Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas thoughts

What if Christmas wasn't all it was advertised to be.

What if at school the teachers and the cafeteria ladies smiled all day and said "Merry Christmas" all day and hugged the children a special hug right before they handed them the treat bags and then...then the children went home to a less than merry Christmas. All the mirth and cheerfulness and joy was at school.

It happened. 1940's. 1950's. 1960's, and not just at Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse. And let's not fool ourselves, it happened in 2010.

Grown children remember the little things. They look back at Christmas past and realize Santa didn't visit everybody. They tell stories with tears brimming their eyes. And they work hard as adults to make sure it never happens to another child.

It takes a community to be a Santa.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Wishes

To all the new faces and voices in my life that I have met through this Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse project, I send a most sincere wish for a joyous Christmas. Hearing your stories has brought a new dimension to my own story. I have learned more from you than I ever imagined possible when I first began the journey.

To my online Catch of the Day visitors that have wandered through the internet to read about this remarkable school, I thank you. Stay tuned next year. There's hundreds of catches ahead.

To all, may you find peace in the New Year.

Gretchen

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Best Gift to Give

I'm participating today in a road trip blog carnival. The idea is to connect with other bloggers through answers to a writing/reading related question posted on the YA Highway. I've lurked long enough through the weeks I've known about this. No longer. I want to share my answer with you.

Today's question: What gift would you give a favorite character and why?

The past has absorbed me for a year now, both in my writing and in my reading and so my gift is for characters, real and fictional, who work hard to dig into the past, to report it no matter what the facts present.

I'm thinking of Sarah's Key. No the gift isn't for Sarah, although I imagine Sarah could use this gift. My gift is for Julia if I remember her name correctly, the reporter, storycatcher actually, who peeled away the layers and uncovered Sarah's story.

I give her peace.

What she discovered didn't give her peace. It unsettled her. It changed her life and it changed my life, too. From her I learned that the past has secrets that eat away at the soul of the storycatchers. I learned that some stories are best kept unspoken, close to the heart.

Storycatchers need a special kind of peace.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas at Pilot Mountain School

Christmas week and the children were nestled all snug in their desks while visions of vacations danced in their heads. That doesn't quite rhyme, but it does explain the mindset of Pilot Mountain children then. Just like the children of today, they couldn't wait for a few days off, after a school celebration, of course.

They would have decorated the classroom. A father probably stopped by one day in mid December with a tree from the farm. The children were ready and waiting with chains they had fashioned from red construction paper strips, stars they had made from aluminum foil and cardboard, and paper mache ornaments they had slopped and dripped and sculpted with newspaper pieces dipped in a flour and water and glue solution.

They sang Christmas carols. They sang about Santa. They acted out the nativity and blessed was the girl who played Mary. They read from the Bible. The teachers gave them pencils as Christmas presents, if they could afford it. The students gave their teachers small gifts, usually from the Avon lady, if they could afford it. They never exchanged gifts with each other. That thought probably never crossed their minds.

Every year the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) brokered a deal with the local grocer for oranges, apples and candy canes. Walnuts, too. The principal along with the parent volunteers snuck down to the store and picked up the crates, took them to the auditorium, and behind closed doors prepared what for some children would be the only Christmas present they would get beyond the pencil from the teacher. The treat bag.

Then, right before the last bell on the last day before vacation, the children marched to the auditorium to pick up their treasures.

Fifty years later, sixty years later, they remember the treat bags. They can't tell you what they got for Christmas that many years ago, but they do remember the treat bags.

It took the village to raise the child at Christmas.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cold Winter Days

Cold. Brrrr. Today we might get up to freezing and I'm talking "the sunny south." Brrrr.

One former second/third grade teacher told me about a cold day at Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse in the 1950's. School had been cancelled for over a week due to snow and ice and this was the first day back. She walked into her classroom early that morning before any children arrived and much to her horror discovered their goldfish bowl had frozen. Solid block of ice frozen. Goldfish suspended in the ice frozen.

Her heart stopped. Forget the fish. All she could think of was the children and the trauma this image would inflict on them. They would arrive any moment. She threw a cloth over the bowl, grabbed it up and rushed to her car. There the frozen fish waited all day, hidden away from view. She didn't bother to thaw it out. No bringing back from the dead experiment here. She threw it away, bowl and all, in her outdoor trash bin at home. The children never asked. They were too excited to tell their snow stories.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Friday, December 10, 2010

Molly-pop play time

Molly-pops, what a fun word to say. Molly-pops. Sort of jumps off the lips. Molly-pops.
 
I'd heard that term from several former students, always the girls. The boys played marbles. The girls played Molly-pops. It's the bloom, what a bloom, passion flower beauty bloom, also known as May-pops and apricot vines. The whole school was surrounded by vines and vines of Molly-pops inviting, inticing the girls to "Come, play, dance with me." Can you see a ballerina in the bloom? These girls did. They pinched off the extra legs to form a body, shaped the purple passion into a tutu, and danced with their flower dolls.


Not so poetic, but still a lot of fun, were the seed pods, egg sized pods, full of air and little dark seeds. Just perfect for stomping. Just perfect for popping. Molly-pops.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Warm Clothes, Cold Days, 1950's

Brrrr it's cold outside today. I bundled up, even for the quick dash to the mailbox. Long pants, no question about that.

But for girls at this grammar grade school in the 1950's the cold brought about a different challenge. They had to wear dresses, no arguments, that's just the way things were. To add insult to injury, they didn't just dash from the bus to the school. They had to wait outside in the cold until the bell rang.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then cold is the sister of resourcefulness and resourceful these girls were. They'd wear flannel pajama bottoms under their skirts and push them above their knees during class. They'd wear jeans under their dresses and slip them off when they went inside. The older girls would huddle behind the wellhouse. The younger ones would run and play and sweat and be plenty warm when they finally went inside.

They grew up strong and sturdy and rarely sick.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Friday, December 3, 2010

Mornings at the School

One not so favorite fact of life for teachers is the meet-them, greet-them, get-them-in-the-school chore known as "bus duty." Rainy days, bring an umbrella. Windy days, bundle tighter. Frigid days, add extra layers. Yet, seven o'clock in the morning when the roosters are still announcing the day, watching those yellow buses pull into the drive brings a certain thrill of anticipation. And when the children, regardless of whose class they are in, give the hugs or the smiles...that's when bus duty turns into a reward.

Teaching in a small school means bus duty comes far too often. Get a week of duty over, and boom, here comes another week the next month.

Mornings at Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse from the students' point of view were pure joy. They hurried off the bus, plopped their books down, and headed to the playground. Even the students who walked to school couldn't wait to get there. They were often at the doors greeting the teachers as they arrived. This was the free play time and they didn't want to miss a moment of it. The teacher chaperoned. That was it. Chaperoned, stood back and watched and rarely interfered. The children organized ball games. They made their own rules for marbles. They took turns at the swings. They settled their disagreements themselves.

The older students welcomed the younger children to their games. They mentored them, taught them the rules and the possibilities. The younger students chose role models, learned how things work. They played hard. They ran and sweated, even on frosty mornings when their breath puffed in little clouds.

When the bell rang, they lined up outside and went to their classes. They were ready to settle. Their minds were awakened by the exercise. Their bodies had worked through the squirmies.

