MOULTRIE — Just a few days ago, my fifth grade teacher turned 99. And it’s time I paid public tribute to someone who helped keep a redheaded country boy in line as he began to learn how to connect words into somewhat meaningful communication, to appreciate history and to not succumb to math.
Now I’ve seen Mrs. Henrietta many times at various gatherings through the years and she always looked just like she did when I was in fifth grade at Whigham Elementary in Grady County. I’m not just saying that because there was an essay I didn’t finish or a library book that I never returned with hopes that she won’t call in the markers. Nosiree, it wasn’t that long ago that I saw her and the smile was the same as when I wore Red Camel overalls and was barefooted as a yard dog, sitting in the second row from that wall of windows and the old radiator heating system that took half the day to cut the chill.
Now I didn’t go barefooted because I didn’t have shoes. For us country boys, to see who would shuck their shoes the earliest in the spring and not return to their brogans until after the first frost was sort of a contest. I generally shed my shoes about mid-March. But I never claimed the trophy. I think Yancey Maxwell held the record.
When I think of Mrs. Henrietta and fifth grade I think of her soft voice and gentle ways. She could be stern when she needed to be. She just didn’t need to be that often. I only recall one time when she had to raise her voice at me.
Also when I think about Mrs. Henrietta and her colleagues of that day, I think of a time when almost all of us country boys carried pocket knives to school. In those days, pocket knives were considered tools, not weapons. It was not uncommon for a teacher to ask, “Can I borrow a knife from one of you boys?”
My how times have changed! Today having a knife in your pocket at school could lead to an arrest, confiscation and maybe even national press by the time the issue is settled.
We often compared knives. The brands included Barlow, Kabar, Case, Uncle Henry, Tree Brand, Old Timer, Schrade-Walden (no relation), Queen Steel, etc. I had a Case and a Barlow.
Mrs. Harrell represents a time when we all wore our pants up around our waists. It would have been difficult to play “flies and skinners” having to hold our pants up with one hand.
But more to the point, our mamas would have whomped the snot out of us had they caught us with our pants below our butts and our underwear on display.
She also represents a time when, if you got in trouble at school then you would do everything in your power to keep word of it from getting back home. Let’s just say that the double jeopardy concept didn’t apply in such instances.
But not letting word get back home was kind of a rare thing. In those days, if you didn’t behave in the community, there was someone out there who would tell your mama and daddy.
Of course, some of those old sergeants at arm wouldn’t wait to pass word onto your folks, they would just get onto you right there.
And in retrospect, I realize that wasn’t a bad thing. Maybe we would be better off today if we had more communities of adults like that.
So I wish a belated happy birthday to Mrs. Henrietta. You represent all that is good about public education.
Walden is editor/publisher of The Moultrie Observer.