Public education in my time

Posted 5/19/19

To give my perspective on the whole of public education in my lifetime, I must start in the fall of 1944 when I entered the first grade in a small coal mining and railroad town. A nice brick school …

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Public education in my time


To give my perspective on the whole of public education in my lifetime, I must start in the fall of 1944 when I entered the first grade in a small coal mining and railroad town. A nice brick school building in Parrish replaced the one room school house in the mining town nearby where my mother had entered the first grade. When a person turned six years old before October 1st of a given year, it was time to go to school. If I had been born six days later I could not have entered school the year that I did, so I was one of the youngest first graders in school. No pre-school programs were available, so the first grade was the starting point in “grade school” as it was then called. My mother, born in 1914, would tell of walking the two or three miles to the Big Ridge schoolhouse as transportation was not then provided. My father, also born in 1914, lost his mother at preschool age (around five years old). His father then joined the ranks of the hobos and caught a train, or trains, that ended up in Texas where he stayed for a period of time. In 1920 there was no governmental structure in place to provide adequate placement of homeless children so Dad was left at a very young age to fend for himself. Dad was the youngest of three boys and they were left to be cared for by an older sister who had married young. As school attendance was not enforced, their childhood public education was very limited. When very young, Dad took off to live and survive in the local forest and on the rivers where he received his vocational education. There were a few families who lived on the river banks or in the forest who befriended him and allowed him to stay with or near them, and they received work from him in exchange for their generosity. One family in Arley in Winston County can still show people a rock shelter located on their land under which Dad built a pole wall for escape from the elements and where he would spend much of the winter hunting and trapping. Ninety years later some of the poles still remain where he left them. This account is given to show that at that time education did not always come from a structured class environment. Some received their education in classrooms; there were others whose school desks remained unoccupied the majority of time and were relinquished to others after three or four years. Illiteracy was commonplace at that time and many more had very limited abilities to do basic reading and writing. Education has made great strides since that time.

During the past several weeks I have concentrated on the many schools that were in Walker County when transportation and available space were limited. Many of these schools limited the yearly sessions to three month and all age groups met in the same classroom where one teacher taught all grades. In the early years there were no desk, only hard logs split in half, the two halves placed on opposite sides of the building where the boys occupied one side and the girls the other. A table was provided for the teacher to use. The younger children might be learning to read, all verbally, while the older ones might be using slate tablets to learn ciphering (arithmetic). Some of the sessions were reported to have become quite chaotic with some reading out loud while others were discussing arithmetic problems.

Most teachers, and some students, boarded with a local family during the school year as adequate transportation was unavailable to easily commute. Teachers would have the students entering in their first school year learning the basics. At that time many of the children were raised by illiterate parents who were unable to provide a good educational background for their children. Consequently, the teacher had to start from the basics to help develop an understanding of the subjects taught. By the year that I started into school, (1943), great advancements had been made in making education possible for all as buses provided transportation and adequate classrooms and teachers had been secured for all grades. First grade teachers focused on reducing the illiteracy rate by teaching the basics. The three R’s were named as being essential, although the ones who coined that phrase apparently needed to have spent a little longer in the classroom themselves to get the correct spellings: reading, riteing, (writing) and rithmetic, (arithmetic). Textbooks and the chalk board were used to assist in these efforts. Recess was my favorite period of the day, as I never really took a liking to remaining silent and paying attention to what the teacher was trying to get me to learn. My wandering mind never seemed to quite settle down when I was a captive audience. Perhaps this is an area in which childhood is the same now as then and which will be eighty years from now despite all the pills that can be prescribed.

Contact Wheeler Pounds at 3424 Kings Mill Rd, Oakman, AL 35579, or at