Mornings at Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse. Could it work today?

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Home Grown Food in the Lunchroom

Back before there was such a thing as free lunch, there was such a thing as barter. Children from families who could not afford to pay for a school meal could bring food from the garden as payment. They could take a bushel of turnip greens to the cafeteria and get a food exchange note. One bushel would equal maybe five meals.

They would bring home-canned vegetables in glass containers. They would bring gallons of blackberries in pokes, paper bags. They would bring apples, pears, tomatoes and potatoes. Eggs, too.

Never meat, though. The cafeteria ladies could not accept meat and any milk that was brought was used in cooking. The milkman brought the drinking milk.

By the mid 1950’s this practice dwindled thanks to government surplus commodities and a centralized food service system in the county. The abundance from the farm community no longer counted. Fresh from the field no longer happened. The day of processed food had arrived.

Catch of the day,
Gretchen

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Turkey Pie, again

Chicken pie was the all time favorite entree in the cafeteria at Pilot Mountain School no matter who the cook, no matter what the decade. But one year the school received government surplus turkeys, an entire truckload of them. Piles and piles of frozen turkeys. So the ever so resourceful lunchroom ladies made turkey pie. And turkey salad. And vegetable soup with turkey. Not to mention plain turkey.

After weeks and weeks of turkey for lunch, the children were a little tired of it. Enough of this good cooking, they said. But still every other day, turkey for lunch. During one of my interviews with former students I laughed as this present day grown-up described the day she was to perform in the Recitation and Declamation competition. She was  a little nervous, true, but not all that bad. Lunchtime came. Turkey pie, again. She couldn't stomach it and left every bit on her tray. As she scraped it all into the trash can, the ever present lunchroom lady smiled. "You're worried about the competition, aren't you?" she asked.

Not at all. This girl just couldn't eat one more bite of left over turkey. But, true to Pilot Mountain graces, she couldn't tell her that. She wouldn't hurt her feelings. So she nodded her head, went to the competition, and said her speech. She didn't win. But at least she didn't get sick.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, November 22, 2010

November 22, 1963 at Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse

They might have been isolated from world events in their own little school universe, but the children at Pilot Mountain did hear about the assassination of President John F Kennedy before they got on the bus to go home that afternoon. Their teachers told them. There was no public address announcement to the entire school. The teachers spoke personally to their students.

The principal's wife was in the hospital with a new baby watching the news unfold on the tv. She called the school, but the principal wasn't in the office. He was busy teaching his seventh/eighth grade combination class. There was no full time principal in this school, never in all its thirty years of existence. The principal's classroom was across the hall from the office and a dependable eighth grade student would hurry over whenever the phone rang and take a message. On this day, though, I wonder if the wife gave a message to the student. Or did she demand to speak to her husband? I'll need to ask.

I do know that each person has his own very private memories of that moment in history. They remember disbelief. Shock. Blame, mostly blame. Who would do such a horrible deed? What if it were...unspeakable thoughts ran through their minds that day and that memory haunts them as much as the death of the president. What if it were a person from the south, angry about the direction this president was taking the nation in regards to civil rights? There, they said it aloud to me in several interviews. There, forty some years later, spoken fears of the first few hours after the tragedy.


Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Windows, part II

Windows in the 1940's were for more than just looking through to see outside (and daydream about being out there). They were tools. For example, this school had no cafeteria. Often children went home for lunch if they lived close enough to hurry home, eat and hurry back. But the majority brought lunch with them, including a pint jar of milk. No refrigerator, no problem. Open the window, stick the jar on the outside ledge. By lunchtime in the coldest of winter, the milk had ice crystals for a special treat. By lunchtime on the warm days, the milk was a tad bit on the warm side, as if fresh from the cow.

Because there were five or six of those giant windows in each classroom, there was plenty of light and the two electric light bulbs dangling from the ceilings were rarely turned on. This presented a problem on bright sunny days since there were no shades. To solve this the teachers covered the inside of the windows with newspapers. Not the whole thing, because that would defeat the purpose of the windows. They would patchwork quit it. A pane here, a pane there.

I can imagine driving past the front of the school and taking a quick glance and then a second glance. Milk jars lined up all in a row. Blotches on the window panes. What a sight.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Full length windows

Those windows you see in the photograph of Pilot Mountain School have been modernized. Look closer and you can see the outline of the original windows that went from about knee high to a teacher all the way to mere inches from the ceiling.

Wonderful tools, those old windows. They allowed cool breezes when air conditioning was an unheard of pleasure. They allowed light on even the cloudiest days. They also offered temptations to the stuck-in-class dreamers and a few escape routes for the rowdies. This photograph shows the front of the school with its not so safe drop, should someone attempt the unthinkable. In the back of the school, however, the windows are much closer to the ground and the drop not as perilous. Perfect for the ones who dared. 

One boy, a second grader, a little imp according to his teacher, routinely made a dash to the woods to relieve himself. Heaven help the teacher who had her back turned when the urge struck him. Off he went through the window.

Another now grown, fully mature adult giggled into the recorder when she told about how she and her best friend hurried to eat lunch and then ran to the one and only unbroken swing to play. First come, first served. She jumped out the window while her friend went through the door, the hall, the outside entrance and around to the playground. More than once, she added.

And then there were the older boys, the ones who took great joy in the new baseball field with its homeplate stuck back in yon corner. The dare this time wasn't in the jumping out, it was in the breaking in. Breaking actually. Who would be the first to break a window pane? I know the answer. His cousin still takes joy in telling about his punishment.

There's more to windows than meets the eyes.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veteran's Day

Today I'm honoring a soldier who did not have the privilege to celebrate Veteran's Day as he should have. I never met him, but I've heard his name through several interviews at Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse, Ralph Smith. I was anticipating reading about him as I scrolled through the microfiche newspapers of the sixties, but when his face came on the screen alongside the article, I wasn't anticipating my sadness. Ralph Smith, the first soldier in Burke County killed in Viet Nam. Ralph Smith, on a search and destroy patrol. Ralph Smith survived by his parents, a wife and two daughters. Ralph Smith, killed on November 6, 1965, five days from Veteran's Day. Ralph Smith, educated at Pilot Mountain School. Ralph Smith, doing his part for his country.

Thank you, Ralph Smith.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Daylight Savings in WWII

Daylight savings ended early this morning and I earned back the hour I lost last spring. It’s almost like I banked that hour to revel in today. I’m going to spend it well. Reading.

I’m on Eastern Standard Time, not Eastern Daylight Time anymore. But if I had been around on that September day in 1942 on the very first first day of school at Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse, my clock would have been on something entirely different. EWT. Eastern War Time. From February 9, 1942 to September 30, 1945 the entire continental US was on daylight savings year round to conserve energy for the war effort. One person I interviewed said they were on a two hour difference, double daylight savings, but I’ve not seen proof of that. Even one hour made a difference in this rural, milk-the-cow-before-school society. It worked fine in spring, summer, and fall. Come winter, though, with the long dark nights, it was a different story.

To remedy this, school days started at ten in the morning and released after four in the evenings, safer for children catching the bus or walking on the side of the road in the mornings. After school, they hurried off the bus to get their chores finished before dark, so they weren’t playing around at the bus stop.

