Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Dinner

Yesterday might have been Christmas Day, but Christmas is not over yet. Today is our family celebration on my husband's side. Most everyone will be in this year, everyone except my daughter and her husband in snowy Taos, New Mexico, and her cousin and family in Maryland. We will gather to eat, but not all in one room. We've grown that big. The women get the table, the men get the tv trays, key word, tv.

We have our list of food assigned to bring, the usual meats, casseroles, desserts. Two items on the list stood out to me this year, not just because they sound delicious, but because they have a connection to a story I heard while I was interviewing former Pilot Mountain students. It's a Griffith family quirk that I also found alive and well a hundred miles away in this valley.

The first meal I ate at my future husband's house those many years ago was Sunday dinner. That meant roast beef, a southern tradition. It also meant mashed potatoes. Everyone at the table served themselves an ample helping of potatoes and commenced to denting in a little well at the top of the pile, so I did, too. I'm from the north, western Pennsylvania, and when we had mashed potatoes, we also had gravy. So that first Sunday dinner meal, I waited for the gravy to be passed around. No gravy.

Peas.

Everyone put a generous scoop of green peas in that little well, even dribbled them out like green lava from a crater. Never heard of such a thing as peas on potatoes. Couldn't imagine the taste, either. But there they were, eating peas and potatoes like it was an everyday occurance.

Fast forward a lot of years (and a lot of peas and potatoes) and there I am listening to a man tell how he learned to like peas.  He couldn't stomach the taste of them until his family moved to the South Mountains.

So what happened, I asked.

The first day he ate in the school cafeteria he saw students making dents in their mashed potatoes and spooning their peas into those dents. He was extra hungry that day, he remembers some sixty years later, and wanted to eat everything in sight, even peas. He tried it their way. Liked it. Learned to eat peas with, and then without, mashed potatoes.

So is this a cultural thing? Southern? Mountain? A mommy thing? Or am I just behind the times in culinary delight?

As for me, give me a lonely pile of peas beside, not on, my mashed potatoes.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

New Project

Yesterday I started a new project, not that I have finished the Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse project or anything, but the timing for this offered a window I couldn't pass up.

My mother's eighty-five year old cousin lives way, way back in the Smoky Mountains (yes, another mountain project) just off interstate 40, not all that far from the Tennessee state line. She has asked me for several years now to write the story of her life as a circuit riding (horseback) preacher for the Salvation Army. As I interviewed her yesterday I couldn't help but connect elements of her story to those I've caught from Pilot Mountain.

One especially stood out...the mountain language. In a previous blog, (click here) I wrote about people who moved into the South Mountains as children and found a culture and its language vastly different from any other.

This cousin is, like my entire family, from the coal mining region of the western Pennsylvania mountains. She left our home village and moved to Pittsburgh in the mid forties, war era. She never felt at home in a big city, always missed her mountains, and eventually moved south when she joined the Salvation Army. She found mountains, and even though these were called the same, Appalachians, these were not the same people. When she first arrived, she could not speak their language, athough they both spoke English. The southern Appalachians, specifically the Smoky Mountains, are very isolating, undeveloped even to this day. The early Scotch/Irish settlers kept to themselves, retaining their customs and their old English accents and vocabulary, wary of strangers with Yankee accents.

Enter this tiny missionary, from the Alleghney Mountains, from the big city, and most important to the locals, from anywhere but Max Patch, North Carolina. They couldn't understand her. She couldn't understand them, not their language, not their customs. She invented her own system of sign language in a necessity-mother-of-invention way. She made comical missteps simply because she didn't understand this mountain life.

Adapting to her new home is only a part of her story. Her faith journey is the rest.

I can't wait to go back and capture more of this exciting story.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen



Saturday, November 26, 2011

Christmas Drama

Yes, I'm already thinking Christmas, have been for a month now and it has nothing to do with Black Friday or the thrill of buying presents, decorating the tree or baking the goodies. Oh, the drama of it all! But I'm thinking drama in a different sense, a dramatic presentation.

Every year the church I attend holds a Christmas trail at our church park the week after Thanksgiving. (Details here.) By default I have become the director, but that's okay because I am fortunate to have eager volunteers that step up even before I ask. We present the story of Christ's birth using our walking trail as a background, with twelve scenes and numerous actors. Counting them and the workers in the parking lot, the picnic shelter, the bonfire and the hot chocolate tent, we need over fifty people a night just to operate.




This is entirely outdoors, so the weather is like an additional character. Sometimes on the hill the wind cuts through the thin costumes and freezes even the sturdiest of Roman soldiers. Most often, though, the weather cooperates and walking through the woods under a blanket of clear stars becomes a highlight of the evening. Many visitors say this has become a tradition to start their Christmas off, grounded in the true meaning of the message.

At Pilot Mountain School, before religion was removed from education, the teachers held a yearly Christmas Pageant, complete with the manger scene and adoring shepherds and wise men. I know this because several of the people I interviewed burst out in recitation of their parts as we talked in a once learned, never forgotten sort of way.

I'm sad though, for the schoolchildren of today who won't have innkeeper stories or donkey-gone-wild stories to tell their children and grandchildren. The child actors in our Christmas trail do have stories to tell of roasting hot dogs over the shepherd's fire between groups, of eating the chicken that was cooked over the fire in the traveler's scene, of pretending the shepherd's staff was a machine gun during the scene. Behind the scenes is probably more meaningful to them than performing the same scene a dozen times per night.

We will be ready to welcome visitor on our trail this week, starting tomorrow, skipping to Thursday through Sunday. It's not the same experience as viewing a manger scene on a stage in the school auditorium, believe me. It is the same story, though, told for two thousand years. In the end, that's all that counts.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day 2011

Some days are sacred. They have meaning above and beyond a number on a calendar.  November 11 is one of those days. It seems even more notable this particular year because of the numbers involved.
11-11-11.
At the eleventh hour today I will stop and breathe in the fall air and remember those who have sacrificed their time and energy, and all too often, their lives. I’ve been to the walls of names. I’ve touched the letters and cried about war.

I found this picture posted by a friend on facebook this morning. I traced it back a few levels to
an early morning radio show in New Hampshire. I don't know who designed it, but it speaks volumes to me in a picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words kind of way, so thank you, unknown artist. And thank you veterans who made it possible for a radio show to be free to broadcast and for me to speak my mind on facebook and twitter.

For several years now I have been involved with AFS, a nonprofit organization that sends students across the globe to live with host families. Peace through cultural exchange is the short version of our mission statement. Here’s the actual:

AFS-USA works toward a more just and peaceful world by providing international and intercultural learning experiences to individuals, families, schools, and communities through a global volunteer partnership.

Each hosted student is assigned a liaison who maintains contact throughout the year. I am liaison for a student from Germany. The American school he attends here also has two other AFS students, one from Japan, one from Italy. The student from Japan is taking US History this semester and was studying for a test this past Tuesday while I met with her host family.
I asked what the test would be on. World War II she answered.

