Yesterday's Magazette

13 – First Year Teacher


First Year Teacher

By Barbara Ledford Wright

In 1964, I started teaching a sixth and seventh grade combination class at Nantahala, on Winding Stairs Road, in a remote area of Macon County, North Carolina. The road curved up the river gorge. Rushing whitewater foamed over the backs of boulders. Rocks towered on either side. The direct light of the sun could shine into the gorge only at noon when the sun was at its highest point in the sky. This was a perfect place for whitewater rafting and fishing, but I couldn’t do either. I stayed busy with school, and adapting to the backcountry. My job was not complete at the end of the day. I took work home––grading tests, writing lesson plans––my job hardly ended. I never had a night to relax.

A widow rented me a room in her home for thirty dollars a month. She cooked my breakfast and  supper. My communication with the outside was limited. She didn’t have a television or a  telephone. There were no telephones in the area, even at school. The closest phone was at the powerhouse, but I couldn’t go there because I didn’t have  a car.

The school board gave me permission to ride the school bus to work. At other times, I didn’t ride the school bus. Bonnie May, the fifth grade teacher, invited me to ride in her automobile and visit in the students’ homes. Her car was like a trap––a one-horse carriage with springs. Her old Chevrolet shook and rattled over the graveled roads. She said with a laugh, “I don’t need a better car because it would get in the same shape.”

One day before one of our excursions to visit students, we stopped at Zeb’s Country Mart. We purchased a bag of flour, a gallon of milk, and cans of beans, meat, and peaches. Tad was in Bonnie’s room, and Madi was in my sixth grade. The children had missed two weeks of school, and we needed to check on them before notifying the truant officer.

On this drive, I enjoyed the peace and wonder of nature. Wildflowers bloomed along the narrow roadside.  Hardwood trees blazed with fall foliage. This changed when Bonnie turned into a red-dirt road. We climbed a hill to a cottage leaning sideways.  Hounds lay under a maple tree. They roused from their nap, stuck their noses in the air, and howled. Tad met us and yelled, “Shut up you ‘ole hound dogs!  Go back to sleep!”

Tad was the cutest little boy I’d ever seen. Freckles dusted his face, topped off with a mass of curly, carrot-colored hair. His blue eyes shined, and he gave Bonnie a big hug. Six children scampered toward us, all with apricot hair and the same complexion as Tad’s.

They started talking at once, but Madi’s voice rose above the others. She explained their absences from school. “Teacher, our Mama’s in the hospital, and Daddy has to stay with her.”

We saw the hunger in their faces and hastened the meal. The smaller boys gathered sticks to put into the cook stove. Bonnie used her car lighter to start the fire. Madi located an iron skillet, and Tad scurried to the spring for water. The kitchen was the only room that had flooring. Dirty mattresses lay on the dirt in another partition.

“Are you okay?” Bonnie asked. “You’re not feeling sick, I hope.”

“I’m…uh…no; I’m not feeling sick, at least not physically.  I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”

Bonnie’s eyebrows furrowed.

“Their daddy’s an alcoholic and doesn’t make a good living.”

A week later, Bonnie and I attended the mother’s funeral in a primitive church. The congregation maintained a practice that I’d never seen. The men sat on one side of the sanctuary, and the women sat on the other side during the service. The church didn’t have any musical instruments. The a cappella hymn singing from the Sacred Harp Songbook was impressive. A beautiful shape-note harmony was accomplished as the congregation sang “Amazing Grace.”

I never saw Madi again after the funeral. The Department of Social Services placed the children in the Oxford Orphanage. I was depressed and wanted to get away from all that sadness. I needed a change and looked forward to Christmas with my parents.

Bonnie said she was going to Asheville for Christmas shopping when school turned out, and I was welcome to join her. I declined since my parents would be picking me up. I prayed, “Lord, how am I going to get gifts for Christmas?”

The first week of December, my prayer seemed answered. At dusk a salesman visited me. He said he was offering a special to the teachers and would take a few minutes to show me the samples. The order would come by Christmas. He displayed many sets of silverware. I made my selection and wrote a check for the full amount. I was pleased with the discount he gave me.

Time rocked on, but my silverware never came. I had to tell my parents what happened. I still had the receipt in my purse and showed Daddy. He shrugged and said, “I’m afraid you met a crook. I saw Pearl Kitchens in town yesterday. He’s an SBI Agent and visiting his brother Neal for Christmas. I’ll find him and see what can be done.”

Daddy located Pearl at the jail with his brother, Sheriff Neal Kitchens. Pearl came that afternoon to talk with me, and I related what had happened. Pearl was a tall, muscular man. He wore a tailored tan-colored suit, and his brown shoes glistened. His brown eyes pierced through me and one eyebrow quirked, “People in Nantahala are vulnerable to crooks. It’s a remote area, and scums can get away with their crimes. They take advantage of the isolated area. You were an easy prey, young, and trusting. As far as myself, I don’t trust anybody.”

Pearl affirmed, “I’ll get him! But you’ve got to make it legal. After Christmas, you and your dad go to the magistrate’s office in Franklin and take a warrant for the criminal.”

It looked like our trip would be postponed. Snow fell during Christmas and I didn’t know if we would make it to the magistrate. Finally, most of the snow melted, but the roads were still icy.  Daddy put chains on the tires, and the car slipped and skidded across the mountain to Franklin. The magistrate was sympathetic and helped me complete the paper work. He patted me on the back. “Little lady, I hope you get your money. Come back if I can help you anymore.”

School started after New Year’s. Two weeks later my principal, Carl D. Moses, brought the silverware salesman to my class. I assigned a room monitor and stepped into the hall.  The salesman apologized about the delay in my order and said he’d brought it. He pulled a bag out of his pocket and showed me some tarnished utensils. I told him that wasn’t what I ordered, and I wanted a cash refund.

Mr. Moses told him, “You’ll have to do my teacher right! Her family has money and they will prosecute you.”

The salesman said he didn’t have the money, but would bring it the next day.

The day was almost over and the salesman hadn’t come. I thought I’d been taken again. My nerves were frayed. I packed my briefcase and was getting ready to board the school bus. Mr. Moses stopped me and handed me an envelope stuffed full of money. He said the salesman had dropped it off and seemed in a hurry.

While I examined a twenty dollar bill, Mr. Moses peered over his glasses and rolled his eyes. He asked George Shook, the juvenile officer, to look at the money. George said, “That’s counterfeit shore as the world.”

Mr. Moses told George how I’d been hoodwinked. George was furious. He sprinted to his patrol car and radioed the sheriff in Franklin. The law set up a road block at the foot of the mountain. Much to the silverware salesman’s chagrin, he was nabbed before getting away.

*Barbara Ledford Wright was associate editor of Moonshine and Blind Mules and her story appeared in the anthology. Her stories have  been published in Muscadine Lines: a Southern Journal, Express Yourself 101 Vol. 2, For your Eyes Only Anthology, Too, Conceit Magazine, The Oxford So & So, The Poetry Explosion, Christmas Presence, and Fireflies and June Bugs. Also, stories published in eight Old Mountain Press anthologies, including the just released Exit 109. She’s a teacher, quilter, family historian, and she likes to preserve her heritage in stories about the family.

Vol. 36 No. 3 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Fall – 2009


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