They worked it out for the good of the country. No questions, no rebellion. They just did it.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Womanless weddings of the 1950's at Pilot Mountain School were not designed toward a particular agenda. They were productions, elaborate affairs complete with "bridesmaids." All men. The "bride" (usually the biggest man in the community) wore a white dress and full veil. The "groom" (usually the smallest man in the community) wore his Sunday best.

It cost a quarter to watch. Yes. This was a school fund raiser. Better than selling candy or wrapping paper.

I mention it because this week my critique group went over my chapter seven with me. All was well (yeehaw!) except one thing. "What in the world," my raised-in-Southern-California critiquer asked, "is a womanless wedding?"

Funny how a few words in a paragraph bring out so much emotion and misunderstanding. She figured out the procedure. She figured out the participants. She couldn't figure out the culture behind it.

I don't know if I can explain it other than it was just a part of the innocence of the fifties. When we superimpose our current value system on a past system, things might not make sense. That's the beauty of this project. I don't have to explain or justify or defend. I just have to show a culture with all its fragments.

And then there were the Tom Thumb weddings. Surely you've heard of those.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Birthdays and a hectograph

Taking off my catcher’s hat for a moment and putting on the mom hat. Yesterday was my birthday and my daughter flew in from New Mexico to surprise me. Shock me, actually. What a fun day and it’s still going, until her return flight Thursday.

Birthday celebrations were much calmer in the Pilot Mountain School days. Only one person out of the hundred or so I’ve interviewed has even mentioned birthdays. On her eighth birthday, her third grade teacher gave every other student in the room a paper with an outline of a cake. Each child colored and decorated the cake and wrote birthday wishes. At the end of the day the teacher stapled the birthday cakes together in a booklet and gave her to keep. Keep, as in over sixty years keep.

Thirty children in the class. Thirty birthdays. Do the math. That’s a lot of birthday cake pictures and papers. But wait, there’s more to this story.

Producing a picture of a birthday cake wasn’t as easy as today with laser printers at the touch of a finger. The teachers didn’t have a mimeograph machine either, the old put it on a barrel and roll it around over the paper. Think further back.

Think hectograph, gelatin duplicator. Think shallow pan of goo. So the teacher draws the birthday cake onto the master copy with a pen of a special ink with aniline dyes. (Thank you wikipedia for the details and the picture.) She places it over the goo pan, presses it down until the ink soaks into the goo in the pattern she has drawn. She removes the master and places a sheet of paper on the goo, presses it, removes it and starts over on the next sheet. Thirty times. Math test? Same process. Social studies work sheets? Same process.

Precious time taken up to make copies of birthday cakes for each child. What a gift.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween in the 1950's

Halloween was much more simple for the children of the 1950's than it is today, at least in Pilot Mountain school territory. They'd throw on a make shift costume and grab a sack and head out the door.

One person I interviewed told about going trick or treating to the school late one Halloween evening. She was with a few of her friends and they debated which door to knock on. That's not so strange, considering the principal lived in the school building.

There were no security lights at this school, not in that day and age. No need. There was no reason for classroom lights to be lit, either, so the building was completely dark, a gigantic angular monster lurking on top of the hill. Silent, too, I'm sure, since few cars traveled the roads then.

What was familiar in the day, transformed to beyond frightening that night. Those girls didn't even make it to the front steps. They high tailed it home!

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I'm not here today. I'm here being interviewed by Linda Anderson about the Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse project. Click on over.

Linda is blogging for the Christian writers group, write2ignite. Their goal is to provide children's writers with resources and encouragement as they use their talents to bring a Christian perspective to children's literature.

The teachers at Pilot Mountain School would have truly appreciated their efforts.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Sport Called Marbles

Ever played a game of pig’s eye marbles? Oh, yes, there was such a game. I heard it from an expert. The usual ten foot circle-in-the-sand wasn’t the only marble game in town, not at all.

When there was a one-on-one challenge, these Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse children preferred the “pig’s eye” version of the game. It sounded simple when I first heard the rules, but then I realized there was more to this version of marbles than met the eye.

Whoever threw out the challenge, drew the pig’s eye.

Size didn’t matter.

Shape didn’t matter.

This was a game of strategy.

Each player put five marbles in the pig’s eye. Then they both stood about ten feet away and rolled another marble toward the eye. The player whose marble stopped closer to the eye without going in won the honors of shooting first, but the first shot had to be from that same spot.

The object was to knock a marble out of the eye with a shooter, a larger marble. When a player accomplished that, he could put the marble he captured into his drawstring bag. For keeps. And it was still his turn.

The catch was he had to shoot from the spot where the last marble stopped rolling when it came out of the eye. Power and thumb muscle didn’t always triumph when that marble went rolling merrily too far along its way.

Just curious, how many other ways can a child play marbles?

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, October 23, 2010

She played the role of Scout in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Mary Badham, and she spoke to a Southern Cultures Class at a high school near me. I went to her evening presentation last night more out of curiosity than anticipation. After all, what could a child star from the sixties possibly have to share? Five minutes in and I knew the answer.
Her experiences growing up in segregated Alabama to some extent paralleled those of the children at Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse, although her family had servants, “colored” women from across town. In the Pilot Mountain School district, children’s chores accomplished the same thing at no cost. Here the children worked alongside their parents, scrubbing the floors, planting the corn. There the mothers taught the girls how to wear white gloves to the department store while their maids scrubbed the floors.

But it was still the south. There were still the rules and laws and accepted ways of doing things. Daily life was separated into two parallel existences that rarely intersected. Separate water fountains. Separate sections in the movie theater. Separate schools. Separate but equal, supposedly.

Mary Badham talked about change and how it sometimes takes a crowbar to get the system moving. I’m researching the sixties now and seeing how the crowbars impacted Pilot Mountain School. How can I write a memoir of a school in the south and not include this? Oh, yes, it will be included.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Marbles Play Time

The game of choice for the 1940’s children at Pilot Mountain School was marbles. Since there was no such thing as Physical Education as we know it today, the children were free to entertain themselves during recess and before school. Entertain they did.
The young boys brought their toy guns to play cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. The older boys brought balls and bats. The girls had jump ropes. But most everyone, young and old, even a few girls, had a little bag of marbles in their pockets.

First step, draw a circle. No, wait, first smooth the grit and lumps from an area, then draw the circle. On official tournament days, the circle was defined by a string with a nail at both ends and a geometry lesson of their own making. But most often it was a hurried circle that fit everyone’s liking.

Those who were playing that round placed an equal number of marbles in the center. The first person, usually the one who drew the circle, “broke” the pile with a strong thumb flick of his shooter. He kept any marble that he knocked out, for keeps. If no marbles went out, the next person took a turn.

The shooters were larger, often left over steel ball bearings from their fathers’ machines. The playing marbles were from the dime store, seven marbles for a nickel. Agates, Cat Eyes.

They made their own calls and abided by them. They refereed themselves and settled their own disputes. Adults had nothing to do with this game. Except twice.

Once the teachers decided playing for keeps was gambling. They imposed the adult rule of playing for fun. That didn’t last long. Playing for keeps came back and stayed. For keeps.