Then she remarked about something I’ve noticed all along: these three exchange students are from the three countries of the axis powers. I am blown away by the irony. Here she was sitting in an American school studying about Japan and Germany and Italy and the war of two generations ago through an American point of view. For these students, American or not, WWII is something for the history book, something they have gone beyond.

There must be a better way than war. We can’t change the past but we can influence the future through the youth of the world so that there won’t be a need for another wall of names. Ever.

Catch of the day,
 
Gretchen

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Happy Birthday Mom

Today my mother would have turned one hundred years old. She was a Pennsylvania coal miner's daughter. That sentence alone tells the story behind her resilience and I really don't need to say more, but I do want to fill in the details.

Her first family chore was to go outside each morning at daybreak to see if the signal flag was flying at the entrance to the mineshaft down the side of the mountain. If it was up, her father could work that day. If it was not, no work, less income and the family went hungry.

She lived through two world wars and the Great Depression between them, Viet Nam with my brother flying helicopter rescue, and nine-eleven and all its horrors on the screen in front of her, knowing too well that one grandson was witnessing it in New York City and one granddaughter was witnessing it in DC, live, up close and personal.
Susanna Frances Fish Holsopple

Yet those times of troubles did not define her life. The ordinary, day to day joy of living did. She traveled in a camping caravan in the thirties, gypsy like, open sky sleeping. After that experience of surviving on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches she never ate another one, nor ever, ever prepared one for me. My childhood summers were filled with travel. Often, when she was a bit homesick, she would pile my brother and me into the car and drive (no interstate highways then, I might add) from our new home in North Carolina through the rugged mountains of West Virginia into western Pennslyvania, back to the old homeplace, just for a short visit, just to reconnect to her roots and absorb the strength to face the challenges of living as an alien in a southern culture.

I've felt her influence quite a bit during this Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse project. From her many stories I learned what questions to ask about school life in the 1940's. She was a beginning teacher in a one room school at a crossroads called Eighty-four in Pennsylvania. She wrote about her experiences there in a handwritten, limited edition (two: one for me, one for my brother) memoir. She wrote about carrying the coal inside each morning to heat the school. She wrote about preparing the soup on top of the stove so that the depression era mountain children would have at least one hot meal. She moved next to teach at another one room school in a secluded village called Seldom Seen. When we moved south, she taught second grade at the nearby school, stressing phonics and vowel sounds to children who could not understand her accent.

She never got over the travel bug. She and my dad went to Europe several times and when he died in 1981, she turned next to her grandchildren as travel partners. She promised a trip the summer before each child's twelfth birthday, with one stipulation. The destination had to be a place she had never been. My niece chose Ireland; my nephew, Greece. She took my daughter to Holland to see the spring tulips and my son to Kenya on safari.

She lived to be ninety-two glorious years old. I must say, she did pack a lot into those years! She was a true member of the greatest generation.

But the greatest statement of her life is this. She was loved.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Courthouse Visit

I made a solemn visit yesterday to the Viet Nam memorial at the Burke County Courthouse. I hadn't planned it, otherwise I would have taken my camera, but the chance was there before me, too good to pass up.

When I visited the courthouse earlier in my research, I didn't imagine that one day I would need to walk among the monuments outside just as I needed to dig through the documents inside. But I did. I needed to see how two former students from Pilot Mountain School were memorialized, remembered forever.

Both were killed in action during Viet Nam.

I saw their names, touched them, felt the chiseled numbers that told exactly what day each was killed. I copied the dates to make sure I had the information correct in my manuscript.

Then I left. I had the freedom to come home, to write this blog, to watch an uncensored television show. All those names at the courthouse garden allowed me to do that and for that I am grateful. For that I will make certain these two men are included in my book. I owe it to them.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, October 17, 2011

Saturday at Pilot Mountain School

There's more to Pilot Mountain School than its past.

There is also a present and I was witness to it last Saturday.



The Pilot Mountain campus is also the work center for a business called Turning Point Services which provides in-home care and support to adult clients identified with developmental disabilities. Every year TPS sponsors a softball game. This year I dragged my lawn chair out of hibernation and plopped right down in the midst of proud families and cheering fans. It all began with a flag ceremony, followed by a choral presentation.

In this game, there were no outs. Everyone made it to first base and beyond. There were no losers, either. What a concept!

The game was held on the field behind the school where once upon a time children played marbles, where they played softball or football or jumprope, where past meets present. Now there is a walking track for these same clients to participate in community on a daily basis.




During a break in the action I walked around to the front of the school to photograph the fall leaves. The color in the higher Appalachians in western North Carolina was at its peak Saturday, but not here in the South Mountains. There were only a few red and yellow patches to tease leaf-peepers like me. I didn't find fall leaves but I wasn't at all disappointed. I found inspiration, not in nature, but in words.

In the front of the school is a two sided sign. The front side is for the world to see driving by on the highway. It announces the name of the school in huge bold letters. The back side, however, is more of a reminder to those who are inside the building looking out. Isaiah 40:31 the sign simply says. I looked it up and here's the full verse, NIV translation.


But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.

Those clients at Turning Point Services soared like eagles Saturday. They ran and their spirits never grew weary. They walked and never grew faint. They were renewed.

So was I.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen



Thursday, October 13, 2011

An Arrowhead and a Story

The fall of the year is when many elementary classrooms across the state discuss the Native American culture. I suppose dried cornstalks and colorful Indian corn make the perfect background for discussions, not to mention the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and the chance for children to wear feathered headbands or Pilgrim hats. Art lessons mean weaving paper strips into fake baskets. Music lessons have the beat of drums in the background. Arrowheads become the featured attactraction during show and tell.

Cherokee arrowhead
There were plenty of arrowheads in the farmland around Pilot Mountain School. For hundreds of years, this was the designated hunting grounds for two ancient tribes in North Carolina, the Cherokee and the Catawba. They traveled the South Mountains in search of food for their families and left behind many a broken arrow with its carefully honed arrowhead. Seasons changed from one year to the next and eventually the shaft rotted and the weapon shard settled into the ground beneath layers of leaf debris.

Arrowhead found in Tennessee

Until.


One day...



...when the farmer in the field turned over the sod and there, barely recognizable in the caked mud, it saw the light of day for the first time in hundreds of years.

A storeowner near Pilot Mountain collected Cherokee artifacts. I caught this story early in my interviewing process.

·        My grandfather was a collector of Indian artifacts. His collection of artifacts is now in the Cherokee museum. The kids would follow the plows and pick up the arrowheads for him. They’d trade my grandfather for candy. Being older, wiser and smarter, my brother would get out early in the morning right after it had rained. The ones barely covered up would be the ones that would be soon exposed.

Now these arrowheads fetch hundreds of dollars on internet trade, not exactly candy anymore. To me they also fetch out a certain sadness for greatness lost. I'm always looking for story. What story could you tell, Cherokee Arrowhead?

