from One Room Schoolin', A Living History of Central West Virginia
By Grady F. Guye of Elkins, West Virginia
This story was written by Grady F. Guye on March 15, 1998. Grady died December 18, 2001. His wife, Judith A. Guye, Judy, shares this.
It was 1933 when I entered Victor School located on Salt Lick in Montrose, West Virginia. It was my first experience in a one-room school. All eight grades were taught in one room and by one teacher. I was in the fifth grade when I enrolled, but this was a completely new experience to me. I had previously attended a large school in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, (James E. Rodgers School on Columbo Street) where each subject was taught by a different teacher. My parents had lost everything they owned during the depression that was underway, and we had moved back to the farm in Montrose with my maternal grandmother. Now it was back to the very basics.
Fortunately, over the next three years, we had three of the finest teachers we could possibly have had. I say "we" because my younger brother, Louis, and my younger sister, Elizabeth, also attended this same school. The first year we were there, our teacher was Mr. Morris Wilmoth. It was his first year of teaching. He was just a young man, but he was an outstanding teacher and a wonderful person. The second year, our teacher was Mr. Russell Curtis, another outstanding educator and a distant cousin as well. The third year, it was Mr. Guy Coberly, Jr. He too was just a young man at the time, but he was an excellent teacher, and I spent quite a bit of time talking with him at every opportunity. These were three of the most dedicated teachers one could have had, and I've always appreciated what they did for me. My whole life has been influenced by these three men.
The school itself was just one big room with a blackboard clear across the front wall. The teacher's desk stood impressively in the front and center of the room about four feet from the blackboard. One long bench with a curved back was bolted down facing the teacher but to the right of the room. This was known as the "recitation bench.” In the very center of the room was a huge Burnside coal and wood stove with a metal pipe running up through the ceiling. During the cold winter months, that stove was red hot most of the time. Set back on each side, a safe distance from the stove, were the neat rows of desks for the students. Each desk had an ink well (a round hole) in the right hand corner designed to hold a small bottle of ink. Many assignments were required to be written in pen and ink. Books were stored on a shelf underneath the work surface. The tops of all the desks bore the scars of many previous students. There were the old spots of spilled ink, deep pencil grooves, and the carved initials that gave silent testimony to the efforts of past generations.
Each class had their turn on the recitation bench as they discussed their lesson and homework of the day. All other students were expected to remain quiet and to be studying for their turn on the bench. I have often thought such open discussion promoted a certain amount of learning by others in the room. There was always a certain amount of smothered laughter when one of the students on the bench was unable to answer a question or gave an answer that was funny to everyone in the room. Today, I marvel at how well the teachers maintained control.
Of course, the one thing that contributed more than anything else was the fear of being paddled or switched in front of the whole school. Punishment, when necessary, was meted out at the teacher's desk right up front for all to see. It was indeed a humiliating experience that you wanted to avoid at all costs. You did your best to obey the rules. The majority of the students at that time were big for their age. They were strong, healthy farm boys and girls. I do not remember a girl being subjected to punishment, but I saw several boys "get it.”
I remember one occasion when Mr. Russell Curtis had been pushed to the limit by one of the boys. He called me to the front of the room, handed me his pocketknife and said, "Go cut some switches for me right now!" I was scared stiff as I hurried out of the room, across the road and up into the woods. I knew my cousin, Derrill Ferguson, was going to get the switching, so I cut some small switches and hurried back to the classroom. Mr. Curtis took one look at the switches and glared at me as he said, "You go back out there and cut some real switches or you're gonna get it too." I really got the message that time. I went running out of the room, back across the road, up into the woods, whacked off some much bigger switches and came running back. Mr. Curtis was waiting and said, "That's more like it! Now get back to your seat!"
He turned to Derrill who was standing defiantly beside the desk. "Alright, put your hands on the desk and bend over!" You could have heard a pin drop at that moment. Those switches hissed through the air and cracked against the seat of his bib overalls five or six times. I saw Darrell gritting his teeth, but he didn't make a sound. The whole room winced each time those switches cracked. I hurt even worse because I was the one that cut them.
When Mr. Curtis finished, he looked around the room, put his hand on Derrill's shoulder, and said, I didn't want to do that, but you have to learn that when I say something, I expect you to listen. Take your seat." That was enough to make the whole room listen more intently. There wasn't any discipline problem for several months after that. Derrill was a better student; even bragged about the licking he got and how he didn't even holler once.
I was a skinny kid at the time and not as big or strong as the rest of the boys. I was classified as "from the city,” and that didn't help me a bit. There were times when I was picked on considerably because I made better grades than the others, but I usually got along very well.
We always had a few minutes for a "recess' in the morning and one in the afternoon. It was a rest period when you were supposed to go the bathroom or go out and play for a few minutes. During warm weather, we usually played a game we called "Ante Over.” Teams were chosen with one group going to one side of the schoolhouse and one group to the other side. We used one ball, and it would be thrown over the building. Whoever caught it rushed around the building and tried to hit someone on the other team before they could run around to the other side. If they got hit, they were out. The ball was thrown back and forth until there was only one person left, and that was the winner.