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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Salisbury Elementary--My Favorite Places In Appalachia

Salisbury Elementary--My Favorite Places In Appalachia

I was lucky enough to attend Salisbury Elementary School at Dema, Kentucky.  Salisbury was a traditional two room school in the Knott County Kentucky school system.  I spent my entire seven year elementary school career there.  I was double promoted from first grade to third grade resulting in the seven years of education rather than the usual eight years.  Double promotion was relatively common in that time for students who performed significantly above their peers.  I was not the only student double promoted in that school during those years from 1957 to 1964.  Based on my marked lack of success in college a few years later, I am not in favor of double promotion.  It was my experience, and I believe also the experience of other such students, that the resultant college admission at age sixteen came at a time when social maturity was significantly behind the level needed to succeed in a college setting.  However, I have to say that my overall experience at Salisbury was positive and I have many fond memories of the place and people I knew there. 

 I was born in Knott County at the old Lackey Hospital although my parents lived at the time, July 1951, on Steele's Creek in Floyd County.  Wayland, KY,  sits at the mouth of Steele's Creek.  My parents ran a small country store about a mile up Steele's Creek for several years.  They also owned a piece of land on Right Beaver Creek in Knott County at Dema about a mile below the mouth of Salisbury Branch where the school was located.  In early 1957, they built a new store on that piece of land and we moved there shortly before school began in the fall of 1957.  This prevented me from having begun my education in one county and completing it in another.  I entered grade school that year without even knowing the alphabet.  I learned quickly, appreciated education in general, and had a teacher, Rita Mae Moore, who was competent in early education.  She was my teacher for three years from first grade to fourth grade.  My teacher for the remaining four years of elementary school was Emily Martin.  She was also well skilled in teaching and lived at the time in the home of her parents between my home and the school.  I actually walked past her home on the way to and from school each day. 

Students walked to and from school in those days, rain or shine.  There were very few days off school because of inclement weather due to the fact that most students actually lived within walking distance of their schools.  However, all that changed before I was out of elementary school when the Floyd County School Bus Wreck killed more than 25 students and a bus driver during a flood.  Even today, most school systems in Eastern Kentucky take a very conservative approach to scheduling school during bad weather.  I had about a half mile to walk along Kentucky Route 7 and then crossed Beaver Creek on a swinging bridge, walked about a half mile up the C & O Railroad tracks, then a short distance up Salisbury Branch to the school.  The building was a two room sandstone structure which sat slightly up the side of the hill in the edge of a large bottom.  There were no houses close to the school.  We had a coal and wood burning pot bellied stove in each room, two outdoor toilets on the upper side of the building, one for boys and one for girls.  The hand pump and well were located on the lower, down stream side of the building.  Amazingly, no one ever contracted a serious disease because the toilets were about 50 to 75 feet uphill and upstream from the well. An older boy, usually an eighth grader, was paid ten cents a day in winter to come in early, build the fires, collect kindling, and pump drinking water.  The drinking water in each room sat on a wooden table in a galvanized bucket with a galvanized dipper.  The only real nod to health and hygiene was the requirement that each student bring a drinking cup or glass at the beginning of the school year and drink only from your own glass or cup. 

Swinging Bridge Like The One On My Way To School This one was in Old Mill Park, West Liberty, KY, and was lost in the March 2, 2012, tornado.

Naturally there was no lunch room and there were no prepared lunches.  Each student usually brought a lunch from home.  But  a few were able to run home quickly during lunch, eat, and return to school for the afternoon.  There was a play ground of sorts which was bare earth except for an occasional few blades of grass.  The ground was usually littered with small pebbles which caused frequent falls during running games.  I still have a small scar over one eye due to a fall during a rapid run around the corner of the building which ended with me landing on my head.  However, injuries were uncommon and I do not recall that anyone was ever seriously injured at school. We frequently played marbles, hop scotch, and baseball with a rubber ball and no gloves.  There was also a basketball goal and sometimes we had a ball.  Sometimes we didn't.  During recess and the lunch hour, boys in the "Big Room" from fifth to eighth grade could go anywhere we wanted so long as we were back in school on time.  The girls were restricted to a small area around the school.  This blatantly sexist method was used to prevent any inappropriate actions between the sexes.  During the lunch hour, it was common for the boys to hit the hills hiking, running, playing tag, and looking for evidence of moonshine stills.  During the school year, most moonshiners wouldn't set up within a mile of the school.  But we could still sometimes find evidence of stills which had been established in spring and dismantled before school began.  We also played a game called "Riding Out" young poplars.  We climbed the young, slim, flexible trees to heights around 20 to 30 feet until they began to lean from the weight.  We rode them to the ground or until they intersected with another tree so we could move from tree to tree.  Sometimes on a downhill ride, we might be able to go several hundred feet before we ran out of flexible timber.  On only one occasion was anyone ever hurt doing this when a young tree broke near the top and allowed the rider to fall nearly twenty feet.  We carried him back to school where he regained his breath and limped on home somewhat sore.  We also would sometimes find honey bee swarms or yellow jacket nests and take chances harassing them.  Once, a student got too close while throwing rocks at a yellow jacket nest and was swarmed by the angry bees.  He ran, rolled, and bounced several hundred yards down the hill out of  the woods and into a hole of water in the creek which was deep enough to allow him to roll under the water until the yellow jackets gave up and left.  On another occasion, we caught a black snake about 5 feet long and held its mouth open and poured it full of water in order to see what would happen when we agitated it into striking.  The snake became a water hose for a brief time.  Today, I don't believe that most of us would participate in this kind of cruelty to animals. 

