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,


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,


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,


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,


Friday, May 6, 2011

Psalm 121 and Pilot Mountain School

    I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.
    From whence cometh my help?
My help cometh from the Lord,
which made heaven and earth.

Psalm 121 has always been one of my favorites, probably since I am surrounded by hills and mountains. I've recited those verses many times over the years, usually in the King James version where I first memorized it.

This psalm has even more meaning to me now that I have have completed the research for Pilot Mountain School and learned about the missionary/teacher who impacted the children there. Lettie Hamlett taught the fourth/fifth grade combination class in the late fifties and talked frequently about her years on the mission field in China. I interviewed many of her former students, listening as they each tried in their own ways to explain the impact she made on their lives. When I finally received the packet of bio information from the mission board, I discovered there was more to this story.

Did she tell her students everything about her life as missionary? That she and her husband operated a floating library in a river boat? Probably that, yes. But the rest of the story... That the Japanese occupation soldiers considered this mission to be a threat? That on December 7, 1941 she was out of the mission compound on a library run and returned to a different world? That she and her husband were held captive for several months and then used as pawns in a prisoner of war exchange? That her husband's health suffered because of the harsh conditions and that he died shortly after their return to the US?

Morganton News Herald, September 11, 1942

That she bravely returned to the same mission alone after the war only to be considered suspect by the Communist soldiers? That she was once again held captive in the compound until word came that she was to be expelled from the country?

Here's where Psalm 121 comes into the narrative.

She had been helped through her final months of containment by the local community who, at their own peril, supplied her with food and wood for heat and herbs for medical purposes. She supplied them with words about her God and glimpses of a faith that they wanted to hear more about. So when they heard that she was to be deported, they wanted to give her a present for her to remember them by. She was allowed to carry nothing in her hands, but she could carry anything in her heart and mind.

They gave her Psalm 121.

It's true. Three different people, unknowing what the other was doing, whispered in her ear as they said their final farewells, "I give you the one hundred and twenty-first psalm."

She returned to the US, retired from the mission field, and at the age of seventy-two, came to Pilot Mountain School and a classroom that faced the ridge of the South Mountains. I wonder how often she recited that psalm, looking out the window, needing her spirit restored. From whence cometh her help? Her help cometh from the Lord. And the mountains stood as a reminder.

That's the rest of the story. And here's the rest of the psalm, in more modern translation:

He will not let your foot slip.
He who watches over you will not slumber;
Indeed, he who watches over Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you.
The Lord is your shade at your right hand;
The sun will not harm you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm.
He will watch over your life;
The Lord will watch over your coming and going
Both now and forevermore.

Catch of the Day,


Monday, May 2, 2011

The House that Built Me

The music festival I attended this weekend is over and there's 360 days until next year's Merlefest, so you've got time to plan. Oops, 361 since next year is a leap year.

But this year's...Wow.

Sunday mornings I always like to attend the worship service at the creekside venue where Merlefest founder Doc Watson shares his faith along with his music. This year I arrived early enough to listen to the Merlefest chaplain speak.

The crowd was immense, spread out across a hillside looking down on the speaker, not unlike the situation where Jesus once spoke to a crowd sitting on the hillside. In his message the preacher said that he was from this area and Merlefest was his coming back to his roots, sort of like returning to "The House that Built Me," referring to the song sung by Miranda Lambert.  Listen to it and you'll see what he was talking about.
What a great concept...the house that built me!

I've insisted for quite some time that I call Pilot Mountain School a schoolhouse. Validation! Thank you songwriters Tom Douglas and James Shamblin for putting this into words. I knew all along this was a house that built children, not just a school that pushed them through the grades. I looked online for the lyrics and I'm copying and pasting below so you can read through the chorus about returning to the house that built you.

Most of all, I connect to this song because I have seen the adults return to this remarkable school that built them. They talk about it being a sanctuary. They walk the halls where they once marched in line. They touch the walls and run their hands along the bannister. They talk about the spirit they carried away from it and the comfort they draw from returning to it. The lyrics might be about a house rather than a school, but in truth, it speaks about what forms you into you.

Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse, the house that formed a generation.

Catch of the day,


I thought if I could touch this place or feel it

This brokenness inside me might start healing

Out here it's like I'm someone else

I thought that maybe I could find myself

If I could walk around, I swear I'll leave

Won't take nothing but a memory

From the house that built me


Copied from