The other time adults had anything to do with the game was when the mothers complained. Seems that their sons were coming home with their pant knees worn bare, but nothing a little patch couldn’t solve.

There’s not much marble action these days. The ideal spots for marbles, good old fashioned dirt fields, were long ago grassed in by adults or paved over by youth organizers.

What were they thinking?

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Friday, October 15, 2010

Wooden ink pens by used2Btrees are interesting even without the back story. They're not primitive sticks, not at all, but works of art crafted by artisans who view a chunk of wood like Michelangelo would a block of marble.

Here's one from a red oak tree:

A great advantage to being a storycatcher is meeting and interacting with the people I interview, going beyond the story into the tears and pain. But I also get to go into the joys and accomplishments. Last spring I met Henry and his son, David. Both of them attended Pilot Mountain School, Henry in the opening years, David in the final years. They were two ends of the spectrum, two completely different stories to catch, but they had one thing in common, a gift to create with wood and an eye to see the magical in the ordinary. Musical instruments, cabinets, tables. And ink pens.

Here's his display case. Zoom in and look at the pens. You'll be glad you did.

It just so happens that a two hundred year old oak tree at my church had been struck by lightning that very week. Death was imminent. Sad.

Light bulb moment here. Or was it destiny?

"Could you make pens from the tree?" I asked.

And so, the woodworker, David, came to the tree the day it was cut and selected pieces. He preferred the junctions, where the energy of the wood made different colors and paths and patterns. He made a prototype and showed it to several members of our congregation. Yes, just right.
We've passed one hundred and twenty-five pens and each one has been a unique creation. David's branched out, no pun intended, into designs and various hardwares that are beyond what any of us imagined. I wish the pictures I took could show you the beauty of the grain in the wood pens. This 200 year old white oak tree had secrets hidden inside that in its death are just now coming to light. Because of this artist. Because of the Pilot Mountain project.

Wow.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen




Monday, October 11, 2010

Music Class

No. We didn’t have music.

No. There was no music teacher.

Those were the usual answers I would hear during many of the interviews when I asked about the Pilot Mountain School music program. I’ve learned, though, to peel away the layers and go beyond the answers and I was on target this time, for sure. There was more to the music program than the lack of a specialized teacher. What I found was a community rich in traditional music brought across the Atlantic generations ago. Music was such a part of the lives of these children that they didn’t even recognize it as “music.” It was life.

Irish folk tunes. Blue Grass. Gospel. Hymns. Ballads. They sang at church. They sang at family gatherings. They sang at school. They brought their guitars and banjos to class and they taught each other just by sharing and watching and experimenting.

Music as life.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, October 4, 2010

Library Books

What is more basic to a school than library books? No money? No books. Not true, because when talking about the most precious element of a school, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Teachers and school systems can get very resourceful.

Pilot Mountain School in the 1940’s had little money to establish a library. The few books that were available stayed in the classroom of the teacher who brought them from home. The school system contracted with the county public library system for a bookmobile to make bimonthly stops at the outlying county schools such as Pilot Mountain. The original bookmobile, an old clunker of a converted delivery truck, sat disabled on the side of the road all too often. Next came a government surplus vehicle that had seen its fair share of battles during World War II. This library on wheels arrived at Pilot Mountain School every other week, on schedule, for the children to exchange their books for new ones.
Speaking of World War II, there were several army bases in North Carolina that were no longer needed after the war. There were libraries on each base. In fact, during the war, there had been a home front/war effort drive to collect gently used books to supply these base libraries. Now those same books were government surplus and available to schools. Pilot Mountain received several shipments of books. A good thing, isn’t always a good thing.

Imagine the delight! Books. Finally. Boxes and boxes of books. But also, there was no librarian to check through the books for appropriate language and content. These books were for mature readers. These children had never seen such words in print. They didn’t know things like that could happen. Sixty some years later, those former students still remember those books and chuckle.

Catch of the day,
Gretchen

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Feed sack dresses and flour sack shirts were everyday wear at this school in the 1940's, even into the early 1950's. Talented mothers could turn an empty ten, twenty or fifty pound bag of food into shirts for the boys and dresses with matching underpants for the girls. 

Dry goods came in cloth sacks, not the sturdy paper packaging of today. Chicken feed. Flour. Salt, too. When the sack was the smaller size, there wouldn't always be enough material to complete a project. If the housewife waited for the next delivery, the pattern on the cloth was often different, yet she usually didn't have enough money to purchase the larger size. Talented as they were, these seamstress-mothers still needed enough matching material, so they went looking. They bargained with other housewives to swap materials. One grandmother had a little business on the side. She purchased solid materials and kept on hand to add collars and trim for a dress for her neighbor's daughter or a shirt for the son. 

The most popular man in the county was often the mercantile delivery man. He sometimes carried sample swatches of the sack material as he went around the community delivering the orders and taking orders for the next week.
I know that because I talked with his son who tagged along with him making deliveries those seventy years ago.

And I know it because I talked with the now-grown children who watched their mothers bargain with him and then wash out the chicken feed and scrub away the flour labels. After all these years, the memory of these dresses brings a pride to some, a humbleness to others.

The stories I catch often come accompanied with tears, but only once did I see a glistening of a tear over feed sacks. It was from a lady who as a second grader had proudly worn her new dress and matching bloomers to school one day, another school, not Pilot Mountain. On the playground her dress flew above her waist and everyone (including the teacher) saw that her bloomers matched her dress and laughed (including the teacher) at her for wearing feed sacks. Her family later moved into the Pilot Mountain School district and first thing she noticed: that's what everyone else wore. She had found a place in the world where she could be welcome and comfortable in her own skin, even if that skin was covered by feed sacks. Every child needs a Pilot Mountain.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen


Monday, September 20, 2010

If you think dresses from the 1950's were only for fun and fancy, think again. I found an example of how practical they really were in my storycatching at this schoolhouse. It's a long roundabout story, so stay with me here.

As I've mentioned in a previous blog, the bathrooms were outside, behind the school in a most inconvenient spot. After three or four years of children hurrying outside on rainy days, frigid mornings and bug infested sweltering afternoons, construction finally ended on the indoor bathrooms. The girls were delighted. Boys less so since their new indoor facility never had any heat, took away from their freedom to run up the hill, and diminished their chances of collecting wooly worms to throw at the girls.

But for the girls, this was as close to heaven as they had ever been. Well, except for one thing. In the old privy, there was privacy. One hole, one girl. In this new fangled "rest" room, the toilets were line up, side by side, no partitions, nothing private.

Enter the newest dress fad: the full skirt, how convenient. The girls soon connected the dots. They would bathroom in pairs, one girl standing in front, facing away for modesty, of course. She'd fan out her skirt, as if she were giving the onlookers a giant curtsey. Fashion design for the practical.

And the designers in New York thought they were giving the world an elegance.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Thursday, September 16, 2010

One story I've caught over and over from former students and teachers at Pilot Mountain School is what I'll call the "black olive episode." These apple-blackberry-corn-and-potato children from the rural South Mountains had never heard of black olives, much less tasted one. Government surplus, they'd heard of that, but black olives, no.

