The last vocation I ever thought I would be involved in is teaching. But a teacher I became — for a memorable three weeks. It was in a remote one-room school in the mountains of Montgomery county Virginia. I had about 18 students enrolled in six grades. Six of the 18 were only five years old, too young to be enrolled in school but their parents had sent them anyway.
This was in the fall of 1938, the year I graduated from the University of Virginia. It was a recession year, recession within the Great Depression, and jobs were very scarce. It had been a discouraging time for me. I spent some time during the summer with my Uncle Riner and his family in Buffalo hoping to find employment there. I visited my cousin Elizabeth and her husband Jack Beckert in Rochester, and was interviewed there by the personnel director for Eastman Kodak.
I returned to Roanoke to take a temporary job my Aunt Vedy had arranged for me in a plant manufacturing tomato cans. It was an assembly line job. I stood at the head of the line by a machine that rapidly picked up flat pieces of tin, one by one, and sent them along the line where they would be curved, sealed, and a bottom attached. My job was two-fold. I stacked the flat pieces of tin into an enclosure from which a great metal claw would snatch them up, two or three a second, and send them on their way. If the machine jammed, which it frequently did, I would strike a lever to stop the machine and then take huge pliers to pull out the crumpled pieces of tin. The faster I hit the lever, the fewer pieces got crumpled. The only satisfaction I got on the job was seeing how fast I could stop the machine once it jammed.
As far as I can recall, it was the only job I’ve ever had where I punched a time clock. It wasn’t very pleasant employment. Less pleasant was a job the management assigned me in order to keep me employed after they shut down that particular line. I was relegated to a damp earthen basement where I, a college graduate, was engaged in straightening out as much as possible the accumulation of crumpled pieces of tin. Then, tomato season over in Virginia, the operation moved to Florida for the winter. I was offered a job there, but I declined.
My friend Ed Sellers, a Washington and Lee journalism graduate, was working in the public relations office for the Norfolk & Western Railroad, and he knew of my interest in becoming a reporter. He advised me there were going to be a couple of openings at the Roanoke World-News because two reporters were leaving.
I promptly submitted an application to W. C. Stouffer, the nervous, irascible managing editor for the paper. He informed me he had a stack of applications a foot high, and that there were no openings that he knew of. I went back twice see him, the first time to take a short sketch entitled “Red Grange,” about a rooster. I had written it for my English composition class at the University of Virginia. He mailed it back, saying it was well-written. But the last time I went to see him he reiterated he had a stack of applications a foot high and that if I didn’t stop bothering him I would never get a job there.
Then in September I had a health problem. My lower wisdom teeth were impacted, and I had an old dentist in Salem remove one of them. I think he botched the job. My face on that side swelled up like a grapefruit, I ran a fever, and was in bed for a week. At the end of the week I took a long walk with my mother and that night the tooth hemorrhaged. I bled all night, and finally the dentist reluctantly agreed to see me about 5 a.m. after my mother told him I was bleeding to death. “A little blood at night looks like a whole lot,” he had told her. But he stopped the bleeding.
Now it was October and I had no job prospects; and I was rundown from my tooth experience. I accompanied my mother to Christiansburg, county seat of Montgomery county, on some business of hers there. More as a gesture than anything else, I went in to see the county superintendent of schools, C. C. Shelbourne. I feared there was virtually no prospect of a job opening for a teacher because it was already October. But an opening there was.
Shelbourne explained there was this remote school for which he had been unable to find a woman teacher willing to take the job. The school was two miles up a mountain road from the nearest decent place to find room and board. But he also explained to me that I was not at all qualified to teach; I hadn’t even had the hygiene course that every graduate in Virginia was supposed to have. How I graduated without it I don’t know. So, more discouragement; I got up to leave.
“Well, do you want this job or not?” he asked. I couldn’t believe it. Why yes I wanted it. So the necessary arrangements were made, including my staying with a farm family on Little River just a a mile or so upstream from the Pulaski county town of Snowville.
The Mr. Altizer, at whose home I stayed, was a part-time farmer who also did part-time carpentry work in Radford, so he had a higher standard of living than most of the people nearer the school. He and his wife were very pleasant, and they had a shy 13-year-old daughter. They lived in the kitchen during the week, and the cook stove was the only heat in the house. They did have a space heater in the living room, where there was overstuffed furniture; but I never saw it lit because that was only on weekends when I was home in Roanoke.
