Not all of us lived in Ellisville–it’s impossible for me even all these years later–to define the boundaries of the area where I grew up, Ellisville. Each little southern rural neighborhood popped up a mile or two from the next one, and the names were known only by the residents. How the name was chosen, I’ll never know, but somehow we all were thrown onto the register at the same failing rural school. When it finally closed, at the end of my sophomore year, it was probably a very good thing that the kids were bussed to one of the neighboring schools, their choice of Fort White or Lake City. My father quit the farm and he, Mama and I moved to Gainesville.
I grew up on a farm in an area called Ellisville that consisted of a general store, my uncle’s, where you could find anything from groceries to fertilizer and seed, and a farm machine repair shop that opened up after my uncle drove the other, smaller general store, Branche’s, out of business. Our nearest neighbor was a half mile away on U.S. Highway 441, and there was even a sign about there announcing the town name to those driving through.
Our school was called Mason High, even though it housed classes from kindergarten through 12th grades with a total student population of not more than a hundred or so students. I don’t remember even once winning a game in sports, even though our rival schools were almost equally bad. I knew even before the game that we’d lose that one too. I attribute my fear almost to the point of hate for competition to those humiliating losses, even though Mrs. Guthrie always insisted “It’s not the winning, but how you play the game that counts.”
Of the bunch above, a composite of grades 5 and 6 in ’52 and ’53, only eight of us were in the fifth grade–and that was a big year for us. Usually the number was seven. If I’d graduated there instead of Gainesville High, I would probably have been Valedictorian or Salutatorian at the least instead of down the ranks at the big city school I moved to my junior year. If I ever get serious about finishing my childhood memoir, tentatively titled ELLISVILLE, these kids and teacher would have to be in the list of characters.
Row 1, left to right: Amazing to me all these years later, Miss Granger, the teacher looks nearly as young as we did. Of course at the time she seemed quite old. She spent an inordinate amount of time crying those two years I spent with her in grades 5 and 6. Even then I knew that it wasn’t really the eye styes that she attributed it to. An older student, a sister of one of her students–a very serious young woman–was often called on to “pick” or “squeeze” it during recesses. Later she married an old man who was short and stout, walked with a cane and had white hair. Of course that led to more crying later when she became a young widow.
Next to her, Bobby was my rival in creative writing and academics and he liked reading National Geographic as well. A couple of years later, when I was in 7th grade and he in the 8th, we would vie for first place in a poetry contest. He wrote a poem about cowboys and I wrote one about kindness being able to heal an angry heart with four lines. We tied. Then we had to sit down in the room all by ourselves and each write another poem. Don’t remember his second one but he usually wrote elaborate epic pieces–war or horses or cowboys–but mine was a longer treatise this time, 10 or 12 lines at least. This time it was a lackluster poem I recognize now as a “list” piece, about things different people dream about. I won and my reward for my efforts was a silver dollar. Both of us had to read our poems out loud into a tape recorder for whatever reason I’m not aware of. That was when I realized for the first time how horrible my voice sounded. It may well have precipitated my quiet period in life, when people began to refer to me as shy or quiet.
Eunice was the proverbial sweet but fat girl, very quiet herself, hardly ever talking that I remember, and not having distinguished herself in any particular area, often overlooked as well.
Jimmy seemed mean to me at the time, but as he grew tall and skinny by the time we were in ninth grade, I remember changing my mind one day when he lent me his white dress shirt to wear home. Girls were not allowed to wear jeans to school then, but we could bring a pair to change into for the last recess that took the place of physical education. We played the usual seasonal games–boys played basketball and baseball, girls the women’s version of basketball where the guards can only guard on one end while the forwards could go all over the court. I played softball as a “leftie” though I wasn’t left handed. I can’t for the life of me remember why I needed to borrow a shirt, but there you are, plus I didn’t own a pair of jeans and had borrowed a pair from a friend in 6th grade. It took me a few days to return that shirt because I thought it looked so cool with Jimmy’s shirt. That’s what I remember. That and the fact clothes borrowing was the norm between some of us “have nots.”
Sarah Kate lived up the road (US 441 north) and was the richest kid I knew and one of the few our age who was brunette and that alone would have set her apart. Most of us were in the throes of dishwater blond that year, i.e., blond in summer and darker in winter. Her family owned a small general store in an area I remember as Watermelon Junction because her big brother hauled watermelons and set up a table of watermelons outside the store in the summertime. Her family also owned an up and coming sausage company using their family recipe. It was fairly popular and of course they sold lots of it from the store. Sarah Kate always had money and treats brought from the store with her. Sometimes when I didn’t have a nickel to buy a drink at the tiny store at the edge of the school front and everybody else did, she would buy me one. I also got a couple of cookies or tootsie pops from her daily stash. Needless to say, she was a very popular girl. She was good at math and I was good at English; coordinating our efforts in regards to homework and study got us both an A in each course. I know I would have failed algebra without her help as the retired teacher brought back to teach after the school year had already started and no one better qualified being willing. Mr. Otto was probably a good math teacher once upon a time, but by the time he had us come along, he was already bitter and senile.
Leonard I remember, but knew very little about him, most likely because kids would enroll one year and move on the next one, never to seen or heard of again.
Geraldine would soon begin to grow into a beauty the next year or two, so much so that she caught the attention of one of Sarah Kate’s (above) older brothers and married him soon after he graduated high school when she was 15 or 16. They were divorced a few years later. She was assigned by Mrs. Guthrie to give practice spelling bees when it became time to choose Mason High School’s representative at the regional spelling championship the year I was in 7th grade. We were down to two finalists, myself and Bobby (above), when she called out the next word to spell as my turn came up. “Nigger,” she said in a loud and clear voice. “Nigger, N-I-G-G-E-R, nigger,” I spelled out quite correctly in my opinion. We were all sick of missing recess by this time I suspect, so she announced a little too jubilantly I thought, “Wrong!” I, of course, challenged her because I knew I’d spelled it correctly. She didn’t seem to understand how I could be so stupid. “Nigger,” she said, N-E-G-R-O, Nigger.” Need I say more about the attitude of most of the people in the county. I daresay the word “integration” and “segregation” were unknown at the time.
Row 2: Tommy was my third cousin once removed as we who grew up in the south would say. He was the son of my father’s first cousin, or my grandmother’s nephew. I hope I’ve got that right.
Marjorie was a tall, gangly girl, another of those passing through, her brother Paul appears in the middle of row 3.
Annette was the daughter of one of the only truly “southern belles” I ever knew, and I don’t think she liked living there. A member of the Eastern Star, and proud of it, she was just about the only woman we knew who sang operatic style–or what we kids referred to at the time as “shakey” voice stuff. She wore make up and fancy hairdos called chignons and had her own closet of strapless evening dresses of different colors. She groomed Annette and the two younger daughters well, they were always the best dressed next to Helen June you’ll meet in row 3. Their father said at the time that she could pitch more out of the front door with a teaspoon than he could bring in the back with a shovel. He was handsome and quiet spoken and college educated, a rarity at the time. As she grew older, Annette developed a walk that involved swinging her hips from side to side when she walked. It was said that boys hoped she have to always sit in the back of the bus where they did because they liked watching her walk to the exit, a hip hitting each aisle seat as she swung by.
Junior was the jughead in my memory. He not only didn’t care whether he went to school, he didn’t even try to learn anything, but he always had that perpetual but empty grin that made you wonder if anybody was home in there.
rows 3 and 4 to be continued