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, October 10, 2011

Columbus Day Musings

I read a poster online today that says something to the effect, "In honor of Columbus Day, go straight into someone's house and tell them you live there now."

Food for thought there, and I've done a lot of thinking, especially in relation to what I've heard from people I've interviewed during this project.

By the time their ancestors, the Eurpoean settlers, arrived in the Pilot Mountain area, the native Americans had already lived there for thousands of years. Well, they had not exactly lived there as in huge villages, because that very spot had become a neutral territory between two tribes. Both had agreed to disagree and maintain a buffer between them, the Cherokee in the higher Appalachians and the Catawbas in the piedmont. The South Mountains and the foothills between were designated hunting grounds by a treaty.

The few families that did live there eventually adapted and intermarried into this new society or moved on when they saw their land taken over. Those that chose to remain were eliminated by the notorious "Trail of Tears," the process in the early 1800's by which the Cherokee tribe was relocated to land further west.

But there was one man who refused to move from the South Mountains, refused to be dragged away from what he had known his entire life. He lived alone, hiding in a cave under Raven's Rock. I heard his story from a man who was a student in the early years at Pilot Mountain. His grandmother told him. Her grandmother told her.

He had explored this cave and found a knife, showed it to his grandmother. That's when she told the story of this unnamed Cherokee. He had hidden alone in the cave for years and when he became too old to survive in the ruggedness of the mountains, he found shelter in a white man's cellar. The family took him into their home, into their lives. They weren't making any political statements. They were answering the pleas of a fellow human being.

Today in honor of Columbus Day, I honor this Cherokee who wouldn't give up.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, October 8, 2011

October Poetry

Today is a perfect fall day, not too hot, not too cold, clouds so sparse I can count them on one hand. This is the kind of day poets write about when they are in a good mood, when the shadows have disappeared and all appears well.

Photograph by Vanessa McMillon

Poetry and autumn go together, at least according to one former Pilot Mountain student as she spoke about one teacher, Mrs. Seals, and the impact she made on her life.
  • Mrs. Seals is the one that would have us recite poetry. When the school would start we’d learn “September, the golden rod is yellow, the corn is turning brown.” I still say it every year. My husband says, “Well, it’s time for the poem.” Then next, “October’s bright blue weather.” I kind of got into that world. It was an escape for me. I could get a book and sometimes I would stop on the way home from school and sit and read or I would just sit in the broomsage and look at the books. The fall of the year it seems like that poetry would really get started and I would relate to everything.
Sixty plus years and her heart returns to the same poem, over and over and over. She doesn't need comfort food. She has comfort poetry!

We should all be so lucky.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Friday, September 23, 2011

Writer's Conference

I'm not at home this weekend. Starting today I'm at a conference in Charlotte, NC sponsored by the Carolinas Regional SCBWI, the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. You read that correctly, children's book writers. Me.

Beyond the adult nonfiction/memoir collecting and catching, I have written and published a few things for children and for teachers of those children. My nonfiction article "Finding Forty-two," about baseball great Jackie Robinson was in Highlights for Children. Coming soon in that same magazine, a fiction piece based on my father-in-law's yearly battle to keep the birds from devouring all the cherries on his cherry tree. I also have a picture book in the works with a fall 2013 release date, this one based on the tree farms here in Caldwell County and my experiences working with AFS students adjusting to living in America.

Writing is writing, back to basics whether for children or for adults, just telling a good story, even in the nonfiction texts. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? Ha. Try staring at a blank page for an hour.

That's the theme of this year's conference, "Filling the Blank Page." I've been to enough conferences to fill many a blank page, but there's something about being in the midst of the community of writers that keeps calling me back yet another year. Sure, it's about craft and marketing. More than that, to me a conference is about re-energizing, becoming enthused enough to crank up the computer Monday morning.

So while you are reading this, I am among friends, writer friends. I can't wait.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Speaking about my Project

Here I go again, getting the cart before the horse, or more specifically, the speaking engagement before the book. I first did it last February during a reception at Pilot Mountain School open house with only a "coming soon" flier in hand. Former students and teachers attended and shared their memories giving me additional insights into life at the school.

Today, however, there is a difference and the cart is way ahead of this horse. A friend of mine who has been my springboard of ideas and knows the project from the beginning days asked if I would present a program about Pilot Mountain School at a monthly meeting of senior citizens at her church. This set of listeners does not know about my project. They don't even know the school existed since they live in a completely different county thirty minutes away. On the other hand, I have a story to share, one I feel they will connect with, about struggles, faith, daily living and overcoming poverty of the mid twentieth century.

Most of all I will present the life of  a former missionary to China, Lettie Hamlett. I've posted about her before, so in case you missed it, please click on her name, go back and read her story. It's amazing, and it's one worth sharing today.

I guess today is the first test of how well strangers to the school will react to its story. Can I convince them that there are universal truths underneath all the bare bone telling I'm doing? If so, then this manuscript is worth every nano-minute I've devoted these past two years.

We'll see.

Catch of the day,

Gretchern

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Not the Ordinary Wine Tasting Tour

I've been married to my wonderful, patient husband for 43 years as of this September 14. It's quite an accomplishment to say the least, especially since I've added on this project and dragged him through some of the most unusual situations a marriage could endure. Even our anniversary celebration this year was connected to the Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse project. I was doing "research," but in this case he was an eager participant.

We went on a moonshine tasting fundraising tour sponsored by the Catawba County Historical Society. You read it right, not the ordinary wine tasting for us, no this was actual moonshine. Legal. (I asked.) I should have known it was going to be a different kind of night when we arrived in the parking lot and first thing were given mason jars filled with instructions.

Although the illegal distilling trade was well established in the South Mountain area around Pilot Mountain, the bootleggers there had no monopoly on the market. Nearby Catawba County was equally as prolific, as we discovered on this tour. And a tour it was, four airconditioned, comfort coach busloads of mountain dew singing modern day yuppies peeking into the speakeasy world of prohibition. We followed the same route NASCAR driver Junior Johnson once ran. "Here's where the largest bust..." the guide pointed to the lake's edge. "Here's the garage where the cars were adapted to the trade." We drove past delapidated buildings that once were fine dining establishments covering for backdoor liquor markets, brothels (who would have guessed) and the jail where a notorious bootlegger tapped into his own confiscated kegs there behind the courthouse while the law/kin folk looked the other way.

When we returned to Murray's Mill, a restored historical site in Catawba County, we were treated to a bar-b-que dinner and live bluegrass music by the group Kudzu. That's when the tasting party began. Apple pie flavored shine. Peach flavored, cranberry, all yuppified moonshine in a cough medicine sized dose exchanged for a ticket from our mason jar.

None were to my taste or even to my sense of right vs wrong. The extended research I heard on the tour was thorough, well documented and went right along with my own study. Except that I also include the child's side of the moonshine trade, the impact when the father was in jail or when the revenuers were knocking at the door or when the child couldn't stay awake in class because he was up all night helping in the family business in the dark with only nature's light to work by.

