Oak Park Arms resident Lillie May Lenert told Elmhurst College students Bevin Murdock and Gina Ferguson about her days teaching at a rural school in Money, Mississippi. Here are some excerpts from her memoir.
It was long ago when I taught at a country school in Money, Miss.-almost 60 years. I can still see the beige walls of my classroom and smell the lingering scent of chalk. I still see the children’s bright smiles as we played learning games, and I can feel the pencil in my hand as I would sit at my desk in the morning before the children would arrive, going over my day’s lesson plan.
I started looking for the colorful marbles. Shuffling through some loose folders and pencils, I found only one small bag of marbles. “Oh dear, what time is it?” I asked aloud as soon as I realized that I didn’t have enough marbles for the 25 students in my class.
I had about half an hour before my class would start trickling in from outside. Maybe Miss Davis had something I could use for the exercise. I taught the beginners, the youngest children in a school that stemmed through eighth grade.
I started at the school in 1941 and continued to teach for the following three years. I didn’t have a college education, but I was picked, along with 124 other people by the state to improve the learning conditions of our rural schools. They told me I didn’t need anything more than a high school education to get started, as long as I agreed to work toward a teaching certificate by taking some courses during the summer at Jackson State College, now known as Jackson State University. The state expected us country school teachers to stay up to date with the latest teaching devices and tactics. I never did receive my college degree. Instead I moved to Chicago with the hopes of returning to school, but I never did. Nonetheless, it was a great experience for us all.
“Miss Davis? Are you in there?” I asked loudly while lightly knocking on the locked door. Within a moment’s time, Miss Davis was at the door and a little out of breath.
“Well, hello there. What can I do for you, Lillie?”
“I was wondering if you had anything I could borrow for a counting exercise? You know marbles or blocks.”
“Hmmm, I don’t think so. You could use books, or go outside and collect some pebbles,” Miss Davis suggested.
“I never thought of pebbles,” I said. “I’ll go outside and see what I can find. Thank you.”
I turned away and walked briskly toward the main entrance of the school. I scanned the school yard that was filling with students for something small and abundant that I could easily bring back into my classroom.
When I got to the cornfield, I started to nonchalantly kick some of the dirt around with my leather Oxfords. Instantly I saw little grains of corn that must have fallen from the last harvest. I bent over and collected about 50 grains and put them in a bag and carried them back to the school.
Money, Miss. was a very small southern town where everyone knew everyone else, and teachers were very well respected within the black community. When people hear that I used to teach at a country school in the South before the civil rights movement, they automatically wonder whether or not I had to deal with issues of race on a daily basis. I did, but only in the sense that the schools were segregated and were close by. There were rarely any problems between the students of the two schools. We kept to ourselves and vice versa.
I couldn’t have asked for anything more when it comes to a classroom. The wall opposite the entrance was full of windows allowing the room to always be filled with natural light from outside. The principal allowed me to jazz up my cream curtains by ironing on baby chicks that were bright yellow and made out of cloth, making an interesting and lasting pattern around the windows. I had enough wall space so I was able to constantly re-decorate according to what month it was. It was necessary that I do this so my students would look forward to the next month.
I would start every class with a lesson or review of hygiene and healthy habits by asking someone to volunteer to explain how they personally got ready for school that day. I hated sitting behind the huge teacher’s desk in the front of the room when my beginners were present, so instead I would squeeze myself into one of the smaller desks and sit among my students.
“So, who wants to tell us what they did this morning to get ready for school?”
“I believe Miss Belle Palace had her hand up first. Please stand up before you start speaking,” I requested.
Belle Palace Fox was always the one to excitedly raise her hand first. She was a tiny little girl who was always laughing and interacting with me. Her hair was normally split into three long black braids that fell in between her shoulder blades and were tied with multi-colored ribbons. I remember one day, earlier in the year, when Mrs. Turnipseed’s class randomly went running from their classroom trying to get outside. Her students caused such a stir that all my beginners got riled up and took off after Mrs. Turnipseed’s class. Poor little Belle Palace got caught up in the mix of a group of larger students and fell down. In a panic, I ran straight for her when I saw her fall, hoping she wasn’t getting trampled by the older students. When I reached Belle, she was curled up in a ball with her hands covering her face. I spread myself out trying to re-route the trampling students around the little fallen girl. When the rush of students had passed, I helped Belle Palace up from the ground and asked her if she was going to be all right. She immediately started laughing and said that she was fine and took off after the retreating students.
I would usually try to end the day with some kind of game, so I pulled out my bag full of corn. The class instantly became aware of the bag, wondering about what was in it.
“Hush, everyone, and calm down. We are going to play that counting game that y’all love so much.”
The entire class went silent as I went from student to student and placed a handful of corn on each of their desks. “Today the point of the game is to be the first to correctly count how many grains of corn you have.”
I continued to walk around the room as each student struggled with the task at hand, sometimes having to remind one or two of the boys not to eat their grains. Soon enough one of the beginners would shout out that they had finished counting their corn. I would then go over and get down at their level and ask them how many pieces they had. After hearing the number they came up with, I would count the corn in front of the student and help them figure out what went wrong if they had counted wrong. If their number was correct, I would pat them on the back and let them go for the day.