Sometime back in the 1950's, the weekly government surplus delivery began to include gallon cans of black olives. The first black olive days, the lunchroom ladies dutifully placed three olives on each plate. I don't have to imagine the response, because sixty years later, every person who told the story could describe in detail the expressions on the children's faces. It didn't take long for the olives to serve a secondary function, akin to table football or finger soccer. One teacher said she spent more time with discipline over the black olives than any thing else in her entire career.

A creative principal held a contest to see who could eat more olives than he could. That worked for a day or two until he couldn't eat another single one, but it did manage to get some brave students interested in at least tasting them. For the most part, wise students figured out how to get around the olives and still be a member of the daily "clean plate club."

They stuffed them in their empty milk cartons when the teacher wasn't looking.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, September 13, 2010

Jump board. Jump plank. Call it whatever, but it's a game children of the 1940's played at school. Picture this, a seesaw with a child standing on one end, another child climbing a fence, tree, anything high enough to jump off and land on the opposite end and send victim sailing through the air. Clowns in a circus made it famous. Children with no other playground equipment made it fun.

No one ever broke a leg, not that anyone has reported to me. One girl said she fell into the open pit the school was in the process of digging for a new outhouse location. She skinned her leg, the teacher didn't blink. So she cleaned herself up and went back for more.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Let's get one thing clear right up front. There are two Pilot Mountains in North Carolina, three if you count the one that was the scene of a small plane crash where the pilot was killed. It's called the pilot's mountain, not on any map, just a local thing.

The other two were named hundreds of years ago when they were landmarks, both of them, for the early settlers. They stand alone, each of them apart from nearby mountains. Distinguished.

Of these two, one is quite famous, thanks to the Andy Griffith show and fictional Mayberry. Barney was often going to Mt. Pilot to hang out and this was where the writers were sending him (add a fictional town):


Beautiful. Majestic. Visible from Interstate 77 on the North Carolina/Virginia state line. Travelers can't help but notice.

But that's not the Pilot Mountain of the schoolhouse this blog is about.

This one is:


Travelers can see it from Interstate 40 in North Carolina between Morganton and Marion, but probably no one ever notices. And only in winter when there are no leaves on the trees lining the interstate.

British soldiers camped nearby during the American Revolution, easy for them to use the pilot to find the camp after a day of searching for revolutionaries. The overmountain men marched by it going to the Battle of King's Mountain and again on the way home after a hard earned victory. It was their guide to follow, their north star so to speak, to march between the pilot mountain and the ridge of mountains to its east. During the early 1800's it was the scene of a gold mining enterprise. Now it's a sleepy hump sitting there so alone, apart, the landmark where travelers turn north, west, or south. Sturdy. Dependable.

It's a good name for a school that was apart, sturdy to the community, dependable to the children.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen




Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Some schools have skeletons in their closets waiting for us storycatchers to find.
Maybe the skeletons are best left where they lie.
Or, maybe not.

Yesterday I met Frankie through my research. She'd been on my mind ever since a person I was interviewing bowed her head and whispered the name. Frankie. Then I heard it again from someone else. And then again.

Pilot Mountain School had a Frankie. A hundred years earlier there was another Frankie, not too far away. Frankie Silver. She killed her husband, supposedly. She paid the price at the gallows. She became famous. Infamous. Sharyn McCrumb wrote a book about her. There was a ballad about her.

Oh! Lord, what will become of me?
I am condemned, you all now see,
To heaven or hell my soul must fly
All in a moment when I die. . . .

Recognize her?

Same county, Bloody Burke, it's been called. This 1959 Frankie, Pilot Mountain lunchroom lady, also killed her husband. She bought the gun, took it to school and showed it to the other cafeteria workers, but never hinted at what was to come. She loaded the gun. There. At the school. She went home and killed her husband.

Then she killed herself.

She had written a suicide note four days earlier. I saw a copy of the note. Chilling. She planned the murder for two weeks. Left instructions. Denied the gallows. Denied the spectacle of a trial. Did she know about the other Frankie? Did she sing that verse of the ballad all day that day, cooking and serving the children and thinking of murder?

She didn't leave behind a ballad in her honor. She didn't leave behind a novel told by a gifted writer.

She left behind sorrow. Children who couldn't comprehend and teachers who couldn't explain. Over fifty years and still they can't tell the story without whispering.

Sad.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I found a few samples of 1950 eighth grade poetry that I must share with you. I was interviewing a man when he slipped a small memory book out of his stack of papers and proudly showed it to me. It was bound with a plastic spine and small enough to slide into a back pocket. The front half was made up of pictures of his class, about six to a page. But the back half was blank, with room to write notes or autographs or poems. And write they did. Sixty years later, fun to read.

Ah, the stuff memories are made of...

There are styles that show the ankle,
There are styles that show the knee,
But the style they wore in the Garden of Eden
Is the style that appeals to me.

When you get married and your wife has twins,
Don’t come to me for safety pins.

When days are dark and friends are few
Remember me and I will you.

Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece we need not mention,
For since they wear their skirts so short,
The calves get all the attention.

When you get married and live down south,
Remember me and my big mouth.

One not so poetic young man:

When you get married and live down south,
Me and my big mouth will always remember you.

If you get to heaven before I do,
Bore a little hole and pull me through

And my favorite:

If you see a possum climbing a tree,
Grab him by the tail and think of me.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Welcome to all the new friends I've met at the virtual BBQ on Karen's blog, still going for those of you who want to join. Awesome what technology can do.

Speaking of technology, in my research yesterday I uncovered quite a catch. The newspaper was bragging about the latest telephone technology, the dial, that was about to be installed in Burke County. No more talking to the "number please" operator. This was 1957, not all that long ago, I'd think. Generations ago, technology wise, though.

The schoolhouse finally got a telephone, but there was one snag. It was on a twelve party line. Imagine talking with the principal with eleven other households listening in. One thing, though, not that many parents had telephones in their homes to make the calls anyway.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Friday, September 3, 2010

I added Shelfari to my blog today. Check out my bookshelf at the end of the column on the right. I started with six books, experimenting here, so I'm holding back. One I'm currently reading, one I hope to read and the others I've read, The Lace Dowry just yesterday. Six on a shelf looks a little sparse. Reminds me of Pilot Mountain School and what I heard in my interviews with the early children. Sparse.

There was no library at the school at first. No money. The few extra books were kept in the classrooms for children to read when they finished their work. But these children weren't deprived. They did go to the library once every other week as a class. More exact, the library came to them - in the back of an old delivery truck converted to the most wonderful invention they could imagine, a bookmobile. After the war around 1946 or '47, the county purchased a government surplus vehicle and converted it into an even larger bookmobile. The school system found this delivery service cheaper than actually establishing a library on the campus. At least it was a start.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Shoes? Students didn't wear shoes to school in the 1940's at Pilot Mountain School, not until cold weather hit in October, at least. For the most part, children had only one pair of school shoes and a second for Sunday if they were lucky. The everyday pair had to last a whole year and if it wore out on the bottom, tough. They made it through the year by patching the soles with rubber from bicycle tires or stuffing the holes with cardboard.