As an unplanned bonus, there in the cloudless sky above the waterwheel turning in the creek beside our table was the biggest, clearest full moon shining down on us all.

The stories that moon could tell!

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering September 11

No Pilot Mountain connection today, for once. I have other things on my mind.

Today I only want to talk about one day, ten years ago, September 11, 2001 when I was teaching fourth grade. For a decade now, I've thought about that day and the children in my class. Although I've kept up with them through the years as they've grown into college sophomores, I have never talked about "that" day to get their impressions and feelings.

Until now.

I am facebook friends with one girl, Lindsey. She posted this morning:
  • I was in Gretchen Griffith's fourth grade class. We were told that we didn't have to do the homework we were assigned if we didn't want to. Even the next day, I didn't know how it really effected me or the world. I was sad because everyone else was. Looking back, I'm amazed at the teachers for being as calm and collected as they were. I'm not sure I could have done the same.
Here's my response:
  • Strange you remember the no homework fact, Lindsey. We also went out to play a little extra that afternoon, do you remember that, too? I didn't know what the future would be, but at least my class would have a time of true play before they found out that the world had changed. It was hard watching everyone play knowing this big life secret. I also remember that the next morning we discussed it as a class and then I could tell it was enough time spent talking and what everyone really needed was a little normalcy. So we went on about the business of being fourth grade.
Just like those fourth graders, when we go on about our freedoms, then we win.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hurricanes, Tropical Storms and Such

Rain, rain, rain and more rain. We've had enough rain for the past few days to last quite a while, thank you, very much.
I've watched videos on the news about roads in the Carolinas being washed away, more from Irene than from Lee. I can picture in my mind one such incident that happened to the Pilot Mountain community in the unnamed hurricane of 1940. Losing a vital connection to the rest of the world is a devastation to the community, no matter which natural disaster hits. It is not a recent phenomena either, although the invention of more available roadways into remote areas offers a hurricane additional opportunity for widespread destruction. The road through this valley is a good example.

The new US highway 64 through the valley had just been completed and opened to great ballyhoo two weeks before the 1940 hurricane struck. Up to this time, the road was a state road, route #181, that wound from one end of the county to the other connecting both mountain chains through the valley between them and connecting the towns of Morganton and Rutherfordton.

Here's how one man fondly remembered the old road that it replaced. Little wonder that the new version was a welcome relief.
  • The old road wandered all around creation, especially up there around my house. It went in front of my shop and on up past my garden and back to where highway #64 is at now. Climbed up the top of the next hill and circled back and went back down to Brindle Creek and crossed the creek and went up to the top of the hill and come back again. Goes as a matter of convenience from one property to the next. That’s how crooked it was. You don’t think nothing about the road until you get to looking at where it used to be. (Student, 1942-48)
The new road cut the distance between the towns from thirty-five to twenty-seven miles. A car (or horse and buggy) no longer had to ford the winding creeks sixteen different times because this new highway had bridges and culverts. Two weeks it was open and then it was gone, wiped out, death by water.
 
The engineers arrived again. They started from scratch and built an even better, even stronger highway that was part of a main artery between North Carolina and Arizona. Its importance to the ebb and flow of the nation diminished when Interstate 40 opened in the early sixties, but it remains as a vital lifeline to the locals.  I live within walking distance of highway #64. My daughter in New Mexico works within walking distance of the same highway and lives within two miles. Some day I want to drive that ribbon of highway between our two homes and see for myself what the backroads reveal.
 
As long as the hurricanes leave them alone.
 
Catch of the day,
 
Gretchen

Monday, September 5, 2011

Hurricane Lee

Today might be a holiday, but a hurricane named Lee has put a damper on it. Here in the foothills between the South Mountains to the east and the Blue Ridge to the west, we are experiencing the first bands of what is ahead, not that I'm complaining. We need a little rain, as long as the wind stays light. So I'm inside, hunkered down in front of the computer, pulling out a manuscript that I've ignored for two years while I've done this more pressing Pilot Mountain project. A change of topics is most welcome on this dreary day.

Hurricanes bring out the best in people and the worst in nature. To the western North Carolina mountains, hundreds of miles from the Atlantic coast, a hurricane is definitely nature at its worst. Case in point, the 1940 unnamed hurricane that blasted through the Pilot Mountain area with its own brand of havoc.

I caught tales in my net about this 1940's storm. Mostly I caught flood stories, how the barn was washed away, how the cows and horses couldn't fight the current and gave in to be swept down stream, how the promising crops were covered with thick layers of killer muds and how the farmers' yearly income washed away in one fatal day. After seventy years, the memory still haunts:
  • They was so much water til it looked like an ocean to me. The field looked like you could go swimming in it. All the stuff washed away, an old barn we had there, the stuff we had in it, the straw, hay. Crops. Everything was gone. It got it all. School construction crew member, 1941-42
Will Hurricanes Lee, Irene, Katrina and other storms in the sisterhood be so imprinted into this generation's minds that a storycatcher seventy years from now can garnish memories that are as vivid as what I see this morning?

No doubt.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Friday, September 2, 2011

Accomplishing the Impossible

When I checked my emails this morning, I found a note from the AFS/USA president sent to all volunteers about placing the final 2011-12 students with host families. He began with this:

  • Recently, a volunteer passed along a quote to me from Eleanor Roosevelt, "You must do the things you think you cannot do.”

Do the things I think I cannot do.... Before my Pilot Mountain project, I would have thought "nice quote," in a bland sort of way. But two years into the project, I have upped my opinion of doing the impossible. Research into the home front war years did that for me. I read about the efforts to raise funds, to collect scrap metal and to do without essentials. I interviewed former students who lived through the ration book years, brought nickels to buy stamps for their war bond books and scrap metal from the farms to earn a sweat shirt.

The teachers were in charge of the war effort at Pilot Mountain School. They weighed the metal and kept meticulous records. They collected the nickels and kept the redemption books in their desks. When a child filled the book, the teachers were the ones who converted the book to a war bond. They worked extra hours to register citizens for rationing coupons. They were the ones who awarded the sweat shirts and taught about Victory Gardens. They did the impossible, the things they probably thought they could not do.

Eleanor Roosevelt, courtesy of the NY Times


In this newest century, we are called upon over and over to do the things we think we cannot do, whether it is to place foreign students in host families or to create jobs for the unemployed. We need to post Mrs. Roosevelt's quote on the doorframes of every household.

I have done what I didn't think I could do when I was in the midst, when doubts crept in. I finished a manuscript about a schoolhouse that existed during mid-twentieth century America. A major, major theme of its story is how the parents, teachers and students accomplished what the rest of the world didn't think they could do. Good for them.

We must do the things we never thought we could do. Thank you Eleanor Roosevelt for reminding us.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Friday, August 26, 2011

Too Many Moonshine Stories

You know those jokes that start "You know you're a red neck when...." Well, I lived one of those jokes today only it was, "You know you've spent too much time researching your manuscript when...."

