view the contents of the lower part or half. Our teacher was Mrs. Marshall Massey, who was then in there thirties, formerly Miss Marshall Duncan. In some respects she was the best teacher we ever knew and we were as afraid of her as we would have been of a “bear,” She was strictness itself, demanding and requiring of her students an honest effort, hard study, thoroughness in the preparation of lessons and just and right conduct. We were extremely bashful, and thing that is hard for some to believe who never knew us in our early life. So we suffered “the torments of the lost” on many occasions because of this backwardness and bashfulness. However, we had a fairly good mind, we suppose, and soon learned to read and spell. We recall one occasion that made the pupils in our class the promise of a prize if we could spell every word without a miss. We studied so hard to have a perfect lesson. We did spell every word in the lesson correctly, but the teacher also gave out the words that were to be found in the instructions that went with the lesson. One of these was “pencil,” which word we missed. We felt that we had been treated unfairly and this rankled in our boyish bosom for a time, but we finally gave it up and our admiration, love and respect for our teacher were restored. From this one small incident, we see how much sevey-year olds appreciate fairness and justice. A little later on we had our first cry over missing a word. This word was “both.” We spelled it “boath,” and we hurt so deeply over missing the word that we burst into tears, a thing we seldom hear of or see now-a-days. We knew a number of others who also wept when they missed the spelling of a word. Such students seldom missed words, while there were others who did not any more care for missing a word that they would have cared for missing the flight of a bird through the air. We kept up the “crying process” until we were about twelve years of age. However, we missed but few words from the time we began to spell until we quit school and took up teaching. One of the last words we recall missing at that old school was the word, “choir,” pronounced as if spelled “quire.” We had never heard that word used in life and supposed that it was properly pronounced “chawer.” So when the teacher gave out the word with the correct pronunciation, we missed it badly. The pain of missing this word lingers with us till today, after about 46 years have passed.
The first term of school lasted only three months and this was the entire length of our first term of school. We had the poorest of equipment, eats that were made of poplar wood, all of about the same height, which meant to a small boy, that his feet were hanging in the air entirely off the floor. The tops of these old seats were badly cut with pocket knives and they would fall over almost without cause. We all had slates and we never saw a writing tablet as a small child. Pencil trimmers were unheard of. We had the old-fashioned penny pencils with a small bit of rubber at the top. On our slates we worked our arithmetic problems, the noise and clatter of the pencils striking the surface of the slate coming down to us through half a century of time. Then when we had a problem solved, we sometimes took it to the teacher for verification. Then we would “spit” on the slate, take the fingers or palm of the hand and “rub off” the problem. Those old slates wee dirty and sometimes became so foul that we had to take water and give them a thorough cleaning. Some of the slates were of the double type, fastened together on one side. When one was done with his work, he placed his slate pencil inside the folded slate and placed it in his desk. Others with single slates had to carry the slate pencil in their pockets. There was quite a lot of difference in slate pencils. Some of them would scratch the surface of the slate and this would ruin a slate. But other were of a softer substance and did not scratch nor mar the surface of the slate. We do not know just what those old slate pencils were made of. The made a white mark on the black slate.
We carried them to and from school regularly each day for our home work had to be done on the slate. We have packed a slate many a time. If the slate was dropped, it generally broke and a broken slate was very unsatisfactory indeed.
The boys and girls sometimes used a slate for “fortune telling,” of which the rising generation never heard. This consisted of writing the names of four of the opposite sex in the four corners on other parts of the slates, then twirl the slate so rapidly until the part having his fortune told would forget the name that went with any one place or corner. Then the slate would be turned over and the party doing the fortune telling, would ask the other party just what was wanted at the corners on the opposite side away form the names. We perhaps do not recall all the words used, but we remember part of them; “Love,” “marry,” “Hate,” “Despise,” “Forsake,” and perhaps others. Students engaged in this sort of thing soon found themselves in disfavor with the teacher, who could easily spot such a “delightful performance,” by the manner of the two parties engaged in such fortune telling, as well as by the twirling of the slate. In this “fortune telling” sometime the party doing the “telling” would write down the names of the ugliest, slouchiest, and most unwanted girls in the entire school, then ask for the response on the other side of the slate. One of our playmates of 45 years ago was engaged in this “repast” one day during study hours and the teacher caught him. He called him by name and said, “Bring that slate up here.” The boy rose slowly form his set, the very picture of abject shame and confusion, holding the tell-tale slate in front of his body. Catching the teacher’s eyes turned for a fraction of a second, the youth raised the slat slight as he bent down and with his tongue, “licked” one name completely off. However, he did not have time to “lick them all off.” And it was pitiful to see the poor boy as the teacher made him call out the names of all the girls whose names he had written on the slate. We still remember part of those names as the “culprit” spoke in a whinning voice that could be heard over the entire room which had grown strangely still. These names had been selected among the poorest and most shabbily dressed girls as well as the most unpopular in school The poor boy twisted and turned this way and that way, but the teacher was relentless and made the unfortunate youth call out the name of all the girls except the one he had “licked off.” This “cured” the boy and we have no knowledge of his “fortune telling” in school from that day onward.
Events one after the other parade themselves before our mental window, and we see ourselves as a barefoot boy, running, jumping and playing on the rough school grounds. We were never very expert in games, with the exceptin of horseshoe pitching and marbles. In these we excelled, but in the others we were a “flop.”
The old school house burned on November 20, 1903, and the one rebuilt next year still stands, but it is silent and still, for its day is past and gone. Here where 50 to 75 boys and girls once went to school there is school no more and the hills that surround it are still and silent and seem to be brooding over happier days that will never come again. The old teachers are all gone and many of the pupils have “gone the way of all the earth.” The first of these to pass into eternity of our early school mates was Charlie Nunley, who was shot to death one night many years ago by a Negro named Woodfork. Charlie was older than the writer, very strong and active for his age, the very picture of health and vigor. We envied him his superior abilities on the school ground. Only in the school room could we scarcely ever hold our own with our playmates of 50 years ago. The next to go was Donoho Towns, whom typhoid fever cut down in 1908. Today more than half the students of our first school are numbered with the “pale nations of the dead.”
As one roams over the school grounds alone, his mind runs back throught the years in a moment of time and sees naught but the cheerful, the bright, the happy and the gay things that youth knew. He hears anew the calls, the shouts, the laughter and mirth of happy school children. He sees only that side of life as it once was, and the dark, the dreary, the sad, the tragic side he can see only with an effort. It was best for us all that we could not know the future as we played, studied to some extent, romped over the hills and found that sweetest part of life, our childhood, too short and all too soon gone. Children of today, enjoy as best you can the sweet, innocent days of childhood, for they will be gone soon, never to return.