I helped my granddaughter get ready for school this morning. She was determined to wear her tennis shoes, the silver pair, not the brown soccer pair, not the pink pair and certainly not the clogs. Times have changed.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Teachers in the 1950's were just as amazed at what their students told them as teachers are today. One Pilot Mountain first grade teacher during social studies lesson on community helpers and fathers' jobs heard the following discussion -

Child one: My father makes liquor for a living.
Child two: That's funny. His father works for my father, but he makes whiskey for a living.

Thing was, the teacher already knew what their fathers did for a living. Children of the moonshiners were the ones with the new shoes and the new clothes. Didn't take long for a teacher to recognize this.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, August 30, 2010

The baby boomers have arrived, at least in my chapter about the school in 1953. I've been writing it this morning and I've uncovered one interesting fact. Before the 1953-54 school year, the cutoff birthday for beginning first grade in North Carolina was October 1. (Remember, no kindergarten back then.) The child born on or after that date had to wait until the next fall to start school.

World War II, the men were gone. Nine months after they returned, the boom began. But with the massive number of babies born in 1947 now arriving at the schoolhouse door in the fall of 1953, the date was moved to October 15 to allow some of the boomers a chance to start a year earlier. Who would have guessed that those fifteen days would make that much difference, but it did. It spread out the impact just a bit, just a tiny bit, but enough to add one more teacher to the faculty at Pilot Mountain School. No thought to the child's maturity level.  No thought to pedagogy. This decision was based on postwar reality.

Only recently has the cutoff date been revisited, researched and revised. Now the cut off in North Carolina is September 1. Thinking of the child. Finally.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Children in the 1950's were targets of marketing, just like today. Selling to children is not just a modern concept after all. One company in particular sold notebook filler paper with its Blue Horse logo. For twenty horse head trademarks, the students could get a cap. The cover sheet of each pack of paper offered more incentives, including a shiny new bicycle. What child could resist?


Would it attract enough children to sell the product? You bet it would.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Friday, August 27, 2010

I could never be a time traveler. Working on this project has shown me how disorienting time travel could be. Take yesterday. I researched 1957 and found that yes, the man was right, there actually was an earthquake during school. I found the newspaper article to prove it. Then I came home and typed an interview from a student who was at Pilot Mountain School in the late 1960's. To discombobulate me even more, the chapter I'm currently writing is in the 1950's and my revising is in the 1940's.

I'm all over the place, so I've had to put the 1940 revising to the side and keep my train of thought narrowed to the 1950's. But then I meet up with a lady who says, "You've just got to talk to this man. He was here when the school first opened." How can I resist!

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Thursday, August 26, 2010

News flash: My granddaughter had homework on the first day of school. Kindergarten! Well, she only had to decorate her gingerbread girl, but still. My kind of teacher.

Parents love to exaggerate the "back in my days" stories, especially about school and the eternal homework struggle. The truth uncovered here by the storycatcher: Students at Pilot Mountain School back in the 1940's beginning years usually didn't take their work home. No, not at all. First because the teachers didn't assign it knowing the students had true, honest-to-goodness home work waiting for them in farm chores, or working in the sawmills, or helping in the house. But more than that, these children got their work finished. Every class at this school, with the exception of first grade, was a combination class. While the teacher worked with one grade, the other students did their work assignments. When they finished that work, they listened to the teacher's lessons with the other grade. If the other grade was a year younger, older students heard the lessons for the second time. (Reinforcement) If the other grade was a year older, younger students heard the lessons from the grade ahead. (Enrichment)

What a system! It worked for them. Could it work today?

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Today I take off my storycatcher hat and put on my Grannyhood hat. It's the first day of school for my granddaughter. She's headed to kindergarten and to a life that will never be the same. When it was my daughter and my son, I was so caught up in life and getting them ready on time that I didn't have a chance to think about what a profound day the first first day of school really is.

Today I ponder. I pray. I wonder what her little brain is absorbing. I'm sure I'll hear all about it this evening.

Embracing the Grannyhood,

Gretchen

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

First day of school, 1944, came and went with Pilot Mountain School empty. The day came, the children didn't. Nor the second day, third day, even weeks later, no children. They were all quarantined at home in an every child left behind kind of way. That was the peak year of the polio epidemic in Burke County, a time of fear and dread when parents prayed that their sleeping children would still be healthy when they woke in the morning.

Health officials had placed a quarantine on all children. No movie houses could open. No youth activities. No sports. No family get togethers. No Sunday School. No running over to the neighbor's to play. After several weeks of staying home, these children were probably more ready than ever to return to school when it finally opened in the middle of September. Wonder what the teachers said to the children on the real first day of school. Did they discuss the epidemic? Did they count noses to see who didn't survive? If they had, they would have been pleased. All the Pilot Mountain children survived.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, August 23, 2010

School orientations here in Caldwell County begin today. Students and parents visit classrooms, meet teachers.

1940's, there was no such thing. Students rode the bus, met the teacher on the first day, no parents involved. Actually there was no need for orientation at Burke County's Pilot Mountain School. There were only four teachers and six grades and with that little choice, students knew who their teachers would be. In many cases, they had them the previous year. First graders were kept together with one teacher, but the other classes were combinations, two grades together, and no such thing as kindergarten, not in 1940's public school North Carolina. That would come decades later.

First graders did have an orientation of sorts but it wasn't a preschool screening as in this diagnostic day and age. Instead the incoming first grade students came to school with their older brothers, sisters, cousins or neighbors the last week of school in May. Just a glimpse of what life would be like. No parents involved.

Would that work now? Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Friday, August 20, 2010

The missionary has arrived! Well, 1956 "has arrived" in my research as of yesterday. Ever since I started interviewing former students and teachers at Pilot Mountain School I've heard about Mrs. Lettie Hamlet and how she impacted them. What they don't know is that I had been reading about her back when I was into researching World War II and its impact on the children at the school. Lettie, Mrs. Hamlet, (sorry, I still can't call a teacher of this generation by her first name) and her husband had been living in China for years when Japan invaded and herded all the missionaries into containment camps. They spent months at this camp, under harsh conditions, I might add. They were exchanged for Japanese prisoners of war in 1944 and made their way home to Morganton. Now she's here, at the schoolhouse, ready to begin her distinguished career as a teacher. Now, as in 1956, now. Chapter seven in my manuscript now.

Catch of the day.

Gretchen

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Teacher Work Days

Today the teachers in my county go back to school. I have a critique group session this morning and in honor of this event, I'm wearing an apple necklace one of my students gave me once upon a time.

Ah, the teacher work days. So important. What a great invention, but also what a modern invention. The teachers I'm writing about in the 1940's would have been thrilled to have a paid day to prepare for the year. They showed up when the children showed up, or they came ahead on their own time.

They were paid every twenty work days. So twenty school days from today, these teachers would get paid. That worked fine back then until the few vacation days intervened. Two days for Thanksgiving pushed pay day back two days. Christmas break, even longer. At the end of 1946 the Christmas break was extended by two weeks of snow and poor road conditions. (Remember, this was before most side roads were paved.) Pay day came after the twenty work days and this year it was almost into February before they got the days. Late November to late January equals long dry spell.

In today's society with house payments due, car payments, credit card payments, and college loan payments, a young person could not survive with this system. The teachers in 1946 couldn't either, which is why the ones in Burke County hired a judge to advocate for them at the state general assembly. Not just any judge, either. The future great Senator Sam Ervin, Jr.
Drastic times...