Okay, so there's no way you can research too much unless you start seeing things that aren't really there. Case in point: This morning I was doing the "grab everything you can in case hurricane Irene hits" grocery shopping, which is akin to the milk and bread snowstorm shopping panic, especially since I'm way up here in the western part of the state away from the hurricane's path. I got to the baking items aisle and waited patiently to pick up a five pound bag of sugar behind a lady who was blocking my way, reaching for the same sugar bag I wanted.

She loaded that bag, then another, then a third. All totaled she got ten five-pound bags of sugar. Now what would a person do with fifty pounds of sugar?

You're thinking jelly, jam, baking. Not me.

Not after I've been researching for the Pilot Mountain School project, catching moonshine stories about toting bags of sugar up the hills. All I could think of was making whiskey in the woods at the family still. I tried to restrain myself, I really did, but once a story catcher, always a story catcher.

Jelly.

Well, I asked.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Thursday, August 25, 2011

First Day of School

Today's the first day of school for the 2011-2012 year here in the county where I live. It should be a pretty nice day. The weather sounds perfect with no rain predicted, at least not until the students will be safe at home from their bus rides and the afternoon thunder showers set in. (Hurrican Irene is still a blip on this morning's radar.) The teachers are waiting, and I'm sure the students are as ready as they will ever be. I'd bet most of them woke up early this morning, even those who dreaded the day. There's a certain air of expectation around the first day.

In 1942 Pilot Mountain School had its first, first day of school. I've tried to imagine what that day was like and how it compares with this morning. School opened a little later in the year back then because there were only eight calendar months of school, one hundred-sixty days, on the schedule. There was a war going on, with rationing. To save precious gasoline and rubber tires, the bus routes were as abbreviated as possible. Any child living within a mile and a half radius of the school could not ride the bus and those who could were required to walk to designated central pick-up spots.

Since the entire nation was on year-round, war time daylight savings, the school system adapted by scheduling the morning bell for after nine AM. Students had plenty of time to milk the cows, gather the eggs and finish whatever other home chores they were required to perform before they headed off to their first day of school.

Just like today many children came wearing new shoes, except that for the most part, this one new pair in the fall (usually brogan boots) was the only pair and had to last the entire year. Growing was frowned upon, I'm sure, wartime rationing, remember. A child wore the same pair of shoes until the soles came apart and then the mamas fashioned new soles out of cardboard, slid them down deep inside the brogans. Going barefoot was a lot more simple, and certainly permitted.

Waiting for the children at the door were four teachers, six grades, but only four teachers. That was it. No lunchroom ladies because there was no cafeteria with vegetable soup temptations announcing what was for lunch. The children either packed a pail or hurried home for a quick meal. The lunchroom had not been built yet, and neither had the bathrooms. The students (and the teachers as well) used the outdoor facilities. No custodian. No one to sweep the floors other than the teacher. No librarian and no library. No music teacher, PE teacher, nurse. Nothing but the four teachers, one of whom was designated principal.

The green sign out front didn't say Pilot Mountain School. Instead it said, in big block letters, "Constructed by the WPA." That's the Works Progress Administration, a Great Depression era government stimulus program through which this school was funded. The sign was still there because construction was not completed and on that first, first day of school back then, not only did the children arrive, so did the construction workers.

The sounds on that first day of school in 1942 were hammering and sawing as much as the voices of excited children settling down to a world of wonder in a brand new school. Settle down, they did. The noises from the construction became secondary. The pressures from war time America became secondary, too. After all, this was the first day of school where children came for sanctuary as much as for "learning."

Not all that different from today.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, August 22, 2011

Teacher Workdays

I'm waving at my teacher friends as they drive past my house on the way to work today. Hi, ho, hi ho, it's off to work they go. Work it is, even though it's a teacher work day with no students today or tomorrow...or Wednesday. There were optional work days last week when the teachers could come in, or not, and count the days as paid vacation days.

Things weren't always that way.

The early teachers I've written about for the last two years would never have dreamed of the teacher workday concept. What a luxury! Imagine getting paid for what they did anyway. In the 1940's, the first day of school was the first day for everyone, teachers and students, with no extra preparation days. Walk in the door with them, kind of thinking. Instead the teachers appeared a day or two before school opened, unpaid.

In the fifties, the state allotted two paid work days, one in the fall to prepare and the other in the spring after the last day of school to finish reports. Gradually the number increased and now the teachers have ten workdays, full of institutes and teacher meetings and grade level conferences and training and finally going into the classroom to put on the final touches for a promising new year.

Students in this county come Thursday and their teachers will be fully prepared in a ready-or-or-not kind of way. That's the day a group of us former teachers will drive past the school on the way to eat breakfast together. We will honk the horn in a symbolic gesture, but our teacher friends will be so busy, they'll never hear it.

It's sort of sad, though, for those of us who thrived on being in the classroom. We get over it, when we drive back home and see the classes standing in the heat having their first required fire drill.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Interview

Last week I experienced the chance of an interviewer's life time, an interview with ninety-four year old Benjamin Horack. I met him through a friend who promised me he would delight and entertain as much as he would inform. She was right.

Benjamin Horack argued in front of the Supreme Court in a landmark case, Swann vs. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education. Click here for more information about it. Mr. Horack might be over ninety years old, but he hasn't lost one bit of the fiesty spirit I can imagine he presented as he stood before nine supreme court justices. He told me about that day, about the time limit and the green, yellow, red stoplight thirty minute timer, about the questions he answered and his argument back.

He maintained that bussing children from their own neighborhoods was unnatural and would break down the fiber of community. Forty years later he still believes it even though the Supreme Court unanimously disagreed with him.

How would this apply to Pilot Mountain School, he asked? Community, I answered.

Bussing was not a part of the federal compliance plan in the county where this school was located. Freedom of choice within zones was. His perspective was big city. Mine was rural. He recognized community as the number one force in a child's school life. I did too, especially in what I heard about Pilot Mountain School. 

This school just didn't teach the children. It raised the children. Two different things.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Help

I went on a field trip with my critique group yesterday to see the movie, The Help. This is a film that must be viewed with a group because it stimulates discussions, and in my case, brings forth a few suppressed memories to talk about. Whether you lived it or are exposed to it for the first time, this thought provoking movie has value not only in the characters and the actions, but in the background subtleties as well. That's what I remember from those days, the colored only signs. The back doors. The separate but equal concept.

I've worked through "separate but equal" for months now in my Pilot Mountain School research. I've talked with former students at this all-white school that told me they never even saw a black person until they were in second or third grade. That's the kind of separate I present in this manuscript, two societies existing in the same space with no interaction. Hard to believe it was even possible, but it happened.

