In 1950 my grandfather passed away and for the first time in her long life, my grandmother found herself alone and needed our help in getting over the awful emptiness. So, my dad, looking for an excuse to escape summer’s heat, fired up the old Chevy and drove my mom, sister and I up to Virginia to stay with Grandmother Alice for what we thought would be a couple of months. My sister and I were sure we had been dropped down in a magical land of mist shrouded mountains, hollers and for five months of the year, snow. For us Florida flatlanders it proved to be a vacation wonderland.
‘A couple of months’ turned into a year, way too long for two young kids to lay about. Some adults decided we ought to continue our formal education and the schooling would take place at Finney School, the local seat of learning, just down the road from Grandmother’s place. Our vacation was officially over.
The faded old school was fascinating to us in its stark simplicity. Grades 1-6 were in one room and 7-12 in another one. The cavernous class rooms were heated by small fuel-oil stoves but the warmth never seemed to make it back to where I sat. With no running water or plumbing, trips to the water pump or outhouse were, especially in winter, acts of shivering courage.
With time on her hands and tired of staring at chickens, my mom signed up to be a substitute teacher in some of Russell County’s underserved areas. No teaching experience needed, just show up and manage to stay until 2 o’clock. Then one day someone didn’t show up and they asked Mom to sub at one of the most remote schools in the County, Possum Hollow School. She kept me out of school that day to go with her and I believe it was to teach me another kind of lesson.
Up a winding gravel road and wedged into a cleft sliced out of the mountain, Possum Hollow School made Finney School seem like a palace. Small, dark and cold, the school had seen much better days and I marveled that it somehow managed to stay upright. Mom and I sat alone for the longest time and she wondered out loud if students would show up at all.
But slowly children began to wander in one after the other until finally all eight desks were occupied and drawn close to the wood-burning stove. I saw no school bus or heard any cars delivering students and it dawned on me that these kids had walked all the way.
I don’t remember any of the schooling that took place but the lunchtime has stayed with me all these years later. I eagerly opened my brown paper bagged lunch and surveyed what my mother had prepared- a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple and a carton of milk. Just before laying into the sandwich, I glanced around to see what other students were eating.
Gathered around me were three of the saddest looking children I had ever seen. Two boys and a girl, perhaps brothers and sister, they were dressed in torn and faded clothes and in obvious need of basic hygiene. They stood staring at me, saying nothing and occasionally wiping their runny noses on tattered sleeves.
What in the world was wrong with those kids? Then I realized they were not staring at me but at my lunch. They did not have their own lunch boxes or brown paper bags and it hit me that the reason was because those three children had no lunches. Not one apple or piece of cornbread, nothing. At my young age, I had no clue why, but knew for certain I could not eat lunch while they ate nothing. I motioned for the three to come over and then divided the sandwich and apple into equal parts and gave it to them. With big smiles they wolfed down the offered food and finishing, turned and returned to their desks. I drank a carton of milk for lunch that day.
My visit to Possum Hollow School was the first time I ever witnessed poverty or even knew about poor folks. I never once thought about my grandmother or people in the valley being poor. I believed it was simply the way they lived. The gut-wrenching poverty of families like those in the hollers taught me a lesson I never forgot. Whenever possible, help a neighbor out.