Growing up in Louisa – Back to School
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
Summer’s routines are shattered for many families by the passage of summer’s last holiday; Labor Day. This signifies not only the end of summer, but the beginning of a new school year. The laid back schedules have been replaced by an anxious rush to have all at the ready when the yellow bus first appears around the bend to haul this year’s crop of students to their assigned schools. Many are looking forward to the discovery of a whole gaggle of new friends. Some, especially the new ones, hang back, just a little timid and unsure of what is to come. For most, dread and excitement walk hand in hand, especially if the school assignment is new and yet to be fully explored. New teachers and new routines, some rumored to be difficult, can intimidate the most confident boy or girl. Siblings who had been there have forewarned their brothers and sisters of what may occur, or what has happened to others. Even the teachers apprehensively greet a new batch of kids in hopes that one or more will become grand achievers in their academic pursuits, but knowing in their hearts that many of the lot will struggle with the curriculum. It’s back to work for them, as well. Most have prepared their rooms to welcome the new group. Others, practice their opening speeches over in their minds, often purposed to give warnings of the consequences of misbehavior. They want to encourage their charges to rise to meet the great challenges ahead in the new semester.
On the buses, or in the hallways, a few students will become distracted with personal clashes that are already festering from a prior year, or perhaps from some summer event. Between classes a group of boys or girls gather to discuss or admire the newcomers. The feeling of being watched or measured spreads fear to some, or ignites a desire to perform in others. Both make plans to seek out the attention of one or two newbie’s that are deemed worthy of attention. Some in the crowd will reach out in friendship, but others will withdraw and build walls to protect themselves from notice, yet they do not see their behavior or dress separates and identifies them as one who challenges old paradigms. Birds of a feather will attract. Almost all will judge and classify those they see, but many will be wrong. Sets of students, usually made up of those from the same geographic region, hang out together and become unintentionally selective on who can join. Like college fraternities, or sororities, they mark their respective identities. Upperclassmen practice their right to ‘break in’ the new arrivals.
Some kids dismounting the bus on those early days will be shy, while others will act out showing rebellion. They pretend to be extroverts, but are often covering a deep-seated fear of non-acceptance. At first, they will be admired for their wit and audacity, but in time they will be ‘written off’ as losers. Teachers that see and understand the social interplay will issue cautions early on less the rambunctious become disruptive to learning, safety, or the social order. Much like the henhouse back on the farm, it is time for pecking orders to be established. A few will become ‘jocks’ and others will be wildly popular, some will turn to music or art, or great literature. Each will search out a niche, or perhaps several. Sadly, some will struggle. You can depend on the axiom that every crowd will have its bullies. They will watch to see who may become the subject of their cruel sport. A new school semester has begun, building memories, whether good or bad, but inescapable regardless. Schools become great adventures, or prisons. They create bonds, or they become burdensome. Because we are complex beings, we may be some of each and find schools to be the best times of our lives, even with the struggles that we endured. After all, life is full of challenges but can be overcome by learning the social lessons and the wisdom it imparts.
The campus at the old LHS of my day is remembered by our generation as being made up of two main buildings and a spattering of wood-framed annexes. Those included shops, a bookstore, restrooms, and athletic fields. The oldest of the classroom buildings was a three story, red-brick edifice with a bell tower, and oiled wooden floors throughout. Consider the potential fire hazard that would prove out a few years later when that building was razed. One could easily see that the oiled floors and wooden beams that made up the skeleton, would lend itself to easy destruction by fire. In the meantime, fire escapes had been added in hopes that the faculty and students might survive an inferno. The ‘old’ building had been built many years earlier and carried the name in those early days of Kentucky Normal College. Many of its alumni would become professionals, including doctors, lawyers, engineers, politicians, a governor, and a Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. I know my family had nearly all attended and graduated in the generations before me, many of them taking professional credentials.
The building was anchored on the northeastern corner with the smallish school library. Part of the space was in the first floor of the bell tower and continuing to an adjoining room. Two ‘study halls’ where connected by doorways to facilitate study and academic research. Most schedules included an hour or two assigned daily to ‘study hall.’ The northwestern corner of the building, also under a tower, housed a wide set of wooden stairs that led to the second and third floors. The first classroom on the main floor was tucked in next to the stairs. This room and the hallway just outside was ruled by the master of the building known to everyone and feared by many. Bascomb Boyd would stand near the building’s front door and ring the electric bell to signify change of classes, or the beginning or ending of the school day, as well as the lunch periods. Standing in place he would witness those who would dare to be tardy, or running in the halls, still encouraging them to hurry and get in place.
