In 1950 my grandfather passed away and for the first time in her long life my grandmother found herself alone and in need of help. My dad, looking for an excuse to escape Florida’s heat, drove my mom, sister and I up to Virginia to stay with Grandmother Alice. The plan was to stay a couple of months and return to Florida in time for school.
My sister and I were sure we had been dropped down in a magical land of mist shrouded mountains, ‘hollers’ and for four months of the year, SNOW. For us flatlanders it proved to be a vacation wonderland.
‘A couple of months’ turned into a year, way too long for two 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. Our vacation was officially over.
The faded old school was fascinating 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 made 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, my mom signed up to be a substitute teacher in Russell County’s underserved areas. No teaching experience needed, just show up and manage to stay until two o’clock. Then one day someone didn’t show up and they asked Mom to sub at the most remote school in the county, Possum Hollow School. She kept me out of school that day to go with her. 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. 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.
Children began to wander in until finally all eight desks were occupied and drawn close to the wood-burning stove. I saw no school bus or cars delivering students and it dawned on me that those kids had walked all the way.
I don’t remember any of the schooling but the lunchtime has stayed with me all these years. I eagerly opened my lunch bag 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 need of basic hygiene. The three stood staring at me, saying nothing and occasionally wiping their 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 had no lunch boxes or paper bags and it hit me that those children had no lunches. Not one apple or piece of cornbread, nothing. 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 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. 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.