Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cherokee Elementary: Johnson City 1968

My family had moved from Vancouver, Washington to Tennessee when I was in the middle of Fourth Grade. In Tennessee, we first rented a house in Jonesborough so I finished Fourth at this school in this little town in the hills of Northeast Tennessee. But then we bought a house just outside of Johnson City (where my father worked--had been transferred to--as a chief-of-staff psychologist for the Veterans Administration). But since the house was outside of the city limit, we younger kids had to attend the county school (my two older brothers went to East in the city, which my parents paid for them to attend). Cherokee Elementary--the county school--was a few miles from our house. We rode the bus sparingly, but mainly got rides--traded rides--with other families who lived in our brand new development.
To us--or to me, at least--Cherokee seemed like an enlightened place compared to the big, backwoods school of Jonesborough. Cherokee was a single-story, red brick, semi-newish place, with tiled halls and classrooms and open playgrounds. It was a country school, but not as "country" as the other town we had just come from. Also by then, I think we had acclimated (somewhat) to life in Tennessee compared to the shell-shock of jumping into school mid-year in Jonesborough.
Anyway, I attended fifth and sixth grade at Cherokee. They were decent years. Good years, really.
My Fifth Grade teacher was Mrs. Roberts--I think__ and she was pleasant enough. I met new people, made new friends, a few enemies. I was still confounded by this southern world I had been dropped into, but I liked where we lived (the creek and woods and pastures, the unbuilt lots) and--after some initial North/South fights at the new school, I liked my new friends. In fact, there was one boy--Jimmy West--who had gone to Jonesborough and who I knew and so we hung out a bit at school. (Jimmy came down with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever after taking a tick off his dog and missed almost half a year of school. He used to call me up and I'd sit and talk with him, while he was laid up with nothing to do at home. I didn't know where he lived, only saw him at school until he got sick. I remember, he once showed me his hands which were severely cracked raw from dry skin--I mean cracked and lined like an old Indian's skin in wild west photos--and I told him to put some lotion on them. He looked at me, shook his head, thought that that was too girly to do. I looked back at him and shook my head and said, essentially, who cares? Your hands look horrible, so put some damn lotion on them. He did and was grateful to me for not making fun of him.)
Again, anyway. For Sixth Grade I had Mrs. Owens who was quite a character. She liked to tell us stories. She also liked to tell us how Lincoln had wanted to send all the slaves back to Africa (intimating something or other to us kids) and stories about driving by an insane asylum at night and hearing this constant screaming and when she stopped her car, a bat had been caught on her antennae. She talked about her cat, about her health. She was a bit of a nut, but I kind of liked her (she could also be mean).
Tennessee schools were big a corporal punishment. Every teacher had a big wooden paddle hanging in their classroom. Some teachers were known for their paddles--size and shape, whether it had holes drilled into it--some were known for their proficiency to use it. I got paddled at least twice, maybe three times, that I can remember. One time it was because, when the teacher was out, my friend and I (Kurt Waddawick--he was a character) went to the newly re-glassed windows of our room and stole the new putty from where they'd put in the panes. The putty was like clay and we made things with it, threw it at each other. The boy who was supposed to be watching the class tattled on us [I knew the kid, considered him a friend] and we got taken out into the hall and paddled [that day at recess, I tripped the boy as he ran away from us thinking I was going to punch him--I wasn't, but then I tripped him and felt bad about it]) One time I got sent to the principle and paddled for whistling in line at gym class. Besides the justification for the punishment, the problem was that it had not been me who was whistling, it was the kid next to me who was also tall and blondish and the gym teacher pulled me out instead. I explained it was not me, but she nor the principle cared and paddled me--this set off a fierce sense of injustice in me and I still resent it. I also got in a fight in the boys room--not one of my choosing but some kid deciding to pick on me. I got sent to the principle's for that, though I had not started it, she said I partially at fault and I think I got paddled (later that year--in the summer--the boy saw me at the city swimming pool and came over and talked to me like I was a good friend; he asked if I thought I had passed and I had no idea what he was talking about, until I understood he was asking if I had advanced to the next grade at school--the thought of not passing had never entered my mind--because I guess he had not passed and had to repeat the grade).
There was also a religious--Bible Belt Christian religious--current running at the school. Everyday we started with Devotions. We said prayers before going to lunch. I was totally confounded by this. I didn't resent it so much as I just couldn't quite figure out the purpose for it in a school. I knew none of the words, so I either stayed silent or mouthed some words along with the prayers. And then there were the religious rallies/assemblies that the school sponsored. All classes had to assemble in the gym and some preachers would talk to us about the bible and Jesus and then hold contests to see who could memorize the most verses of the Bible. Then, a month later or so, we assembled again and the kids got up and recited their verses and received prizes for their efforts--the more you could memorize, the better the prizes. Hmmm.
Anyway (again and again), there were all sorts of things that went on at Cherokee that I found odd or different or just interesting to me in my own little self-history. It was not the most scholarly of educations (to put it politely) but it was an education of a different sort, one that I would not take back for all the prep schools in heaven.

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