Today's catch.

Gretchen

Monday, August 16, 2010

Schoolhouses and outhouses

The teachers in my local county are headed back to school this week. Without. Me. Yeah!

Instead I'm deep into the education process of the 1940's and 50's, catching all kinds of stories, and my heart goes out more and more to the teachers of that era. What champions they were. I don't know where to begin explaining how I came to that conclusion, but I think I'll start in the toilet because that's what I was writing about today.  Outhouses and indoor restrooms. (No, nothing is sacred when you are catching stories about a school.)

This was a country school after all, and I shouldn't have been surprised about the privies that were behind the school. The teachers and children those first few years thought nothing of outhouses, because that's what everyone had at home. Finally, though, the water system at the schoolhouse began working and the long anticipated indoor bathroom toilets became functional. Torlet. That's the old pronounciation. Torlet. Has sort of a ring. Torlet. So then the teachers had the very real job of potty training their students. I'd bet their teacher education courses never prepared them for that. From all reports, however, the transition to the inside had only one major snag.

The flush.

Outside, no problem. The children never needed to learn the flush. Inside, different story. There was the physical act of flushing, true. But the real problem came with the flushing noise that frightened the littlest ones and sent them running away. And there was the real problem that the older students couldn't stuff just anything down that new fangled hole like they could outside.

Oh the stories a storycatcher catches.

Gretchen

Friday, August 13, 2010

It's in the "house"

Way back when, before WalMart and even before convenience stores like Seven/Eleven or Circle K, people in the country bought their few necessary items at local stores and rarely went into town. Road conditions in the late 1800's limited travel, so many families opened a mercantile business in their homes to offer items for sale. These businesses were called "storehouses." I've always pictured a storehouse as a place to keep left over stuff, not a house to sell merchandise, but according to my research yesterday, I must expand that image. I'll color  my imagination with a little sepia to make it fit the nineteenth century and picture a local storehouse.

Likewise, many early schools began as "schoolhouses" where children were taught in the teacher's house. I often interchange the terms school and schoolhouse when referring to Pilot Mountain School. Or is it Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse?

Storehouse. Schoolhouse. When I taught Reading 080 at the community college, we talked a lot about denotation and connotation of words. Denotation (D for dictionary, my teaching kicking in here) is the actual definition of the word. Connotation is the feeling behind the word or the attachment the word has to the speaker, writer, listener or reader. So when someone in the Pilot Mountain area says they are going to that building on the hill, they call it the schoolhouse. That's what they say, "going up to the schoolhouse." It's a carry over from days gone by and I will do my part as the storycatcher to pass it along when I use schoolhouse instead of just plain school. In the mind's attachment, it's like going to another house, a schoolhouse. Does it bring a certain comfort to call the building a schoolhouse?

Gretchen

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back to the Past

I'm back. I'm eager. I'm refreshed and ready to write.

A couple months of travel, grandchildren and old friends does wonders to a storycatcher's soul. It gives more stories to tell around the table, true. But it also offers a much needed step away to mull over things during the long hours on the road. And mulling I've done.

Surprise here. I've missed my new friends, the 1940's children of Pilot Mountain School. I've been meeting them as adults, but I really know them as children not only through the many interviews but also through the hours in the library reading newspaper accounts of their polio epidemics and rabid dog at the bus stop horror stories.

Now I'm working on the 1950's, meeting even more children through their adult voices. I am so ready to go back to the past. I'll keep you informed through my catch of the day, so join me as I uncover the stories.

Gretchen

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day

Yesterday was Memorial Day here in the US. Every year I pause and remember what sacrifices people have made just so I have the freedom to pause and remember.

But this year I have a whole new appreciation for sacrifices because of my research for the Pilot Mountain School project. I have worked my way through the 1930's newspapers and the growing international threats. I've finally made it to 1942. I'm deep into the war effort at this school and I am blown away by the sacrifices here on the home front. I never imagined the teachers were called upon to do so much above and beyond teaching class. They implemented the programs that the president and Congress enacted.

I know this not just because of the newspaper articles, although reading those did clarify a few things. I know it more because I heard first hand from the now grown children in their classes. They told about registering for ration coupons at the school. The teachers did that, on a table in the hall, on a Saturday. They told about bringing scrap metal, having it weighed, and earning a sweat shirt when they reached a certain amount. The teachers did the weighing, bookkeeping, and the awarding. They told about buying war bonds, one nickel or dime at a time to fill their booklets slowly, slowly until they were complete. The teachers took up the money, kept the booklets and awarded the bond. The teachers lectured on Victory Gardens. They taught about blackouts and air raids. They calmed first grade fears. They encouraged sixth grade patriotism.

My Memorial Day was for the home front war effort. Well worth remembering.

Gretchen

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Re-Do

The advantage of interviewing a key person first thing is direction, knowing where to go first. The disadvantage of interviewing a key person first thing is information, not knowing enough to ask the right questions.

Today I'm going back to the very beginning, fifty plus interviews later, to a man who helped build Pilot Mountain School. He knows the history like no one else in the community. When I interviewed him last October, I didn't know enough to ask the particulars. I'm glad I did it this way because he set me on the right path, but that path has now looped back to the beginning line. It's not the finish line, though. It's the grounding, grinding line that will fill in the gaps to the string of  stories I've heard these past few months.

I can't wait.

Gretchen

Monday, May 17, 2010

Microfiche fishing

I've been spending time in front of a microfiche machine and the fact that the airconditioning in the library was not working didn't deter me one bit.  A little heat and humidity was nothing compared to what I was learning about struggles and obstacles of the late 1930's. I could get through this minor inconvenience.
I read about  the mudslides and the all too frequent autocrashes, the Hindenburg and the society pages of who invited who to supper. I searched through red herrings like a detective only to be disappointed that the lead didn't pan out. Slowly, in each inch of the old newspapers, I'm putting it all together. The gap is narrowing on my story and I'm close to finding the "why." I could work faster except for one thing.
I'm having too much fun reading. There's one local community called Joy and right down the road is a another community called Worry. I've been keeping up with their news, well, not new news, 1936 news. 1937 news. They have babies. They visit each other. They have rattlesnake stories, gold nugget stories. There is no difference between the two places. Only the names. So did the people from Joy look at life differently than their neighbors from Worry? Did the outside world look at the people from Joy differently than those from Worry? I've been worrying about that.

Gretchen

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Accidental findings

Researching for me this spring has meant searching, proving, more searching, disproving and then more searching. But the most exciting findings are the accidental tidbits I find as I'm looking up something else. For instance, in a phone conversation with a fellow collector of local stories, I gleaned information that will lead me in a completely different direction to find about the schools in North Carolina requiring eleven years for graduation at the time this schoolhouse first opened. The twelfth was added in 1944, near the end of World War II. He claimed it had nothing to do with the agrarian society that influenced the rest of the school rules and regulations. Instead it was in anticipation of the men returning from war and looking for jobs. Holding the teens back one more year would keep them out of the job market long enough to allow these soldiers time to find jobs. So much for expanding the quality of education! So I'm off to the library tomorrow to research this one interesting item. I'm anticipating hours of looking for one small detail. But then again, just think what accidental findings I might come across.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Books at a music festival

I've been away from the computer for a few days at a music festival. Take a look at some pictures and spot me in the 76,000 crowd, if you can: http://www.merlefest.org/

At the traditional music tent Saturday afternoon, I was sitting next to a man reading a book. Excuse me, but I couldn't help but wonder about anyone who would choose to read during a music festival. My kind of person, you know. I peeked over his shoulder as politely as I could and I was intrigued right away by the book's format. Turns out to be this book, Still inside - The Tony Rice Story,  http://tinyurl.com/25shta5 and though I enjoy listening to this guitar genius and would love to read his life story, it was the format that struck me. I found the tent where the man had purchased his copy and bought one and was back at the traditional music tent reading my copy along with him before that set was even finished.

