By Keith Whitson
The set of steps to climb seemed mighty big to this 6-year-old boy. Each one led closer to the large, heavy, entrance door, beyond which was another set of steps to the first floor. The building was 44 years old and had seen many pass through its doors to enter a world of learning. It was the first steps to what would direct our paths in life.
The building still echoed with life from squeaky floors to the shuffling of desks and low roar created by more than 100 students settling in for the first class of the day. Soon the voices would silence with respect and offer listening ears, while teachers captivated the attention. “Tap, tap, tap” could be heard like a Morse Code signal as the teacher firmly connected chalk with chalkboard to illustrate the math lesson. Like magic, she would then take the eraser and wipe it all away.
The building was Elm Street School, right in the heart of Erwin. I actually lived on Spivey and would have typically gone to Temple Hill School, but my mom, Mrs. Pate to many, was a teacher at Elm Street and I rode with her. I attended where she taught up until I entered high school.
Saturday I was reminded once again of some of my own memories when I took mom to a 50th reunion of the eighth grade class from Elm Street School. When this class was in the eighth grade, I was in first grade.
It turns out my mom started teaching there after they had already passed first and second grades, which was the combination setting she taught. But, they all remembered her for her smile and her youthful beauty. You see, most of the other teachers there were much older and many ready for retirement.
My mom started teaching at Elm Street School in 1960. It was her third elementary school to teach at since becoming a young teacher. She was hired as a teacher before finishing her degree at East Tennessee State University because teachers were needed then. She continued college and finished as she taught.
Mrs. Pate was the only teacher present at the reunion Saturday. She is one of only three teachers still living who taught at Elm Street. Each one attending spoke of memories, changes with schools of today and the highlights of Elm Street. I, too, could connect with their stories and even shared a few of my memories.
Elm Street School was special. It was wonderful having all eight grades under one roof and it seems that everyone looked out for each other. The day was started with the pledge to the flag and a Bible lesson. Morals, values and respect were instilled in our young hearts. There was also a fear of misbehaving or else the paddle would be used. Paddling was rarely questioned by parents, in fact, they often repeated the measure when the child got home. Teachers taught from the heart more than curriculums. They didn’t spend hours and hours creating paper trails of what they planned to do and then follow up with what they accomplished.
Cell phones had not been created but certainly would not have been allowed. Children dressed appropriately and teachers dressed in their Sunday best. The men wore nice slacks and the women wore dresses and heels. We had to work out math problems on paper and not rely on calculators. We read from books and not tablets, and we cherished books for the treasures they are.
I was always excited for the start of the school year because I got to shop for notebooks, pencils, erasers, a new lunchbox and new clothes. There was something special about a fresh pack of ruled notebook paper. We mastered printing and then we mastered cursive writing.
Elm Street had a big auditorium upstairs where we would meet for chapel once a week and also once a week for music. Everyone would gather and join in as Mrs. Helen Wattles would energetically play the piano, leading us from one song to the next.
I can still remember those songs we sang years ago. “I Dream of Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Nothing Could Be Finer Than to Be in Carolina in the Morning,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandee,” and “76 Trombones,” were some of the regulars.
If you didn’t live in the time of Uncle Bob Ambler visiting your school and sharing a Bible lesson, you really missed out. Uncle Bob was the most pleasant, caring and interesting man with the most wonderful way to relate Bible stories.
One of the favorite times for me was when we got to buy ice cream from Mr. Ledford. The cooler was kept under the stairwell on the basement floor. I don’t remember how much the cost was but it seemed extra special as a break from studies.
The grounds surrounding the school were amazing with large trees proudly highlighting the beautiful building. To the back of the school, and off to the side, was the playground. We enjoyed time with friends and making up games. We could imagine we were anything and could act it out on the beautiful grounds. Swings, merry go round, see saw and monkey bars were always fun.
I was at Elm Street for five years before it closed and we moved to Evans Elementary, now Love Chapel. I am so thankful I had my first years in the environment of Elm Street, where school was magical to a small boy, traditions were intact and lessons extended beyond book learning.