The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Ozark Dreams and Mountain Memories - Part 23 of 24

By Lillie A. Emery © 1990

Issue: January, 1990

"My First Day at School, Part 2"

Editor's Note: This is a serialized, true story of a poor Ozark family in the 1930's as seen through the eyes of one of their children; experience their hardships and heart warming togetherness as they struggle through and celebrate life in the Ozark Mountains.

The able faculty at Paul Revere throughout its twenty year history had always consisted of Mr. and Mrs. W.J. Branson. Mrs. Branson only substituted for Mr. Branson when he had to plow, round up some strayed cattle or hogs or do some other important things.

Mr. and Mrs. Branson never tired of telling about what splendid upbringing they had given their boy and girl and how successful they both turned out. They both had married and lived near the county seat. Their boy was a substitute mail carrier, "Helping the Federal Government handle important matters that could be taken care of only by a well educated brought up person like their obedient son." And their girl had married a good Baptist preacher and she taught Sunday School and in her other spare time she helped poor unlearned people get their young'uns churched up and schooled up properly.

So that was the examples they wanted all of their students to copy. They both said they aimed for every boy and girl who came to their school to turn out that well and in order for them to do so they would treat each and every boy and girl just like he was one of their own; therefore each time someone didn't behave properly or study they would thrash him thoroughly with the hickory switch.

I was just standing there thinking about all that and all the other stories the older children had told and about all the funny happenings that had taken place right there in that very room. I didn't even hear Mr. Branson when he came in.

He looked at us three and said, "Well, well, three new students." He cleared his throat and said, "What is your name?"

He was tall, lanky, sunbrowned and wrinkled. He looked like Abraham Lincoln without a beard. He wore a blue broadcloth shirt and had his trouser cuffs rolled up above his muddy shoe tops. He had on new blue Rockford socks like Mama ordered for Papa from Sears Roebuck.

He said, "Well if you can't tell me your names, can you write your names and ages on the blackboard?" We all three did as we were told. He cleared his throat again and said, "Hmmm." Then he pointed his finger at Andy and said accusingly, "You've been to school here before."

Andy said, "Yes, when I was about eight years old." Mr. Branson said, "You haven't been to school since you were eight?" Andy looked at me and Jonathan and mumbled, "We went to a school over yonder way for a spell." He waved his arms out toward the hills.

Mr. Branson said, "Well then where are your transfer cards?"

Andy began to stutter sort of and said, "I 'spect I ort to tell the truth."

Mr. Branson said, "Well, just what is the truth?"

Andy said, "They went and fell in the creek."

Mr. Branson said, "You mean you dropped your transfer cards in the creek?"

Andy said, "Yup, I mean yes sir. I lost my balance on the foot log and pert near fell in myself."

Mr. Branson paced back and forth a few times then he pointed a finger at Jonathan and said, "Jonathan, if you were going to eat half an apple how many pieces would you cut the apple in?"

For the first time I had ever seen, Jonathan seemed to be really stumped for words. He kept looking down at his wiggling toes and then he finally looked at Mr. Branson and said, "I ain't never et no pieces of apples; I always just et whole apples. But if an apple pie would do, I et half of one of them and I cut the pie in two pieces for that."

Mr. Branson said, "That's just fine, Jonathan." Then he turned around and said, "Winnie, if you found three hen's nests and there were seven eggs in each nest, how many eggs would you have altogether?"

I answered, "That'd be twenty-one and if the hens set on the eggs twenty-one days, a mess of baby chicks would hatch out."

Mr. Branson looked at Andy for a minute then said, "Andy, if you picked 86 pounds of cotton for me and I paid you 50 cents per hundred, how much money would you have?"

Andy answered, "That would be 43¢."

Mr. Branson told Andy to go to the blackboard and show him how he figured to get that amount. Andy did as he asked him to. Then Mr. Branson pointed his finger at Jonathan and told him he'd be in the 4th grade and that I would be in the 5th and Andy in the 6th grade. Then Mr. Branson said, "Andy, too bad about your transfer cards."