Yes, just as I thought. Eureka and a joy and all that, too! I found an example of what I had envisioned for the Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse project. I went back to the book stand later, met the author, the publisher, the co-author, and eventually Tony Rice himself. Caroline Wright, one of the authors, spent time with Mr. Rice on the road and wrote about that in first person/present in seven different segments throughout the book. The book is divided into time periods of his life where he tells his own story. The author gives an overview of that era and then...this is where I am most thrilled...then there is a section of comments gleaned from interviews with many different people.

Exactly what I was looking for. It validates me. But it also gives me an idea of how to insert my voice in someone else's story. I can't wait to get back to writing!

Gretchen

Monday, April 26, 2010

Carving and sculpting and hosing things down

A woodcarver looks at a piece of wood, sees an animal within it waiting to escape, and begins to cut away what doesn't belong. Same with a sculptor when he chisels a block of marble and frees an angel or a nymph or a David.

Me? I'm a word sculptor, a carver so to speak, except I feel like I'm using a water hose and washing away the muck from a swamp monster that is rising from the depths of Pilot Mountain. The swamp, though, is in my mind and in the thousands upon thousands of words I've collected from the interviews I've done these past few months. The monster is slowly fading and in its place I can see the beginnings of a form. Finally I have an outline and along with it, defined chapters where I can send information.

The problem is when I eliminate the muck and get to the core of one story, then this swamp monster emerges again as if it dipped itself deeper just to come back even stronger. With each new interview I find my self once again chiseling away to free a story. I've heard the term "organic" batted around at writers' conferences. I know organic now. I'm with it in the swamps of these interviews. And I love it.

Gretchen

Friday, April 23, 2010

Be a good scout

Be prepared. Isn't that the scout motto? I should know since I was a Girl Scout all through school.

Yesterday I went to the library planning to research a particular issue on this Pilot Mountain schoolhouse topic, but I got a little sidetracked. A gentleman in the local history room started telling me about his aunt who taught at the school. Hmmmm. Thick academic books or real life story? No brainer there.

No tape recorder either. I was not prepared, but I made do. I grabbed my pen and notepad, pulled a chair next to him and started taking notes. He was a delight to visit with and gave me more leads on people to interview.

Be prepared. Get the story.

Gretchen

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A tale of two trees

There I was in a local historical society waiting to talk to them about how to interview when I realized this was a preaching to the choir moment. They had already published several excellent booklets about some people in their community, so what I needed to do was connect my experiences with theirs. I shared my methods and techniques with them and they shared with me.

We started down in the dumps. The item ahead of me on their agenda was about locating past landfills and although their discussion had nothing to do with interviewing, it gave me a chance to talk about the importance of interviewing. Years ago I interviewed a lady who told me the story about two magnolia trees. We could see them outside the window where we were talking. She said that her father planted them both at the same time, yet one was almost double the size of the other. She pointed at me and said, "Someone needs to know the truth about those trees and I'm going to tell you." It seems that when the road was originally paved in the early thirties, there were barrels of leftover creosote the workers buried in the field. Her father planted one tree over the creosote dump and one further away. Over seventy-five years later, the creosote tree barely survived while the other thrived.

That simple story strikes at the core of interviewing. The past does matter and if the truth dies with the older generations, what are we leaving for the future generations?

Gretchen

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Interview Release Form

This evening I'm visiting a local community historical society at their monthly meeting and making a presentation about interviewing. I've gone back over my interviewing methods and successes and not-so-successes to glean a bit of information to share with them so they can begin a project of their own.

Strange thing, this phenomenon called coincidence. I am registered on a listserve for nonfiction writers and the theme to yesterday's strand was the interview release form. How convenient that somewhere in this universe there was someone asking about interviews on the very day I was preparing a presentation about interviews. Yes, I definitely use a release form and I'd suggest that as basic to every interview. That's part of my presentation tonight.  Mine, however, is a little different from the versions posted by others on the listserve and it goes to intent, or more exact, what will be done with the information from the interview. My intent is to publish a book about this remarkable country schoolhouse in North Carolina. The first sentence on the release states my intent and has the person fill in the blank in that very sentence giving me permission to use what is said during the interview. Several times, people have said, "and don't put that in the book," and I will respect that, even though those are usually the best stories ever.

I have three interviews scheduled today and I am so looking forward to them. First I need to print a few more copies of my release form. Ah, the business side of interviewing.

Gretchen

Monday, April 19, 2010

Study Room Available

I think I've found an alternate spot to interview people for my Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse project. It's a study room deep in the inner workings of the Burke County library and when I say study room, I mean exactly that. No distractions. Sound proof. Just me and my shadow, except there are no shadows down there in the bowels. The room is big enough for two chairs, maybe a third if we scrunch up. Nothing on the walls, nothing on the platform shelf they call a desk.

Also no stimulation. The thoughts I recorded from the lady I was interviewing came straight from her mind and with her, that was a good thing. Her memories flooded out in such a heartfelt way, they brought me to tears a couple times. Would the story have been as powerful if we had been in a room at her home? Definitely. Yet there in that little eight by eight square room, there were two souls and a tape recorder. She was free and nothing around us reminded her to hold back the story.

It worked last Saturday.

Gretchen

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Location, location, location

Planning an interview? Suggestion for today: You must consider the location for the face to face meeting. I've found that's as important as the questions I ask. I devote much of my time to an exchange student program and my position as area team sending coordinator involves interviewing students and their parents. I am required to make a home visit to see the student's environment and interaction within the family setting. One step inside a home can reveal as much about family dynamics as a thousand words. Yes, the proverb holds true in that case.

Yesterday I interviewed someone for a job in that same exchange student company. We met at a restaurant in a casual, comfortable setting that allowed us to speak about hopes and ideas and possibilities. Her thousand words gave me the picture I needed. Different situation, different need, different location choice.

In the Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse project, I'm finding some older adults see home interviews by a stranger as next to an invasion. They begin by apologizing for the condition of their home. They wonder if they should offer me anything to eat. They ignore the telephone when it rings, even though I assure them I don't mind if they answer.

After about ten home interviews for this project, I decided to change strategies. Now I interview in the schoolhouse. Being there brings back certain memories just by looking at the hallway or the door into a particular teacher's classroom. Trouble is, here I need the thousand words. I have the picture from the forty people I've already interviewed, but I must pull out the unique story this person has about the same picture.

This morning I'm off to another interview. This one is at the library because the schoolhouse is rented for the day. It's a new location for me to use. I'll let you know how this works.

Gretchen