Give Light ~ High School and “The War” ~
[This is a memory from the many decades the author has been privileged to write for daily and weekly newspapers circulating in Western Virginia.]
The four years I spent in Orange, Virginia, high school coincided with America’s participation in World War II.
At least my freshman, sophomore and junior years covered 1942 to 1945. Restrictions due to shortages and the needs of those in uniform affected everything we teens did. Competitive academic and sports activities stopped.
All changed in my senior year, for Japan surrendered in August just before our class of about 35 moved into the front classroom presided over by veteran teacher, Miss Stella Mae Payne. She taught most of the English classes.
As mentioned in my earlier column about my admittance to Richmond Professional Institute (now VCU) in 1946 because it had flexible requirements and accepted the basic Virginia subjects for a diploma, I struggled with the required General Mathematics course.
Then, as now, I simply am deficient in matters of numbers though apparently above average in the use of words. Math tests that first year brought failing grades, tears and understanding from my mother. She said if I could pass the one required class of a smattering of algebra, geometry, measurements and fractions I need take no more.
God must have been with me because I squeaked by. Eighty years later, I am grateful for calculators!
As a sophomore taking Latin instead of Algebra, I set a goal. Two of my girlfriends – typically three and four years older than myself – had, as the second-ranking honor students – given the welcoming speech at our graduations. I would do the same.
In that small school, honors were accorded only to the students who ranked first and second academically. The first ranking gave the farewell address as Valedictorian and the second ranking offered the welcome as Salutatorian. Sure, that the youngest class member, Virginia, mentioned earlier, would take first honors, I set about making top grades in my favorite subjects of English literature and composition and History in any form. I tolerated Science classes, mastering them but caring little for the limited lab work.
By my senior year with the war over, several academic competitions were resumed. I took state honors in what was known as a Latin Tournament and regional in written spelling. Vocabulary tests, then carried in the popular “Reader’s Digest” magazine and part of our English class, found me generally missing only one or two words.
Something significant was happening. I was discerning that I wanted to be a writer.
My first printed work was appearing in the weekly newspaper; it gave a half page during the school year to what was designated “The Orange Peal.” My English teacher, Miss Payne, picked me to be the Editorial Writer. I commented on the national election of 1944.
And I made my first money from a contest sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). I took second place in Virginia for an essay on the work of General Robert E. Lee after the Civil War when he was president of a Lexington college. I got a check of $25.
And indeed, my planning and studying paid off. In May 1946, a few weeks before our graduation was held in the auditorium of our small building, our principal informed Miss Payne, our home-room teacher, of the two top-ranking students.
I would get to welcome parents and friends as Salutatorian. I did so and in addition was given my little check from the Confederate women’s organization. It remains one of the happiest moments of my life.
Despite my academic recognition, my memories of high school are far from unalloyed happiness. At times, the war news was frightening; we had air raid drills regularly. A half-dozen times Mr. Walker, our principal, announced in the daily opening religious exercises that a young man from school had been killed in combat. Two of them I knew as acolytes at our church.
There was the January that I was sick with chickenpox at 15 at the same time my mother suffered severe burns on an arm making her barely able to care for the poultry flock that supported us.
But, most of all, I felt myself to be a social misfit, for I had never been asked for a date. Though I tried mightily to interest one of the few boys in our class to take me to the annual spring prom, I was unsuccessful. I was considered a “brain,” wore glasses and could not make small talk. My only-child, single-parent upbringing had not prepared me for the teen social world. Some of my classmates already had serious boyfriends serving in the military.
But better things were ahead, for I finally found my niche in newspaper training at the Richmond Professional Institute in our state’s capital city.