The formative years of elementary school are still full in my mind, even well more than 50 years later. The fact that we learned to read and write is almost secondary compared to the friendships forged and the experiences that shaped the men and women we have become. And even though most of us who graduated 8th grade in 1970 are grandparents now, the hallways and classrooms of Hampton Elementary linger and call to us out of the past.
The first time I walked into Hampton Elementary, it was with my Kindergarten class from the Methodist Church in town. We visited Miss Betty Gibbs first grade class to see how the big kids did it.
It’s odd that I remember what I was wearing that day. My wife remembers every piece of clothing she ever wore on any occasion and who else was there and what they were wearing. I can’t remember what I wore yesterday and don’t care.
But I remember that on this day I was wearing a green wool letter sweater, three white stripes on the left sleeve and a big G over the left chest. I felt great. I sat next to Alan Anglin. He was a cool first grader. And he politely took his #2 pencil and jabbed it in my left thigh. The point broke off and to this day I can still see the little grey spot of pencil lead under the skin.
And so, the adventure began. Just inside the double entrance doors, the cafeteria was to the right. The Principals Office and nurse’s station was ahead and to the left. Library next door down. Mr. Owens, whom we called “Pickle” for some reason, was on duty for all the years that I walked those hallways. He rocked on his feet all the time. He wore black dress shoes with the leather cut out of the toes. White socks showing through.
Those school years represented a sense of stability in our lives. We didn’t appreciate it completely at the time, but having all these adults in our lives that knew us better than our parents made us aware of a fellowship of Hamptonians that crossed the decades on either side of us. I saw Miss Betty in class all week, and saw her again at church on Sundays. The school was our guardian angel of sorts.
First, Second and Third grades were down the hall to the left of Pickles office. Miss Cutie Peebles taught me in 2nd grade. I thought she was ancient, but she had dark black hair and always wore huge sets of matching beads, ear rings, and bracelets. Bright red lipstick.
Every room had a chalk board up front. Print and cursive alphabet letters above. A sink in the back. A coat rack with a shelf over the hooks between the supply cabinets. Perfect for hanging paper bags for Valentines. And a door in the front corner that let us out onto the playground for recess.
At recess we played on things that today would be called instruments of death. The idea on the Merry Go Round was to get it going so fast that you could sling shot somebody across the yard. Bloody knees. Knots on foreheads. Scraped up elbows. These were the norm. No one died. And no parent ever said:
“That playground is dangerous. We’re going to petition the school board to shut this down and make recess safe for our precious children.”
Most of them said stuff like:
“You shouldn’t have let go. Hold on tighter next time and you won’t fall off. Now, quit the crying.”
There was this one gizmo that stood tall on the playground. A single pole with what you might call a wagon wheel on top, with maybe 8 chains with handles at the bottom that hung down. Everyone grabs a handle and you run in a circle together, and before you know it, you’re airborne. Knuckles white. Holding on for dear life. We should have all died right then and there. I’m sure some kid who grew up on this thing invented most of the rides at Six Flags.
Lunch in the cafeteria was always chaotic. I was a lunch box kid. Metal lunch box shaped and painted like a red barn with chickens and cows on the outside. The thermos clipped in under the roof that lifted open. These days, I’m still eating ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch. I figure that I’ve eaten about 5 tons of pig in sandwiches alone in my lifetime. Some things never change.
Miss Smith ran the kitchen. Tan and green plastic trays with a spot for green beans, a chicken patty, some peaches and a milk carton. Her son, Tommy, became Mayor of Hampton after I grew up and moved away. Eddie was closer to my sister’s age, and I watched him and Dickie Bass play football for the Henry County Tornadoes.
Fourth Grade was a weird year. Both classes were bused over to the Baptist Church in town where we had classrooms set up in the basement. A folding accordion door between Miss Stell and Miss Orr. I guess Hampton was growing, the school building was crowded, and the local Baptists were feeling generous.
Recess that year was kick ball, and everyone wanted Johnny Bridges on their team. No one kicked it farther. It should tell you something about my academic career that I remember recess in greater detail than reading and math. But I do know that it was in this basement classroom where we worked out our multiplication tables. (7×8=56) I always had problems with that one.
Fifth grade was straight down the hall past the cafeteria. Two doors on the right of the hallway. A bank of windows on the left. I was sitting in Miss Rhodes class one day when Robert threw his baseball glove at me from across the room. My desk was against the windows. His against the cork board near the door. I dodged and the glove went through the window glass. Robert was two years older than the rest of us and took advantage of his size and age over us little twerps. I smiled when he missed. I can’t recall where the teacher was or how we explained the broken window.
In Sixth grade we started changing rooms for Science, English and Math. Seems like we had a few classes down in the old brick building across the road and some on the new hall. Mr. Hipp taught Math and let us watch the World Series on TV.
He and Miss Mitchell next door had a secret code set up. He would walk out into the hall while we were working on Modern Mathematics. He would cough. Twice. We could hear her scoot back her chair and join him in the hallway. Whispers and quiet chuckles ensued. I imagined that they were sharing a Marlboro moment.
He read the paper a lot in class and quietly whistled while he read. He had this little pin hole in his forehead that we all looked at. It was hard not to see it. We’d make some excuse to go up to his desk and ask a question, just so we could look at the hole in his head. Jr. High kids are humored easily.
We wore caps and gowns for graduation. Standing on the stage in the cafeteria. No one does that anymore. But this was a passage for us. On to McDonough and the High School. It was going to be the first year of the Warhawks. I always felt a little cheated that I was never a Tornado.
We belonged to book clubs. Godfrey Chiness sat behind me in 8th grade homeroom. He read things like The Hobbit. I read things like a little 50 page paperback called Dirt Track Summer. The first full book I ever read other than the adventures of Jack and Jill.
We were paddled when necessary. Coach Orr was feared most. He held a board with holes drilled in it and moved you on your tip toes every time he made contact. Mr. Hipp got me one time for wearing my ball cap in class. And there was the substitute, Miss Mary Welch, who swatted our hands with a ruler. But that was their job, to keep us in line.
What we got most was a sense of respect and the motivation to achieve something with our lives. Not everyone feels this way, but I do. I got my bearings during those elementary years. Yeah, we were mostly goof balls. But in time, looking back, those years made us who we are. And I wouldn’t take anything for that.
Hail to Hampton Elementary, Class of 1970.