Another time, several of the older boys found a pair of dogs in the act of reproduction.  Due to the anatomical idiosyncracys of dogs, they could not get away.  The boys grabbed the connected dogs and carried them to the top of the stone steps which led into the front of the school.  Naturally, both teachers were quite upset.  But I don't recall any particular punishment other than the same boys being required to remove the dogs from sight of the school and the smaller students. However, I will note for the record that, since most of our parents owned livestock, very few of us were ignorant about animal reproduction. 

 On another occasion, during a trip to the woods in early spring, we found a copper head which had come out during a warm snap and been overcome by the cold a few hours later.  We carried the stiff snake into the school on a coal shovel and laid it near the warm stove.  When it became warm enough to move, we would scoop it up and carry it back out into the cold to become stiff and slow again.  This might not be a safe way to learn herpetology, and it would never be allowed in a school today; but it worked for us and no one except the copperhead came out the worse for wear.  Another cold weather game was to entice a young student to place their mouth on the cold pump handle until it froze to the metal.  I have since seen a version of this trick in a movie and laughed to remember my childhood. 

We also had an annual event to rescue lost pencils which had fallen through the cracks in the floor to the enclosed dirt underneath.  A section of floor could be removed and two or three older boys would crawl under the floor gathering up pencils.  When they were done, the floor was replaced and the pencils divided between the students.  By todays standards, many of our daily activities would be considered wanton endangerment and no school system would allow it.  But we never had serious injuries, learned many practical applications of our play, and grew up to be more resilient than most students in modern schools which have been sanitized, made nearly risk free, and lost much of the genuine fun we experienced.  We also had a regular Friday afternoon event of alternating spelling contests and adding contests.  We learned to do math in our heads far faster than most students can do it today on calculators.  We got our exercise running and walking to and from school.  People in the neighborhood watched us come and go to make sure we were safe.  We learned a great deal.  Nearly all of us grew up healthy, hard working, and intelligent.  For all its shortcomings, the education we received was better in many ways than todays methods. 

Another activity which I fondly remember, but would not want to see take place in schools today was the monthly visit of "The Bible Women".  Two female missionaries connected to Camp Nathaniel, which still exists today, lived on Right Beaver just below the mouth of Sly Branch in a house they rented from a local couple.  They made a circuit of the schools in the county visiting one or two each day.  They were known as Miss Eva and Miss Heibert.  Miss Heibert's first name was Alma.  Miss Eva had a Scandinavian last name which I forgot long ago and none of us could pronounce correctly.  So she was known by her first name only.  Miss Heibert played accordion and led us in gospel songs. Miss Eva always used a felt board and cut outs to tell a Bible story.  They also gave away gifts to students who remembered and repeated Bible verses with larger gifts for ever growing collections of Bible verses committed to memory. No matter how bad the weather or road conditions, they always appeared on time for their visits.  If necessary, they would each carry their equipment, including the cumbersome accordion, from the paved road about a half mile to and from the school.  They also had a small lending library of religious childrens books in their home and during the summer students who lived within walking distance could go there to borrow books.  I have fond memories of these two dedicated women and their work.  However, I learned long ago that the US Constitution is also sacred and separation of church and state is, and should always be, inviolable.  There is no place for religion in the public schools. 

Another of my frequently remembered days at school there involved chewing tobacco.  Nearly all of the male students usually smoked or chewed, and sometimes both by the fourth or fifth grade.  I was no exception.  One day, at lunch time, another boy and I hit the woods.  I had a lunch of two fried egg sandwiches followed by a chew of tobacco.  Then we began hiking up the narrow, rocky hollow behind the school.  It must have been spring because there was water in the branch and moss and slime on the rocks.  Just as I was about to spit, I slipped on a slick rock, went head over hills on my back, and swallowed the entire chew of tobacco.  I actually thought I was going to be able to overcome it for a while.  We returned to school on time and as class began I realized I was becoming sicker as time progressed.  I finally had to excuse myself to the toilet.  I will never forget the sight of that chew of tobacco and two fried egg sandwiches through the toilet hole.  I never chewed again for at least four or five years. 

For a few years, some special program sent a music teacher to each of the rural schools in the county once a month.  This person primarily taught us folk songs from a little green and white song book.  I remember learning "Barbara Allen", "Froggie Went A Courting", and "The Cabbage Head Song". There was also another song whose title I have forgotten about a young man getting married to a woman who was "twice six, twice seven, twice twenty and eleven...but she is a young thing and cannot leave her mother."   Any of these special programs, whether it was music or "The Bible Women", gave us half a day outside our ordinary routine and we loved it. 

The list of things Salisbury Elementary did not have includes running water, electric heat, a lunch program, a school nurse, indoor bathrooms, or lengthy lists of rules intended to protect students from themselves.  The list of things Salisbury Elementary had included a sense of community, teachers and parents who actually knew each other, corporal punishment and parents who didn't question its administration, freedom to learn experientially, and an idyllic setting.  I believe the things it had far overcomes the things it did not have.  And in that time period most rural schools in America were very similar with the very same strengths and weaknesses.

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