I read The Help two years ago when I first started the interviews for this project. What a fortunate and timely coincidence. It kept me conscious of the fact that when people open their lives to tell their stories for print, they are taking risks. Exposure is painful, and while I look at a story as just an ancedote to the larger picture, they look at it as representing life itself. As I ask questions, I must keep this in mind. I watch grown men tear up. I pass tissues to women who weep over a simple remembrance of a day at the school.

I must respect their stories and handle them with care.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Adapting to a Different Culture

This week I was back in my "teacher" mode with a fantastic group of teenage exchange students who will spend this year in the US. They were fresh off the plane, although worn from their trip and from the farewell parties in their home countries. Ah, but teenagers bounce back. They were full of questions and we were full of answers that didn't match their questions. We keyed in on safety in a new environment. They wanted specifics, what will my life be like kind of questions. Is it really possible to prepare these students for the next few days, weeks and months? Our instructor guidebook thought so. We tried.

Being an exchange student isn't all glamour, believe me. I was one in Lima, Peru. Adjusting to a culture is work, hard work. It's also something that can't be explained. It must be lived, a fact these students I just met and worked with and listened to will learn soon enough.

As I've talked with the former students of Pilot Mountain School, I've caught a few stories about adjusting to a new completely different environment. Several people, as adults looking back, compared their experiences of moving into the community to that of being an exchange student.

Interview One: This was like coming to a different country, like going way back in time.

Interview Two: It was like a culture shock, I think that’s what they would call it now, even for children reared in the country. Not only the size of the school, but the people, they were just different. To seven and eight year olds, it was like going to a different world.

Interview Three: I remember the language was a lot different. The vocabulary was different, phrases that were said. I can’t remember any of them now because I’ve adapted and I use some of them myself, so they don’t sound strange now.

There, that comment from Interview Three, the one about the vocabulary not sounding strange anymore because he's adapted....That's what I wanted these modern day exchange students to realize. Some day soon they will wake up and realize nothing is strange anymore.

Then, mission accomplished.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Writing Community

I thrive on being a member of a flourishing writing community here in western North Carolina. We critique each other with kindness and professionalism. We high five each other when a paragraph finally works. We hold our collective breaths when we wait for a reply to a submission. We dance for the good news and hug each other through the rejections.

The most rewarding of all, though, is attending an author event. I went to two last week, one at the Morganton library for young adult author Beth Revis (Across the Universe) and three other delightful newcomers to my radar. The other was at B&N for Mary Netreba (Rosemary for Remembrance) and four more equally delightful new-to-me authors. I bought their books and I've finished a couple of them already.

Nurturing. Supporting. Delighting in successes. That's what I'm talking about, not just in the writing community, but in the Pilot Mountain School community as well. For two years I've been on the fringes trying to understand this community and how it works, and all along, I was existing in a community with those very qualities. Now I know. Community...what a concept!

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Victory Gardens

There's an abundance of fresh garden vegetables in my back yard right now, despite the hot dry dog days of summer and despite my not so high level of garden know-how. I'll pick a mess of green beans, wash them, snap them and throw them in the pressure cooker. Garden to table in less than an hour. Life is good. No food shortage here, or at the grocery store either.

But there was a food shortage during World War II and President Roosevelt encouraged the American people to plant gardens at home and not depend so much on the supply chain for their food. Sort of reminds me of the current first lady's drive to have present day Americans plant gardens of their own. Now it's a health food thing. Then it was survival.

A good portion of the war effort of the 1940's ended up on the shoulders of the teachers in this county, as in counties across the state and nation. Ration book registration. Teachers. Scrap metal drive. Teachers. War bonds. Teachers. Victory Garden Instruction. Teachers.

Except that the teachers here at this school were preaching to the choir, so to speak, when it came to Victory Gardens. No need. These families were country when country wasn't cool and when it was, they had the know-how of their own. So while the city teachers were telling their classes about going home and planting vegetables for the war effort, the Pilot Mountain teachers could go on about the business of teaching the ABC's...after they finished the business of taking up nickels for little Susie's war bond book or weighing the piece of scrap metal little Johnnie brought in.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, August 1, 2011

Gardens

The weather outside is frightful. Dry frightful. Hot frightful. We lost our cucumbers this past week, shriveled up and died even though we had watered them. I'll admit to one thing. A gardner, I'm not.

The Pilot Mountain community, on the other hand, is teeming with gardners, and cucumbers, too, I'm sure. It's a given. Come spring, they plant. They have the know-how. They learned it from their parents who learned it from their parents who.... You get the picture.

One lovely former teacher I interviewed didn't quite get the picture. Her first year teaching was at rural Pilot Mountain School and she was a city girl. The class came to the science lesson about plants. They planted seeds and the seeds sprouted as expected. One little boy said, "You know what you need? You need some fertilizer." Next day he appears with a small bag of fertilizer. She coated the plants (emphasize the word coated here) and the plants died, as expected by everyone but her. That was their science lesson for the week and that was her gardening lesson for life.

Lessons learned.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bible School

This week is Bible School week at my church. One thing about the south, forget the extreme heat this year, summer means Bible School and mothers bring their children. My children got the religion in the summer! I made sure they attended Bible School at every church in the community. It was fun for them, not just part of their religious training. It was a break for me, maybe that was the real incentive.

Bible School is so much fun, it makes me want to go back and be a kid again. This year at our church it's about cooking:

I don't know if the children who attended Pilot Mountain School went to Bible School in the summers. None of the interviews I've done have included that topic. Those children didn't need Bible School. They had the Bible at school, whether they wanted it or not. In the days before the Supreme Court ruling, religion started the school day. The teacher led prayer. The students read Bible verses. Sometimes the teacher read selections from inspirational publications like The Upper Room or The Daily Bread.

There were weekly chapel programs where local minister shared their faith with the children. At eighth grade graduation, the minister's sermon came first on the agenda. True, there were children from various Christian denominations sitting in the classroom. No one thought about that.

When the ruling came and the school discontinued Bible related instruction, the community accepted it. The now grown children told me about the  first day of school the year the county complied with the ruling. Religion is a part of the home, the teachers said. We will follow the law, they said. And then they led the pledge of allegiance to the flag, including the phrase "under God" and started class. That was it.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Summer Produce

I've been knee deep in tomatoes, okra, corn and peppers this week, full of blessings from an overabundance in the garden, mine and that of generous friends. For supper tonight, I'll pick a "mess" of beans, as we call it here in the south. Nothing like walking out the back door to gather my own food.

Gathering food for a cafeteria during war time in the '40's was not nearly as simple. There were food shortages in the marketplace, but since Pilot Mountain School was in a rural area, local produce was available. The families brought bushel baskets of turnips, beans, apples, blackberries, anything the cafeteria could use. In exchange, their children ate lunch.

In yet another step to this barter system, the county superintendent announced that the school system would provide glass jars for the farm families to preserve local produce for the schools, once again in exchange for their children's lunches.

The children had nutritious meals. The school had the supply. The system worked.

Would it work today?

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, July 18, 2011

Building an Auditorium



This is a good example of the saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words." Look closely, because the thousand words might be different from what you'd expect.

