Every once in a while, something smacks you in the face and makes you realize ‘the times they are a changing’. I had one of those moments recently and while change is inevitable, sometimes it can be bittersweet.
Not long ago I was driving down the road by the old Live Oak High School site and was stunned to see a track hoe and dozer tearing down the old elementary school building. I knew that they were remodeling the campus to accommodate a new middle school, since the a brand new high school had just been occupied. I did not know they were going to demolish the portion of the buildings that used to house the elementary school grades. So, imagine my surprise when I saw this
My heart sank. That was the old elementary school building where all of us went to school! If you are “Old Watson” you definitely have many memories of that little red brick schoolhouse. I know I do.
To set the stage, our little community of Watson, Louisiana has changed a lot in the past 20 years or so. Progress is good, but it can also be painful. When I was in elementary school, Watson was a sleepy little spot on Hwy 16 north of Denham Springs. The school was a combined first-12 school, with a total of about 350 students. In addition to the school, Watson consisted of the Methodist church, the post office, Mr. Eldo’s Red & White grocery store, Mr. Peano’s hardware, cafe’ and Esso station and the cemetery. That was it; not much else. Very little changed and people liked that. Everybody knew everybody, and most of them were related in some way. Occasionally, somebody new would move into the community, but that was okay. It was the kind of place that if you moved in, 15 years later you were were still ‘those new people’ who live on Springfield Road.
But, around 1981 or so, that began to change. Drastically change. There were a lot of factors, but the biggest one was that was the year that the Federal Court in Baton Rouge ordered forced busing for public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish. What had been a trickle of folks moving out to Watson became a flood and then a wave. So, thirty something years later, our sleepy little community now has 5 schools and will soon have 6. Were we used to have 350 student, today we have around 3,500. We have a four lane highway with traffic lights. We have gas stations, convenience stores, Pizza Hut, Pappa John’s, two Subway stores, 4 auto parts stores, a 24 hour Walgreen’s, restaurants, supermarkets, fitness centers, daiquiri bars and more. Where Mr. Berlin Devall’s pasture, complete with horses, used to be right by the red light is now a 20 unit shopping center. And all that was before Wal-Mart came to town. Yes, Watson LA now has a 24 hour Wal-Mart Supercenter.
As you can imagine, a lot of things have changed with all that progress. My Grandmother’s home place is now a subdivision. My Mom and Dad’s house that we all grew up in is gone. The lot is still there, awaiting some future venture. After all, it is right across the road from Wal-Mart. But for some reason, none of that affected me like seeing them demolish that old school building.
It was no architectural showpiece. It was simple. Just a little rectangular building with 6 classrooms on each side with a central hallway. Sort of like taking two shoe boxes, putting them side by side and covering them with a roof. Each classroom opened into the hallway, but if you were a student and you were lucky, you never used that hallway. Each classroom had an outside door that opened onto the playground that you used all the time. If you were in the hallway, that generally meant you were about to be administered some old time corporal punishment.
In addition to the outside door, each classroom had large windows that looked out onto the playground. If you went to elementary school at Live Oak when I did, you remember that metal door and those windows. You began each school day by ‘lining up’ at that door to be admitted to the classroom. You also did the same thing after each recess when you went back to class. The windows were your escape from the drudgery of school. I can remember many days when I was supposed to be learning, but instead I was gazing out the window, daydreaming about who knows what. And, if you were lucky enough that your room was on the north side of the building, you could see when the school buses started arriving in the afternoon. You knew your day was almost over. Kids tend to get really squirmy when they know school is almost over for the day.
There were 12 classrooms in that building, six on each side of the hall. Grades 1 through 6. At the end of the school year, you didn’t move far. You either moved to the next room down the hall or across the hall for your next grade. Many of us started our education in that little building. I know I did. I started first grade in the classroom of Mrs. Neal. Here is how many of us remember that room:
This is what it looked like on the day they were tearing it down:
I started first grade in 1968. At that time I remember thinking that Mrs. Neal was really old. I realize now that she was probably around 40 at the time, but time seems so elusive when you are six years old. I was so excited to start school. My sisters had been going to school my whole life and I thought is was totally unfair that they got to go everyday and I had to stay home. I used to beg my Momma to let me go with them. So, I was one proud little boy on that day when I got to climb on Mr. Osborne Turner’s school bus and ride to school. It was awesome. That lasted about 2 weeks. I soon found out that school wasn’t as much fun as I thought. It was too much like work. Which led to Mrs. Neal and myself clashing on many occasions.
