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.


Well, I asked.

Catch of the day,


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,


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,


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,


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,


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,


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,


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,


Monday, August 1, 2011


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,