This is a class from the mid 1940's, probably around second or third graders, by the looks of the children. They are posing in front of the school. Scroll up to the current picture of the school and look to the middle entrance. That's where these children were. Where now there is a bricked wall leading up the steps, in the forties, it was metal. (More fun to swing on, I'm sure.)

Do you see what appears to be white barrels that the boys in the back are standing on? Guess again. Scroll up and look at the current picture. Those white "barrels" are there, too. They are the columns for the auditorium that laid in the early years on the ground, waiting "like giant bones scattered," according to one man I interviewed.

I heard them talk about those columns, about how they played on them, jumped over them, walked them like modern children walk the balance beam. I read the newspaper accounts about the bond issue that passed in 1947 that allotted money for building the auditorium, and I wondered. Why were the columns there for so long if it wasn't even built until the late forties?

Then I read the school board minutes. When the school was built in '41 and '42, the auditorium was a part of the original plan. Phase one was the first four rooms at the furtherest end in the picture above. The four classes moved into them in the fall of 1942 while construction continued on the second half. It was to be four more classrooms, a cafeteria, library, office, and auditorium. But, there, in the school board minutes, I found one simple comment.

Due to cost, (as usually happens in a building project) expenses ran over. The school board instructed the builders to forget the auditorium. Instead they were to remove the wall between two of the classrooms and turn that larger room into an auditorium. The school then would have six classrooms, not eight.

But they had columns, already purchased in anticipation of a real auditorium. What to do with them?

Nothing. Let the children crawl on them, play on them, pose for pictures on them. Leave them laying like giant bones as a reminder of what was taken from them or as a promise of what will someday be built.

That someday finally came and the results were beyond what the community expected. Still is. Look at it now at this auditorium link. So worth the wait.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Adding the Kindergarten

The daughter of a friend of mine just finished a year in the "More at Four" program at our local school. Last Sunday at church I was in the nursery with her and wow, what a kid. I had not had any contact with her for over a year, so her change in maturity and school prepared-ness amazed me. Is she ever ready for school!

The children at Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse had no such program to prepare them academically. They came to school one day the spring before their first grade year with an older brother or sister or cousin and sat through lessons. That was it.

Until the federal government stepped in.

First there was Head Start, designed to, in President Lyndon Johnson's words, "rescue these children from the clutches of poverty which otherwise could grip them all their lives and will put them on an even footing with their classmates as they enter school."

That was a summer program, not much of a head start, but more than they had before.

The biggest impact came from the federal kindergarten program. North Carolina at that time had no kindergarten paid with state money, only a few city systems forked over the money for this unproven expense. In 1968 a kindergarten program started at Pilot Mountain, complete with a teacher, teacher assistant and a bathtub in the room. Today a bathtub in the room conveys a comfy aura of children relaxing with pillows and library books. Life was different then. The bathtub was for washing children. (And also for a temporary home for ducks at Easter.)

The kindergarten closed before the school did and for the most glorious of all reasons.

The school lost its federal funding.

The income level in the community rose too far above the poverty level. Major. Accomplishment.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Adding the Twelfth Grade

Oh, my, it's been a month since I last blogged. Could I use summer as the excuse, please?

Vacationing is only part of the story, though. What has kept me busy and away from the blog during this month is the inch by inch, line by line sloooow process of fact checking my manuscript. My eyes can take only so much before they say "That's it. Enough, already."

I have run across a few details that I'll need to clarify. The main one deals with the decision by the North Carolina General Assembly to add the twelfth grade to the public schools. Up to 1938, when the law was passed, graduation was at the end of the eleventh grade. I've interviewed several people who guessed as to the reason it was added. The depression, they claimed, keeping the workforce in the schools for another year. Not for more training, mind you. Staying in school kept them out of circulation competing for jobs.

I haven't found any proof of that, although I have searched. What I did find was that by the time the twelfth year was implemented, the depression was long since over.

Adding an extra grade consisted of more than just telling the students they couldn't graduate. More teachers had to be hired (and paid, during a tough economic period?). And then there was the space issue, where to put the students. And the curriculum issue, what to teach that extra year. And purchasing text books to match.

When the process finally trickled down to the district including Pilot Mountain School, seven years had passed and the world was completely different from the day the law passed. World War II had put everything on hold. The school system could barely keep eleven grades staffed, much less a twelfth. After the war, many women left teaching to start families (remember, no pregnant teachers were allowed to be in a classroom) and the men returning from war found better paying jobs in the private sector. Think "teacher shortage."

So here's the process, how the twelfth grade was added in Burke County:

The eleventh graders graduated as usual in 1944, and the tenth graders moved up to the eleventh grade the next fall. At the end of that year, spring of 1945, there was no high school graduation because no one had finished the required twelfth grade. Oh, there were a few students who had accumulated enough credits, so there was a class of 1945, six or seven members, maybe.

At the other end of the spectrum, the first graders arrived, as usual. So now there were extra students that needed a space. The children from Pilot Mountain had to this date been sent to nearby Salem School beginning their seventh grade year. To free some space at that school, the seventh graders did not move on. Three years later, when Salem School was over capacity, the eighth graders also remained at the school.

And that's the story of how Pilot Mountain School came into eight grades. But it's not the story of the emotions behind the story.

One boy in the eleventh grade class was disgusted that he would have to remain in school for another year to earn the same diploma his older brother earned for eleven years of school. He dropped out in protest.

There's always emotions and consequences behind every decision.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Last Week of School

Talk about traditions.

Every year the last week of school at Pilot Mountain presented its own unofficial traditions. Focus might have been on the official tradition, Eighth Grade Graduation, but for the rest of the school, the focus was on getting through that last week.

There were no teacher workdays in the early years, maybe one or two by the mid fifties. So all the downshifting, the book collection, report cards, cleaning desks, all those were accomplished by the children and the teachers together so that when the last bell rang, school was over for everyone.

Cleaning wasn't everything. There were also picnics when the entire school went outside on the ballfield or up the hill to the front lawn of the farmhouse behind the school. Several years the end of year picnic was at a fish pond in the middle of one of the teacher's cow pasture. Oh, the stories I caught about those picnics...stepping in cow pies and washing in the pond...splashing, falling in the water...falling in love, friends who became sweethearts that day and still are after fifty years of marriage.

There was one more tradition the last week of school. A little background: In the days before kindergarten, you'd think the first graders came "cold turkey" in the fall, just walking in the front door the first day of school. No. They came to school for a trial run. Big sisters, big brothers, cousins, neighbors, anyone who knew an upcoming first grader would bring him/her to school school one day that last week in an early version of mentoring, so to speak. The soon-to-be first grader would shadow the older child, sit in the desks, eat in the cafeteria, play on the playground...playing school inside and out.

That's how things worked at Pilot Mountain School, except for one more thing. The chant.

School's out, school's out,
Teacher wore the rules out.
No more pencils, no more books,
No more teacher's dirty looks.


Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Eighth Grade Graduation Ceremonies

It's that time of year. Graduation.

I've received a few high school graduation announcements in the mail this week and I've cheered for those teens I've followed through the years. It's not been easy for any of them. They can testify to that. They've come through the fire and are ready to take on the world.

Graduation at Pilot Mountain School was almost as significant to the eighth graders then as it is to the seniors now. It was a rite of passage with a few adjustments. The students received a certificate of promotion instead of a diploma. There were no caps and gowns, but white dresses for the girls and white shirts and ties for the boys. Did I mention corsages for the girls? That, too, and  red boutonniers for the boys.

I have the inside info about one year's corsages, probably in the mid 1950's. After the graduation service that evening, a mother who had helped pin the corsages whispered an apology to one of the girls. She had pinned the corsage upside down and that fact concerned her during the whole ceremony, tugged at her sense of etiquette. She had a reason for the error, though. By the time she had arrived to help, several other mothers had already pinned a few corsages on the girls, upside down. In her true southern graciousness, rather than point out the error, she went along with the others and pinned the corsages to match.


Eighth grade class of 1961


Thanks to the Morganton News Herald for this photo from their "Looking Back..." feature.

The eighth graders in this picture were not from the year of the upside down flowers. Nor were they from the year one of the boys sneaked back to the school during the night before graduation and carved his initials with his girl friend's in the doors. A few years later, they were married. More than forty years later, they are still married.


These students are from the years when eighth grade graduation was all about completion and promise and innocence. World War II was over, Korea, too. Viet Nam loomed ahead, but not here, not that day. That day, all was well with the world. Look at their faces. You can tell.

So many graduation stories...

Catch of the Day,

Gretchen

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cultural Orientation



I've been a little busy lately and not had a chance to post here or to work on the Pilot Mountain Project. But actually I've done a lot of thinking about it because of what I'm doing with another passion in my life, AFS.

AFS is an international exchange student program that sends students from the US abroad to live with host families and accepts students from abroad to live with host families here. I have been preparing the students from the western half of North and South Carolina to go abroad in 2011. Tomorrow is our pre-departure orientation. We will talk a lot about students leaving their comfort zones and adjusting to a new culture.

Adjusting to a different culture happens within a nation, too. Take Pilot Mountain for instance. Three times the topic came up with former students I was interviewing. They all had moved into the community and had to adjust to a new way of life. All three said it was like coming to a foreign country. One was from a city environment and his adaptation was the most difficult of the three. He went from bicycles on sidewalks to wide open fields, from houses within a stone's throw to no neighbors within sight.

All three of them had trouble understanding the local accent, tarred for tired/laught for light/torlet for toilet. There were local traditions to adjust to also. May first wasn't a Maypole dance. It was the first day each year when children were allowed to come to school in bare feet.

Thing is, children adapt. There are universal experiences and emotions that override the differences. Children find comfort in the likenesses and learn to appreciate the differences, whether they are going across the state or across the ocean.

I wish a grand bon voyage to this year's students. Adjusting to a new culture is possible, just ask those Pilot Mountain children of so long ago.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Horse Riding Custodian

Now that I've introduced you to Walter Norman and his horse in my last post, I'd like to tell you more about this wonderful man I never met. Uncle Walter, as the entire school population knew him, was a character in his own right. I feel like I know him well enough to pass along the stories. That what story catchers do. 

Fact: He wore bib overalls every day, even on Sundays when he changed his every day shirt to a long sleeve white shirt for Sunday best.

Fact, with a little legend thrown in: One story about him had nothing to do with school, but told a lot of his sense of humor. Back in the day when citizens appeared in person at the tax office to declare their property, he diligently went to town to file his taxes. This happened to be the first year when dogs were taxed at two dollars a head and Uncle Walter hadn't been notified about this new tax. Now Uncle Walter loved coon hunting and had a pack of hunting dogs to brag about. The clerk asked him if he had any dogs and he proudly answered, "Yes, Ma'am, sixteen." The clerk responded, "That will be thirty-two dollars." Well, he paid it, although I can imagine the conversation he had before he did. Next year, when he appeared before the clerk and she asked if he had any dogs, he sadly answered, "No, they all died."

A man after my own heart!

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Horses and Pilot Mountain School

This year's Kentucky Derby is history now. Out there somewhere is next year's winner grazing in the pasture, little aware of the acclaim that is to be or the work that is ahead to earn that acclaim and its wreath of roses.

Horses in the Pilot Mountain School community earned no such wreath. These were work horses that instead earned respect and acclaim through their achievements in the field rather than at the racetrack. I've caught a few horse stories this past year, mostly connected with long-time custodian, Walter Norman. He rode his horse to work every morning, tied it up to the hitching post behind the school. Some people I interview declare it was a horse. Others say, mule. I saw the picture. Long ears for a horse, I must note.

Did the children play with the horse, I asked?

No, these were farm children and horses were no novelty. To them it was the same as the teachers who drove cars and parked beside the school or the cafeteria worker who rode the school bus alongside the children. The horse waited, rain or shine, although in really bad weather, Mr. Norman was known to hitch a ride in a car.

I'd say this horse earned more than a wreath of roses. It earned a spot in the memory of children and that is worth every bit as much as roses.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day in the 1950's

To all the women in my life, Happy Mother's Day! My own mother is no longer living, although she lives through me and my children, so I send this Happy Mother's Day wish to those wonderful ladies in my life that have stepped up and mothered me.

Wasn't my mother a looker! I wish I could have met her the day that picture was taken. We could have had some experiences to write home about, I'm sure. From her I inherited the gene for adventure and curiosity. And what did I give her for Mother's Day when I should have given her the world?

A potholder a year.

I remember it now because of my interviews with Pilot Mountain children of the fifties. That must have been the trend back then, home-made potholders. A little hand held loom and a bag of stretchy loops miraculously appeared at school and we would weave the loops together using the most unholy combination of colors. When we cleaned out my mother's house, I discovered a stack of stained, tattered, well-used potholders in the top kitchen drawer. I was loved.

Pilot Mountain School was blessed with mother figures by the dozens who stepped up not only for their own children, but for the community children as well. Teachers went to homes and checked on their students when they were absent. The cafeteria ladies nurtured them through daily lunchline chatter as much as through their delicious food. Need a bath? Take them to the principal's house and wash their hair. Need clothes? Call a mother with a child in the grade ahead and ask for some hand-me-downs. Need a snack to eat? Pack an extra apple.

Come Mother's Day, the teachers called upon one particular woman in the community to help. This was a beloved lady who lived behind the school and walked to the mailbox same time every day consistently enough for the teachers to use her to set their clocks. On warm days, when the school windows were thrown wide open, she would stand outside and chat with the teachers while the children continued with their assignments.

But the week before Mother's Day, she came inside. She taught the children how to weave those precious potholders. Life was good!

Catch of the day,

Gretchen