Harkers Island , NC Occupations

Livin' & Learnin' Going to school at Harkers Island

Joel Hancock

The following is from an address given at Harkers Island Elementary School, April 24, 1982 at an assembly celebrating the 25th Anniversary of moving into the present school.

. . . Entering the first grade in 1958, for as of then there was no public kindergarten, I was a member of only the second class to spend all of my years at this school. Though the basic learning processes were fundamentally the same, there were a few things that were different. Extra curricular activities and learning aids were at a minimum. The library was still a library and not a media center. What we learned we learned either from books or from what our teachers told us. The idea of computers for the classroom was still relegated to science fiction.

But we did learn and most of us enjoyed it. Memorization was still an important part of the learning process. At various times we were required to memorize everything from the poetry of Robert Frost to the Pythagorean theorem. One of life's greatest pleasures was being able confidently to recite the multiplication tables. Reading was portrayed as an adventure. It became my gateway to the vast world that lie beyond the Bridge. My favorite pastime was thumbing through a set of World Books, (to us, World Book and encyclopedia meant the same thing for they were the only encyclopedias available.)

Spelling "Bees" were still the primary form of intra-school competition. And one stayed in the same classroom with the same teacher all day long, regardless of how you might have placed on a standardized achievement test.

In spite of a Supreme Court decision banning state prescribed prayers in schools after 1962, each morning began with a devotional. The "Pledge of Allegiance," "The Lord's Prayer," "My Country 'tis of Thee," and "Jesus Loves Me" were each repeated or sung with the same devotion and enthusiasm.

. . . The fun and games of my elementary years, physical education we now call it, had to be spontaneous or not at all. Until the final two years, I cannot recall any organized outdoor recreation. In the primary grades we lined up on Friday afternoons and were allowed to march outside to a slide. Once there we proceeded in an orderly up the steps and down the slide and then to the back of the line. After no more than a couple of these sequences we proceeded to march back to class and that was it for another week.

. . . Finally, in what seemed like an answer to prayers, while I was in the eighth grade there began a county-wide system of basketball teams for seventh and eighth graders. One of the driving forces behind the idea was our school's new principal, Mr. Walker Gillikin. He arranged for us to have physicals at the school from Dr. [Luther] Fulcher, who was then the County doctor, and worked out a schedule whereby we played every other elementary school in the county. We were issued the oversized, but still very beautiful, uniforms of Smyrna High School that had been discarded after the consolidation of the county's High Schools. Henry Brooks, a former All-County performer at Harkers Island High School agreed to be our coach and we practiced and played in the gym of the L.D.S. [Mormon] Church. To the surprise of many we had a very successful year and lost only two games. That preparation paid some dividends later for during my senior year at East Carteret High School four members of that team were Varsity starters. Some of the school's supporters loved to refer to us as the "Four Loons" (a reference to the reputed culinary appetite of Harkers Islanders for that protected fowl).

But times weren't always pleasant and there are some bittersweet memories. My most painful recollections are of those days we all had to line up for the seemingly endless array of inoculations that the State inflicted on all public school students. Standing in line and watching your compatriots suffer was almost as bad as the needle itself, but not quite! Invariably, one of the nurses or parents who was helping to administer this "mass torture" would try to calm our fears by saying, "It feels just like a mosquito bite." But who would stand in line for a mosquito bite? And besides, the sensation was much closer to that of a yellow jacket sting to me. And if that wasn't punishment enough, the shots would stiffen your arm so much that you couldn't throw a baseball for a week.
Also, it should be pointed out that at that time a paddle was as much a part of education as was a pencil. Especially for us boys, a "paddling" now and then might be dreaded, but it positively could not be avoided. By the seventh grade it was almost an everyday occurrence. "Come to the front and bend across my desk!" was repeated as least as often as "get out your English books" After a while a few of us developed calluses over the afflicted area that served to lessen, but not completely eliminate, the sting. The near demise of "paddling" as a form of punishment is one development that part of me wholeheartedly applauds.

Another bittersweet memory of those years is of the many operettas and plays that each class had to stage every year. Practicing and learning the lines was O.K., but it was never easy to stand in front of a packed auditorium and recite those lines. And it was even worse when you had to sing them. Because I had been cast as a dwarf named "Squeaky" in a second grade production of "Snow White", some of my friends, or rather enemies as I then supposed, continued to call me by that name for years.

But mostly it was fun. We were living and learning at a school that sat by the banks of a tranquil sound. We were being taught by teachers who were genuinely concerned for us and for our futures. Each one of my teachers left an indelible imprint on the young boy they tried to help build into a young man.