I remember him as a large man with greying hair, but with piercing blue eyes. As it happens I never saw the side that so many feared, but rather I remember his as a friendly, happy, and most cordial person who by reputation was an outstanding, if demanding, teacher of mathematics. I have heard stories from far and wide about his alleged rough disposition, but alas, I never had classes under his tutelage. I only saw his pleasant smile and greetings. I think he may not have appreciated the undisciplined or lazy student, but I have heard that anyone expressing a desire to learn would become his ‘pet.’ That is not to say that my friends who held a differing opinion were wrong, because that would require me to ignore an abundance of testimonies over many years that he was a man to be feared. Undoubtedly, he was very much in control in his classroom. His reputation was such that new students would already shake when his shadow crossed their respective desks. I can think of no other teacher that cast a more demonstrative effect on a young lady or gentleman than Mr. Boyd. I have no idea if he had retired before the destruction of the old classroom, or if he may have passed, but I can imagine his ghost may inhabit the region even today. In my mind I picture a monument erected upon the school grounds to honor this teacher extraordinaire who is remembered by so many.
A personal favorite teacher of mine was at the other end (southwest corner) near the rear set of stairs that led up to the backstage area and band rooms. Frank Webster was known to me for some time since for a short while he was principal at Louisa Grade School. I had a habit of visiting principals from time to time at the encouragement of my teachers. I’m sure each visit left its mark. Mr. Webster was especially astute and aware of the next leg of our education. That is, many would go off to college and would face a different kind of learning experience. After taking his ‘government’ class we found the final would be in five parts, each taking a day. He gave us the subjects, but not the order that we would have to write about in each session. Those included the ‘Bill of Rights,’ the ‘Constitution,’ the ‘Declaration of Independence,’ and two other subjects that I would undoubtedly fail today since I cannot recall them. He provided the pencils and paper and we were to bring nothing to class. I remember studying with Johnny Bill Boggs over a weekend, each drilling the other until we felt it was time to decide to guess the first subject and really concentrate in hopes we could write for an hour on the subject. We guessed the order correctly and were able to study each night, rarely sleeping. I loved the ‘A’ we both got when scores were later passed out. The key was the research and drilling of facts so we knew each subject quite well. I would later find opportunities to cram for exams at other institutions, but thanks to Mr. Webster, I had developed the study methods that still serve me today.
The classroom across the hall from Mr. Webster’s was devoted to the typing course. The lessons learned and polished created my ability to key this article and undoubtedly has helped many of its students to advance their careers. It was a big deal in those days to struggle learning the keyboard and remembering to use the carriage return. With a room full of kids typing it was the noisiest place in the building save the band room that was high up above the stage on the third floor. Errors were almost unforgivable then, too. It would be a while before electric typewriters so strikeover functions were unheard of. We used carbon paper so to fix an error we had to go back and take a rubber eraser and hope we wouldn’t make a hole with our efforts. I remember the pencil eraser and the more common one that was a wheel with a brush attached to sweep debris away. Today, spell check is so common we lose patience if it doesn’t work even on our handhelds.
The second floor was devoted to the large auditorium with a high stage at one end. The ceiling was very high since both sides of the auditorium had balconies that were accessed through third floor classrooms. The cast iron framework on the seats had fold-down desk surfaces but some worked better than others as I remember. I recall the stage being used for orientation for the new school year, pep rallies, speeches, drama’s, band and chorus concerts, award ceremonies, and guest evangelists. When assemblies were called all the student body would gather, pleased that they had escaped class for a time, and anxious to find out what this was about. I remember sitting on a sofa left on the stage after a play, and having a discussion with Kaye Buskirk about the memories of that huge room. We were leaving school for the last time as seniors, but knew the school would soon be torn down. We soaked in whatever we could before walking up the aisle to the front steps, down past Mr. Boyd’s room and out the door forever. Superintendent Bill Cheek told me he was excited about the new school that would replace the old. He described the new band room and the modern features to come. All I could see in my mind’s eye was the destruction of memories carried by the hoards students past. When I visited afterward he gave me a personal tour. I was happy for him and the new student body, but in my heart I hurt. In a day’s time I shrugged it off, marked it as progressive, and went on knowing my memories will continue to take life’s trip with me. This bit of history is the hidden fabric that make us who we are. The buildings, the people, and even friends are gone but there memories live on in our minds and the stories we relate to younger generations.
Those memories are very much worth the visit.