But I remember a couple of things from that year. First, everyday ended with a hug. Not just for me, but for everybody in the class. Maybe what school kids today are missing is not more federal standards, but not enough hugs. The other thing that I remember is that one day we were doing art. I am not, and never have been, an artist. We were supposed to draw and color a picture of something our Momma did at home. I picked laundry. But my picture didn’t come out so good. It was sloppy and messy and had so many eraser marks there where holes in the page. Mrs. Neal and I clashed again on this one. She even made me stay in at morning recess to work on it. When she finally gave in and let me turn it in, it looked like some kind of abstract primitive pencil art. She took mercy on me and let me go out to lunch recess. When we came back from recess, she showed everybody’s pictures to the class. When she got to mine, she held up a pretty nice looking , brightly colored picture. I was shocked. It didn’t look at all like what I had turned in. But even at 6 years old, I realized that she had spent a few minutes during recess retouching and coloring my picture, so I wouldn’t be embarrassed when it was show to the class. That is a singular act of kindness and caring that I still remember 46 years later.
The next year I moved to the room next door for 2nd grade with Mrs. Dot Allen. Mrs. Dot’s class was different from first grade. Let’s just say that it was a little louder and her style was to verbally motivate us to do better. But, each day still ended with a hug. The next year, I moved next door again for 3rd grade with Mrs. Davis. It was a good year, but something changed. For one thing, on the end of the first day ,when we thought it was “hug time”, we were informed that we were third graders now and we were to big for that kind of thing now. Oh well. I admit that in 3rd grade I was something of a teacher’s pet, but it worked for me. But it did a poor job of preparing me for 4th grade.
In my 4th grade year, I moved across the hall to Mrs. Weeks’ room. And boy, did things change. Mrs. Weeks was a disciplinarian and certainly did not believe in teacher’s pets or anything of the sort. Mrs. Weeks and I clashed, often. The basic problem was that she knew I was smart and had it in me to be a very good student. She also knew I was lazy, prone to daydreaming and would rather play than learn. She decided early that she was going to break me from that, even if it killed me. Ultimately, she was successful. If you ever experienced having her for a teacher, you have to hand it to Mrs. Weeks. She was no nonsense and made sure everyone knew it. She was not shy about applying the ‘board of education’ when she thought it was needed, which turned out to be early and often. And it was an amazing thing to behold. If you transgressed, correction was swift and certain. She had a world class move where she could grab a student by one arm, lift them out their desk in one movement and apply 3 or 4 swift licks with a paddle and deposit them back in their seat before they really knew what happened. No witnesses, no going out to the hall, no paperwork. And when it was done, the student was highly motivated and immediately ready to resume their education.
I think it is difficult for those who did not experience it to understand how much that little schoolhouse meant to those of us who did. There were usually less that 200 of us in those grades at any one time. So, you knew everybody. And by that, I don’t just mean their names. You knew where they lived, who there brothers and sisters were, what their daddy did for a living. So it was close and intimate. Second, when you were a kid in Watson in those days, your life pretty much centered around school. There were not many extracurricular activities for younger kids in those days. So, your social life was school. It is where you saw your friends and kept up with the important things. Like who had a new baby sister or brother, who had some cousins moving to Watson and other important stuff. There were also no organized sports for elementary age kids in those days, so for most of us, our first exposure to sports was at school. I remember playing a lot of baseball at recess. It was fun and, since we usually had only 10 or 15 minutes, we had some interesting ground rules. If you hit 5 foul balls you’re out. If a batter has 2 strikes, someone else can take the last swing for him. If you hit a ball over the chain link fence, you’re out. Stuff like that there.
That little school was were we learned things. How to read, how to write, multiplication tables and long division. How to put ideas down on paper and how to search out information you didn’t already know. But we learned a lot of other things too. Like how to make new friends, how to get along with people and play well with others. How to be a team player and that you couldn’t always get your own way. What is was like to fall in love and what it was like to get your heart broken for the first time. We learned the manly art of self defense. For some reason, fisticuffs were much more common at school in those days. We learned how to stand up for yourself when you had to, and more importantly, how to stand up for someone who couldn’t stand up for themselves. We learned love, compassion, sympathy and kindness. All of them lessons much more important that how to diagram sentences or work through verb tenses.
We also made friendships, many of which would last for a lifetime. I don’t think a lot of people can say they are still friends with a good number of people they went to elementary school with. But that is very common for those of us from Live Oak. When I graduated from high school, there were 45 people in my graduating class. At least 20 of us started to school together. And in those days we were not unique in that regard. It was just the way things were.
Even later, that old school building played a part in our lives. When the elementary school was finally split off and moved to a new campus, many of us moved back to those classrooms for 7th and 8th grade. Later, when the middle school moved to a separate campus, those rooms became the Math and French hall for the high school and our kids were there. we visited them many times during open house. They might have been being used as the algebra lab or audio-visual room for the French class, but to us they were always Mrs. Neal’s room or Mrs. Weeks’ room. And they always would be.
But now that little schoolhouse is gone and the place we learned and laughed and played looks like this:
We have to say “so long’ old friend. Progress is good, but sometimes it’s painful. But the memories of that little schoolhouse will live on in the hearts and memories of all of us who were there. And that is quite a legacy.