Frances Stebbins Correspondent
[This is a memory from the many decades the author has been privileged to write for daily and weekly newspapers circulating in Western Virginia.]
When I was enrolled in the seventh-grade class taught by Miss Nannie Page Burruss that fall of 1941, I was a year ahead of my classmates academically, but a year behind socially.
In the six years I had been progressing through the elementary grades as part of the small, private Holladay School, the girls my age who lived near each other in the courthouse town of Orange, Virginia, had been playing hopscotch and jump rope.
A dozen of them had formed what they called “The Little-Bit-of-Everything-Club.”
I was one of three new pupils in Miss Burruss’ class of about 30; another girl was a newcomer to town, one of several whose fathers had been transferred to the South because of managerial status in a factory being quickly converted from peacetime to wartime production.
Ellen, the deaf girl who had been with me in sixth grade at the Holladay School earlier, also transitioned at 14 to public school. She could not make the adjustment, although I tried to help her, for her guttural speech and inability to communicate except by written notes caused her and everyone else constant frustration. She was withdrawn after a few months. I never heard of her again although information about people got around fast in our small town.
There were many other pupils unlikely to become my friends. One girl was morbidly obese and required a special seat by a window while two others were clearly into their teens and wore lipstick.
Needless to say, all of us were white nor were there any Asians or Hispanics. One rough boy was a transplant from Pennsylvania’s coal fields. His given name was Paul Benedict. Roman Catholic families like his would five years later open the first such parish in three Piedmont Virginia counties.
And there was Virginia, a year younger than most of us and a pretty girl who still had shoulder-length curls. Her father was the Town Manager who had come from the Middle West for a job because he was married to a girl from Orange. The family lived with Virginia’s grandmother, and she was already part of the club most of whose members lived in the same neighborhood.
Though only 11, Virginia was a straight-A student in all subjects and remained so, for five years later she would – no surprise – offer the valedictory speech at our graduation.
I forced myself to learn to play hopscotch and jump rope, not easy for a girl as tall at 12 as she would be and with the poor coordination, I’ve mentioned earlier. I still wore my hair in two braids.
One of the first things discovered in the routine vision tests, unknown in the little private school, was my marked near-sightedness. A traveling optometrist came up from Richmond monthly and fitted me with glasses he prescribed for intermittent use lest I get overly dependent on them. This meant keeping up with them and the possibility of leaving them in the wrong place.
But it wasn’t all bad. Miss Burruss was an experienced and understanding teacher who soon discovered that I had studied Virginia, English, World and American history and knew more grammar than the prescribed book taught.
My math skills were and remained deficient, and my handwriting was poor.
Now comes the good part. By November, I was invited to become a member of the club the dozen town girls had formed in the fourth grade. They met in their homes for an hour on Wednesday afternoons; the hostess provided ginger ale and cookies. The other new girl in our class became a member too.
I attribute my invitation chiefly to a girl named Jane, one of those I remember from my bad first-grade year. She, like nearly all the children in our seventh-grade room, went to the Baptist Church in the middle of town and was clearly one of the “in” group as was another girl named Jackie who had been one of my major tormenters six years earlier. A tough cookie in a family of five girls, Jackie had mellowed slightly as she grew older.
I enjoyed my months in the club and even entertained the group at my house to which all had to walk a mile on the edge of town.
The 1941 year, momentous for me, was one for history. With only a poorly heard radio in our house, word of the Sunday attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor did not reach my single-parent mother and me until Monday morning.
At school, several of the students knew of relatives who had been drafted and now would face real war. Our teacher, Miss Burruss, brought in a radio which broadcast President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech.
When the end of the school year came in late May, our little club came to a ceremonial end. It seemed, as the long-time members said, that with high school coming up in the fall, other things should take its place. The book of Minutes, which had been carefully kept for three years, was boxed and placed in a niche behind the Methodist Church. We sang a patriotic song.
There was no eighth grade in Orange or any other small Virginia school systems in 1942. Most of us would go directly to four years of high school in the same one-story building centered in an auditorium. We would have four or five classes with different teachers.
Again, a new era was beginning.