Freshman grammar and composition separated the sheep from the goats at Mississippi State in the 60’s, and the dreaded English Proficiency Exam was the shibboleth protecting the fords of the Jordan of graduation. My freshman course load was 19 hours, including calculus and chemistry. After working 15 to 18 hours per week in addition to military drill and PE, I had no time to devote to English Grammar or Composition and its dreaded research paper, but I pulled a B and an A, respectively. The EPE was a piece of cake. Some of the credit for my success in those courses belongs to my high school English teachers and their demanding writing assignments, but the bulk of it goes to the most competent and caring group of school teachers ever assembled anywhere: the staff of Woodland Elementary School, 1953-1959.
My elementary teachers were all first rate: Mrs. Inez Carson, 1st grade; Mrs. Cleo Nelson, 2nd grade; Mrs. Corrine George, 3rd and 4th grades; Mrs. Ida Lou Gullett, 5th grade; and Mrs. Glenda Duncan, 6th grade. They were all cultured ladies and splendid teachers.
Woodland did not have enough students to warrant a teacher for each grade. Mrs. George had 3rd and 4th graders in her room each year, and Mrs. Gullett had either 3rd and 5th or 4th and 5th, depending on which class was divided in any given year. They did excellent work in keeping students on different grade levels challenged and on task in an era when copy machines, overhead projectors, instructional video, and classroom aides were unknown. Dog-eared old pre-war textbooks, chalk, Big Chief tablets, #2 pencils, and the iron will of determined and well-educated ladies more than compensated for our lack of material abundance.
Mrs. Gullett thought that every student should have a rich knowledge of folk culture. Accordingly, we memorized scriptures, poems, songs, etc. Among our memory assignments were the second chapter of Luke, the Sermon on the Mount, the Ten Commandments, and dozens of Psalms. Our regular morning songfests included folk songs, English and Scots protest songs from the 17th century, and “The Star Spangled Banner.”
A gifted grammar teacher, she taught me the difference between “sex” and “gender” in 5th grade spelling class—a distinction that seems lost on today’s broadcast journalists and editors. She made me aware of the inherent logic in language. I thought of her recently as I noted a sign (vintage 1939): “Office Hours: 8 A.M. to12 M , 2 P.M. to 6 P.M.”; i.e., 8th hour before (ante) the meridian until the 12th hour, or meridian, etc. How logical and unambiguous! Contemporary use of 12 P.M. to mean the meridian (or noon) is completely illogical. Mrs. Gullet would not have it.
The most demanding of all these teachers was Mrs. Duncan. She didn’t believe in any kind of open book or note test, insisted that homework be done on time, and that missed work be made up in its entirety. She also gave “thought questions” on tests; i.e., questions whose answers we’d not specifically learned, but could be deduced from our lesson contents.
Hospitalized twice during 6th grade, I missed three weeks during Mrs. Duncan’s unit on Ancient Greece and Rome. I have an aversion to memorization, being convinced that pen and paper were developed specifically to absolve us of that duty. The Greek and Roman pantheons were cute, but I just couldn’t get serious about the names of gods and goddesses and their respective bailiwicks. Consequently, I made a B+ in history grading period. It was the first time in nearly six years of school that I’d failed to get all A’s on my report card. I would earn other B’s (and worse!) later, but none would be as disappointing as that one.
Curious thing about the pantheons; I couldn’t remember them long enough to make an A on the test, but remember them now. Trivial? Not really. Mrs. Duncan was right. A store of facts at our disposal (“walking-around-knowledge,” so to speak) is a vital component of literacy. Classical allusions abound in western culture – in everything from the comic strips and editorial cartoons to “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Disadvantaged? Impoverished? Not if you have the kind of family and community support I enjoyed in the 50’s. “The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.” Verily.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.