Jonathan piped up and asked, "What's a transfer card?" Andy gave him a desperate look and said, "Silly, that's the kind I dropped in the creek."

Jonathan didn't say another word. Mr. Branson pointed to a double desk and told the boys to sit there and he told me to sit in the single desk just across the aisle from them. Then he looked at his watch and went outside and rung the school bell.

There was a shuffle of shoes and bare feet as an assortment of children ranging in ages from about six to about nineteen years old settled down to begin learning.

First Mr. Branson picked up the flag and told everyone to take a good look at it and to count the stars and stripes. Then he talked about how it represented freedom and justice and all the other good things we had right there in our hill country. He said we hill people were a rich people because most everyone in them parts owned land - actually owned a little bit of the greatest country on earth and that everyone could come and go as he chose, could go to church and school or anywhere else he had a mind to go. He said that flag stood for all that because our brave forefathers had fought and died for that very flag. Then we all pledged allegiance to the flag and sang "My Country Tis of Thee." Then Mr. Branson said it was a miracle that we could look out over the hills and meadows and know they were our very own, but that it was even more of a miracle that we could look up to the horizon, up to the stars and know that we could go up there to heaven some day if we wanted to badly enough to live by the golden rule and ten commandments. Then we all sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "When The Saints Go Marching In."

That afternoon was long and tedious for everyone but Jonathan really had trouble sitting still and studying. It was an awfully hot July day with lots of sunshine and no breeze at all. But for me watching all the children recite was funny. Some of them would stand up and recite in a very loud voice and some of them would just mumble along. I was enjoying it all till Mr. Branson called on me. My tongue actually just seemed to stick to the roof of my mouth and I couldn't believe that that strange voice was really my own. When I sat down, Dovie Davis whispered, "Your dress is so long it's tacky." And Little David Malcolm, a gawky about six foot tall redhead who was sitting in the desk behind me said, "Ye'll shore have a mess of purty yeller hair."

Jonathan had one of Widow Bloom's snuff cans in his pocket and a wad of twine string. He took the snuff can out and set it on top of his desk behind his book, and mercy be, he took the lid off the can and out marched a stick worm. He goosed it along with his pencil and it marched back and forth across his desk top several times. Andy was trying to get him to put it away; the other children were twittering and giggling. Before he even turned around from the blackboard, Mr. Branson reached for the hickory switch and then he came over and stood by Jonathan's desk. He said, "Well, well. I do declare but we have two schools going on here today; one is for teaching boys and girls the three R's and the other is for teaching stick worms to march".

It was quiet in there except for the buzz of a few flies. Then Mr. Branson brought the hickory switch down with a sharp crack across the corner of Jonathan's desk top and asked, "Jonathan, do you think teaching this worm to march is more important than studying?" Jonathan said, "Why no, no sir. I jest forgot fur a minute." Mr. Branson said, "Now boys and girls, I need your help. Will somebody please tell me how to help Jonathan remember not to bring that snuff can and worm to school anymore."

Danny Davis held up his hand. Mr. Branson said, "Danny, do you have a good idea for me?" Danny said, "Yep, er, yes sir. I've already thought of a right smart plan so's Jonathan won't be bothering us other folks with that there snuff can an' that there worm no more."

Mr. Branson said, "Well tell us about your idea Danny." Danny said, "Give me the ole snuff can so's I can throw the blamed thing in a gully when I go home and make Jonathan bite that blamed worm's head off." There were lots of giggles and grimacing faces and Jonathan jumped up then and sat right back down, holding onto the snuff can and worm and glared at Danny. Mr. Branson asked, "Jonathan, do you think Danny's idea is a good idea?" Jonathan said, "It's such a no good fur nothing idea that no fool ort to try it." Mr. Branson said, "Jonathan, stand up and tell us why you think Danny's idea is such a bad idea."

Jonathan stood up and shifting his weight from one foot to the other and clearing his throat, looked back at Danny and said, "Well, I can't bite this here worm's head off 'cause I hain't got no idea which blamed end is its head and I bet Danny Davis hain't a knowing that neither!"

Continue to the conclusion of "My First Day at School."