May 23, 2012 Edition

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Retired educator looks back

Lavern Penn
Guest Writer

My granddaughter Nicole was talking about the end of her school year recently, and I was telling her about my first years of teaching at Shady Grove School in Lawrence County 64 years ago. I also shared stories of my work from 1957 to 1969 in the Walnut Ridge Schools as a teacher, guidance counselor, bus driver and for the last semester in 1969 as acting superintendent.

After sharing with Nicole, I began writing down memories of my first year of teaching school at Shady Gove in Lawrence County. The lifestyle back then may not seem real to many living and working in today's world. The economy, the standard of living and way of life were very different from what we see today.

Many of us who graduated from high school in Lawrence County at the end of World War II began to go to Dekalb, Sycamore, Rockford and other Northern Illinois towns to find work. Chopping cotton in Lawrence County paid one dollar a day unless it rained and then we did not get to work. Salaries in the Illinois canning and manufacturing factories paid one dollar an hour or more. Many men and women who went to Illinois stayed there, lived there and raised their families. Others of us worked only during the summer canning corn, beans, pumpkin and other food or worked at manufacturing plants.

From 1946 through 1948, I attended Lyon College (then Arkansas College). I worked in the summers in Illinois, and I worked for the college during the school year to pay my tuition and other expenses.

In September 1948, I was standing at the corner of 7th and 19th Avenue in Rockford; I was about to start my work shift at National Lock Company plating chrome on hardware, when a really cold north wind hit me. Inside the plant, I looked at the man on the platform next to me and knew I didn't want to spend my life in a factory like him. I remembered the letter I had recently received stating that two years of college was enough to get a teaching license in Arkansas and that a job was open in Lawrence County. The next morning I caught a bus south and headed home.

Recalls first day

On my first day as a teacher, I left my home near Lynn and drove my 1932 Chevrolet north on the Pete Wasson WPA road to the cut off by the J.Y. Rowsey home and onto Highway 115 North past Annieville. At the Smith Store, I turned west and drove two miles to the Shady Grove School.

As I parked my car, I could see students on the playground, and I also noticed that several panes of glass in the windows of the school were missing. Inside there were chairs and desks, but there was no electricity and no water. There was not even a bucket or dipper for water, and although there was a chalkboard, there was no chalk and no eraser.

There was a wood stove, but there was no wood for it. There was no bell, and no one from the Sloan-Hendrix School at Imboden was present to meet me. I decided to call the students inside, and 17 students in grades one through eight politely came in and sat down.

My first day of teaching school was about to begin, and it was clear that we were going to have to do a lot of 'making do' if we were to have school. My goal was to help these students become interested in their own learning. I wanted to involve them in planning and get them invested in making the school their school.

I began by telling them my name and that I would like to plan how we might start our year together. I passed a paper and pencil around and asked the students to write their name and what grade they would be in on the paper. One of the older students offered to help with the youngest students.

While this was being done, we discussed plans for the coming year. I then dismissed the students for a 15-minute recess.

When class resumed, two of the older female students assisted me with the younger pupils. Melba Dickson agreed to work with a small group in first, second, and third grade on ABCs and other things while Wilma Dickson worked with the other students. I alternated between groups and helped as best I could to get things going.

After lunch and with all students assembled, I again opened the group to discussion and asked about the broken windowpanes. One boy offered to bring a hammer and tacks and another said he would bring cardboard. We then made a list of things we needed - a water bucket and dipper, chalk and an eraser, pencil sharpener, colored crayons and books to read.

I then dismissed school for the day, and I went to buy a ball, bat and basketball for the students to use. There was a rumor that one teacher had slept on the desk during the noon hour and that the students threw persimmons at each other for recreation. I wanted the students to have real recreation at recess.

Lessons learned

About a week into the school term something happened that affected me a great deal over the years. A girl came running into the classroom just as I was about to call the students in for class. A young first grader was cursing loudly on the school grounds and was very angry. I called to him to come into the school, and as I closed the door he began to curse me.

He knew a lot of words and used them forcefully. I asked him to sit down, and he refused. I asked him again, and he cursed more. I firmly grasped his shoulders and said, I want you to sit down. He sat and stared at me a long time. By now the other students were peering through one of the windows that had glass in it; they were quite interested in what was going on inside.

I asked the young man if he had a dog. After a long pause he looked at me. After about 15 minutes of talking with him, I asked if he could come to school and not curse. He said he did not know but that he would try. I called the other students in, and we began classes.

The next year, I was invited to a country dance at Shady Grove, and while I sat watching the dance, this young man came over and sat with me. That memory has been vivid all these many years. The experience with that young man taught me something, and as a result, I never used punishment; instead, I have used understanding as a way of helping people.

One day we ran out of heating wood, and all the students went to Mr. Bellamy Holder's woods to get some wood to bring to school to heat the classroom. Another day we skated on his pond when it froze over. The school is gone now, but it was a place of many lessons 64 years ago. Times were different in 1948.

During the school term I boarded with Bellamy and Mary Holder. Their daughters were Coy and Carol Ann, and that family was warm, kind, and caring. I learned a lot from them, and all the good people of Shady Grove.

My salary was $125 dollars per month. A loaf of bread was 15 cents, and a gallon of gas was 18 cents. World War II and the Great Depression had ended, but we still grew most of what we ate, and we canned all we could for winter. About half the families had a radio, and when a lady died in the community, the neighbors came to get my car for the family to ride in.

Taught at Clover Bend

I also taught at the Clover Bend School. My wife, Winifred, and I taught at the school for three years from 1954 to 1957. Teaching my ninth grade civics class taught me a lesson I still remember. I had modeled my class from instruction I had received from the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, TN. There I had learned the importance of having students involved in their education.

I applied that teaching style in civics so that the students would learn the distinction between the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government. We held elections so the students could understand what it is like to serve in the various government branches. The Clover Bend community was very supportive of the school and teachers

My wife, Winifred, and I still attend the Clover Bend Reunion each May. Viola Callahan Meadows and many others have worked for years to restore the school, providing a place for all of us to return for a great time renewing friendships and remembering the time we spent there. There are many who contribute to the success of the Clover Bend Historical Site. It is a great tribute to the school and community.

After leaving Clover Bend, I joined the Walnut Ridge faculty in 1957, and I stayed there until 1969. I was fortunate to work with two great mentors, Mr. Van Ellis and Mr. A.W. Rainwater, both of whom served as superintendent while I was there. These men were genuine and showed unconditional positive regard for both the teachers and students at Walnut Ridge.

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