The cost per month for room and board was $15. For this I got breakfast, sausage and biscuits; a packed lunch of sausage and biscuits; and dinner, as I recall, also sausage and biscuits, but there must have been something else.
It was chilly October weather at that high altitude, and the sheets in my unheated bedroom were like ice. One night I had just gotten comfortably warm in bed when Altizer knocked on my door and said there was a possum in a tree across the creek that ran by the house, and would I like to shoot it. I reluctantly crawled out of my warm bed and dressed.
He handed me his daughter’s .22 caliber rifle and went with me across a footbridge to the tree. It was pitch dark. He shined his flashlight up to the top of the tree, probably some thirty feet. I could see two little beady eyes shining in the blackness, but nothing else. There was no way to line up the sights on the rifle.
I was no expert with guns, but I knew a little about them because I used to target practice with my Uncle Leslie’s heavy .22 that he had inherited from his brother Louin. I swung the rifle around to the sky which was light enough for me to see the sights. I lined them up, then slowly brought the rifle back to where I estimated the eyes were, and fired. The possum came tumbling down. I had hit it dead between the eyes.
My first duty, after I got settled, tested my courage because threatening dogs send a shiver down the back of my neck. I had to walk up the dirt mountain road to the school, stopping at each house along the way to tell the family that school was about to begin. Virtually every house had one or more big hounds that let me know they were suspicious of strangers. But I screwed up my courage and went in. Some of the men appeared indifferent or hostile; they didn’t care for schooling. But the women wanted their children in school.
I would go to the school early in order to build a fire in the little pot-bellied stove to take some of the chill off the room. It was a beautiful time of year, with the woods still in autumn color; and I enjoyed the two-mile walk. The road went by pastures, lots of woods, and a few mountain houses. On the first day of school most of the children came on their own. But I remember one little six-year-old boy who was brought by his daddy. He was very shy and frightened. His father tried gently to reassure him. He cried when his father left. When I left the school three weeks later he cried again.
I recall very little of my teaching, and I have no idea whether it was effective. I do know that I rarely sat down at my desk all day. I was too busy taking care of the several grades. Of the 18 pupils enrolled, only 15 came to school. Of those, six were only five years old, under age, but their families had entered them anyway.
The problem of these five-year-olds I solved by buying six little snubbed-nosed scissors and gathering up a stack of old magazines on my first weekend trip home. I had these under-age kids cut out paper dolls all day. To teach even the six-year-old pupils to read was a problem because they had seen so little of the world outside of their mountain homes. First grade reading books had pictures of taxis, elephants, street cars, and other subjects that these children had never seen and knew nothing about.
The children taught me a recess game called, I believe, anti-over. We divided into two sides, one on each side of the school building. One side threw a rubber ball over the school and whoever caught it rushed around and tried to hit someone with it on the side that had thrown the ball. If successful, then his side got to receive the ball again. We played this game at least three times during the day.
One day the supervisor, a little middle-aged lady named Miss Penny, drove up unexpectedly. I was glad we were not out playing anti-over. She said for me to dismiss the children, she wanted to take me to observe one of her teachers. We drove to a two-room school and I sat in the back of one room where a teacher was handling three or four grades. I was flabbergasted; I realized that this woman knew what she was doing and that I did not.
Children in one grade were busy doing posters or some kind of drawing. Others were busy with math problems or reading or what I don’t know. But they were all busy and interested. This teacher must have sat up half the night preparing for her day. I had a lot to learn — and to think about if I was considering education as a career.
But my health was improving. The daily walks to and from the school in the sunny, often crisp, autumn days , and the long nights of sleep were making me strong and vigorous again.
It was a hectic time, but I doubt if there is any other three-week period in my life from which I took so many memories. One-room schools were fast disappearing. I was privileged to have had a brief experience in one of them.
Then it ended as abruptly as it began. I received a two-line letter from Stouffer saying there was an opening in the news department of the World-News, and if I were interested to come see him. I went and he gave me the job. Mr. Shelbourne let me out of my contract, and in addition said if it didn’t work out for me he would rehire me. I departed, happily and sadly, to begin my twenty-year career as a journalist.