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Former student remembers early educational upbringing

For many years, the building now known as the L. E. Coleman African-American Museum located on Mountain Road once served as place of learning for African-American children growing up in the segregated civil rights era.

The school, formerly known as Mountain Road School No. 1, had a hand in producing successful students who went on to become nurses, doctors, lawyers and educators.

One student, Dr. Annie Wimbish, formerly known as Annie Richardson or Annie Peters, recalls just how much her experiences as a student at Mountain Road School #1 helped to mold her into the person she is today.

“My core beliefs came from experiences at Mountain Road School #1, and those core beliefs are what I’ve carried with me in everything that I’ve done,” she said. 

 Wimbish attended the school in the early 1960s. She started first grade there and attended the school until her fifth grade year when they closed the school. She continued her education at Sinai Elementary School.

 According to Wimbish, classes at the school were self-contained, and basic subjects such as reading, mathematics, social studies and science were taught.  Math and reading dominated, she noted.

“They touched on all of those subjects, and of course humanities too. [They taught us] about working together, being kind to others, social skills, how to talk to people and being respectful,” she said.

She said most classes had two grades together in a room, and she recalled sharing a room with third graders when she was in the second grade.

“The teacher would call people up for reading, and you could be in second or third grade. The grade didn’t necessarily matter as much as the content. All of the people would walk up together to the desk for reading at this period of time, and the teacher would let you start reading out of your ‘Dick and Jane’ book, and you’d read until you made a mistake. When you made an error, that’s when you would stop, and then the next person may go further than that or not as far as that, and you did your reading together.  Everybody did reading at that time,” Wimbish said.

 Next the teacher would teach math. Wimbish said the teacher would also break the class into groups and give them assignments.

“Sometime she might have had something special she just wanted to teach the second graders, but then she’d give the third graders another assignment they could work on together,” she said. “It wasn’t anything like school is today. It was really designed more about what you needed and where you were versus where the curriculum says you have to be on page 25 at this date.”

She said even though they had to learn certain things, the teacher allowed them to learn when they were ready.

“You just worked from where you were until you got where you needed to be, and it was up to you. You could come home and practice and study, look ahead or not. But it wasn’t like everybody’s tested, and if you don’t get this right you’re considered a failure, and you get this right, you’re considered a success. She had us to work at our own level,” Wimbish added.

The class learned so many other things beyond the content area too.

“We learned about collaboration. We had to work together on projects. We had to help each other. We had to be respectful at all times to each other and the teachers. We had to think through problems many times to solve it. The teacher would say ‘you work it out.’ If you had an issue with your peers, and if you didn’t work it out, and you got in a fight, you got a spanking. Then she’d tell our parents, and they would spank us.”

While reading and math dominated, science and social studies were blended into the curriculum, Wimbish recalled.

“Sometimes we’d walk outside and look at the leaves for a leaf collection or bugs for an insect collection,” she said.

 A major part of instruction included having to memorize things such as the Preamble and multiplication tables.

“You’d stand up, and we’d go around the room, and everybody would say all the 2s, all the 3s, and all the 4s, and if you missed one, you’d have to sit down,” she said.

 She remembered Mrs. Carter and Mrs. Easley as two of the teachers who stood out to her the most while attending the school.

 Carter, her second grade teacher, had a sleeping disorder, and she would fall asleep in the middle of teaching class for a few minutes and then wake up. 

Wimbish said the teacher would go over her lesson plans with her in the mornings, so if she fell asleep she could take over the class until she woke up.

“That’s when I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I thought like ‘this is  so much fun.’ She would drop off, and I took over the reading. Then she’d wake back up, and I’d show her where we were,” Wimbish recalled.

Easley was Wimbish’s fifth or sixth grade teacher who she deemed her favorite teacher because she pushed her to do her best and was very demanding.

“Mrs. Easley, oh my goodness, she was a real taskmaster. She always held us to the fire,” she said.

 She noted that Carter died during the school year.

“That was just devastating for us when she passed. I just remember her dying and what an upset it was for me and everybody else. Because I remember the crying and everybody trying to make sense out of what had happened,” she said.

According to Wimbish, school was very different than what it is today noting there was no lunch program like today.

The school offered no breakfast or lunch opportunities, Wimbish said. Students just brought a brown bag lunch from home. 

Her typical lunch consisted of a fried egg biscuit, and her mom would make her some miniature sweet potato pies.

“She would wrap them up in wax paper and our egg sandwich in wax paper in our little greasy bags. It was all greasy,” she said.

 Other students had mostly the same things, and then there were some who were a little bit better off who would have a bologna sandwich or peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

 She and her siblings never had any bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch because they couldn’t afford it.

“We had what my parents could grow on the farm,” she said.

 Sometimes if she didn’t have an egg sandwich, she would have a potato sandwich or a fried apple biscuit with fat back in it.

Wimbish said there was nothing to drink except for water, which was hand pumped from a well.

Sometimes children would trade sandwiches, and some children were even lucky enough to have potato chips, but she never had any in her lunch.

Lunch was usually held outside, and everybody ate together, Wimbish said. Lunch was a time for her and the other children to play, and she would see all her brothers and sisters. The “big boys,” Wimbish said, were allowed to walk to the store and get candy and snacks for everyone.

The school didn’t have a playground, and the children “had to make do with what they could find,” she said. A field adjacent to the school was called their playground.

 The older boys would wrap twine string around a rock to make a baseball, and they would also use rocks as the bases and a stick as the bat. She said later on they were able to get a real wooden bat. Older boys also made a seesaw by getting one large log and putting a plank across it.

On rainy days, lunch was held in the class or on the porch.

 Mountain Road School had no plumbing or running water, and the children used the restroom in an outhouse, Wimbish recalled. They did have electricity; however, it was just one big light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room. 

The school was comprised of four or five classrooms. According to Wimbish, some classrooms had individual desks similar to the ones seen in schools today, but those were typically in the larger classrooms for the older children. 

In many of the classrooms, wooden benches substituted for desks with a place for a pencil and a writing surface attached to the back. Most classes had two rows of benches. 

The teacher sat in front of the class looking back at everyone else with a blackboard off to the side. 

Wimbish said they kept a bucket of water in the back of the classroom just in case anyone got thirsty. 

The classes were heated with a potbelly stove that sat next to the teacher. 

Class sizes at the school were relatively small with a maximum of 10 to 15 students, Wimbish said.

And there was no such thing as a snow day back in her day.

“I can’t remember them ever canceling school because of the weather,” she said.

 She recalled having to walk a mile and a half to catch the school bus in inclement weather, sometimes without gloves, boots or scarves because they weren’t able to afford them.

Sometimes they would use their old socks as gloves. Students at the bus stop would try to huddle together to keep warm. Sometimes her older brother and some of the other boys would build a fire while they waited for the bus. 

The bus had very little heat, and most of the time the school buses were old buses that the Caucasian schools didn’t use any more. Some times they would break down in the street, Wimbish said. 

When they got to school in the mornings, the teacher would get the older boys to go outside and get the coal to fuel the potbelly stove. For the first two or three hours they sat in the classroom with their coats and hats on until the building warmed up. 

In the hot months, children would make homemade fans to keep themselves cool because the school had no air conditioning. Some classrooms had electrical fans, but most of them didn’t, she noted.

“Your fan was getting a piece of hard paper or some cardboard paper,” she said.

The school didn’t have toilet paper either, and when students used the restroom they would have to wipe with whatever was available.

Pencils also were scarce when she was going to school.

 “You saved that pencil, and you sharpened that thing until you could barely hold it, and you only had a nub,” she said.

They didn’t have pencil sharpeners, so they would sharpen the pencils with knives. 

Wimbish describes herself as a very studious student when she attended Mountain Road School #1.

She stood out in class, and the teacher would often call on her for special things, she recalled.

“I was such a good student that it made me almost embarrassed sometimes because I always thought my teacher and mom expected so much from me because I was smart,” she said.

As an example of dedication as a student, Wimbish recalled the time her teacher asked the class to get a newspaper article and summarize it for a homework assignment. Wimbish said a majority of the children in her class including herself could not afford newspapers. 

“When the teacher gave us the assignment, I wanted to cry because I knew we didn’t have any newspapers at our house, and nobody had newspapers in our neighborhood,” she said. 

  She debated on the bus ride home whether not to do the assignment and take a “F” because she didn’t have a newspaper or ask her parents, who worked as sharecroppers, to try and find her one.

 She told her mom she needed a newspaper, and she cried because she didn’t know where they were going to get the newspaper from. Later that night, she said her dad came, and she told him what she needed.  He was mad, she recalled. 

She said her father went to the “boss man’s” house and got the paper from him, and she completed the assignment, while most of the kids just took an “F.”

There was no principal at the school back then, and discipline was left to the teachers. Discipline she said usually consisted of standing in the corner facing the wall or getting a whipping with a paddle or a switch. It depended on how bad the crime was, she said.  

Although she rarely got into trouble, Wimbish remembered a time she was sent to the corner because her sister got into trouble, and she started crying and screaming.

One of her most memorable moments was when they would have programs they would put on during holidays. At Christmas, they would always perform the Nativity story, and everybody in the class would have a part, she said.

“I just remember feeling so good when I had my part to stand up to recite,” she said. “They made me feel special and confident.”

One of the biggest lessons she said she took away from being a student at the school is to be passionate about everything she does.

“You have to have passion for what you do, and you always give it your best. You don’t half do. You do it to the best of your ability is what we were always taught. You do it your best because you’re not just representing yourself, but you’re also representing other people too,” Wimbish said. 

Her teacher did not accept halfway work, and they would make them do it until they got it right. 

“All of us were dirt poor, but we had teachers who demanded the best and cared about us and were willing to go the extra mile,” she said.

The collaboration between teachers and parents back then was phenomenal.

“Our parents were very supportive of the educators and trusted those educators to be the professionals that they were supposed to have been,” Wimbish said.

Back then, teachers were held in high esteem and were given the utmost respect.

 She credited the teachers at Mountain Road School #1 for teaching her about life and so many other valuable lessons.

 After graduating from Halifax County Senior High School in 1973, Wimbish attended Averett University and received a Bachelor of Science in education.  She continued her education at the University of Virginia where she received a master’s in curriculum instruction and also received an education specialist certification in leadership and supervision. She eventually received a doctorate in educational leadership from Fayetteville State University. 

 She has worked in education over 33 years as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent. She is now a consultant with Schlechty Center, a nonprofit organization committed to partnering with school leaders across the country to transform their classrooms, schools and school districts into engagement-focused organizations. 

 She is married to Ray Wimbish, and together they have three children and four grandchildren.