. . . The teaching profession must have been more stable and offered greater stability then, for it seems that there was more continuity from year to year relative to which teachers could be found in the various classrooms of Harkers Island Elementary. In fact, it seemed to my generation and several before and after that as certain as death and taxes were the teachers of the various grades: Miss Bell in the First, Miss Mabel (Guthrie) in the Second, Miss Sudie (Guthrie) in the Fifth, Miss Willis in the Sixth, and Miss Wade, always Miss Wade, in the Eighth. It was not uncommon for a student to have the same teacher as his or her parents may have had for the same grade. Some things might change, but those teachers never did. In retrospect, it seems that those Ladies gave a sense of permanence to school, and to life.

. . . Though we grew up on an Island, we were not completely isolated from what happened in the world around us. Important and often tumultuous events were taking place quickly in the 1960"s and they were reflected within the walls of this school. I forever will recall most of them as a reflection of how I first experienced them. Years of study in the social sciences dim in comparison to the influence of those images upon my political and social conscience.

In 1960 John F. Kennedy ran for President and hoped to end forever any suggestion that a man or woman's political opportunities might be limited because of his or her religion. That effort caused shock waves to run throughout our country, especially here in the South. And not a few of those shock waves were felt as we third graders in Miss Daniels' class discussed and even argued whether Kennedy's election might mean that all of us would have to swear allegiance to the Pope. Then as now, we reflected the side of any debate that we had heard espoused in our homes.
Two years later, in October of 1962, Miss Sudie's fifth grade class, like every other class in the country, rehearsed together what we would do if a nuclear attack resulted from what was happening in Cuba. As if it were only yesterday I can recall my teacher asking a visiting School Board Official what he thought might happen as the Russian ships approached the limits of the American Navy's blockade. My heart sank to my stomach as I heard him suggest, though only in a whisper so that we children might not be alarmed, that he felt there was going to be a "War." Though we were only ten years old, we were sophisticated enough to know that war in 1962 meant something quite different than it had meant to our parents. We had read enough Weekly Readers to know that in this "War," children as well as soldiers would suffer from the "ultimate weapon." Seldom in the years since have I felt the relief that I sensed later that week when Miss Sudie joyfully proclaimed to the class that, "The Russians have turned back!"

But events moved quickly then as now, and there was little time for celebration. Only one year later, on an Indian summer's afternoon, we sat together as our teacher announced to us that our President had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. In the coming days she would try to explain many other things to us, such as why our flag was flying at half-mast. Unfortunately, there were some things she was never quite able to make clear. It took only a few hours for some, and days for others, but we eventually returned to the games and pleasures of childhood. Still, more than we had realized at the time, at that early point in our lives we had been shocked into reality; the reality that even in the fairy tale land of America we were yet to overcome ignorance, bigotry, and mans's inhumanity to man.

. . . When viewed by today's standards, some critics might see the training that we received here at Harkers Island Elementary in the years after 1957 as having been less than ideal. But the "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic" that I and others learned here has served us well in the balance. Whatever our individual weaknesses or failures may have been, they are not attributable to the instruction or lack of it that we received while here. As a parent myself, I would be happy to bequeath to each of my children the same manner of primary schooling to which I was exposed.

We who came here carried away with us the beginnings of an education and the foundations of many lifelong friendships. And though we didn't realize it as much then, we also took from this institution a sense relative to that "two-lane blacktop" that is called the Harkers Island Bridge. Namely this; it is far better to cross it heading south than to cross it heading north!

I attended college at East Carolina University in the early 1970's. During my four years there, my friends were amused by my perpetual desire to return to my home on Harkers Island every time I had the chance. Many of them had visited the Island and found it to be interesting and an attractive vacation spot. But they could not understand why I seemed to speak of everything, including my career pursuits, in terms of an eventual return to Harkers Island. I must confess that at that time even I did not understand it.

But years of reflection since that time have led me to a rather profound conclusion. Whereas many of my friends that lived in larger and more exciting communities, this tiny Island was the haven for all of my childhood memories. And though many of them could boast of having spent their youth in several towns and schools, this Island was the only place I had ever called home.

Recently I came across a class picture of my seventh grade class. In looking at the faces on that photograph I was struck by the fact that I can still number among my acquaintances almost every student who sat with me in 1965 for a class picture. That seventh grade class also had been my first grade class, second grade class, etc. There my have been a few new faces of those who had been required to spend two or more years in a given grade, and we had lost a few of the earlier faces for the same reason. (In fact, that seventh grade photo included one classmate who already was taking Driver's Education.) But basically, the same group that started with Miss Bell and Miss Clark in 1958's first grade, graduated from Ms. Gaskill's and Mr. Gillikin's eighth grade in 1966.

So it would not be overly sentimental to say that the kids of the seventh grade picture to which I referred, not only attended the seventh grade together, we grew up together. And, for the most part, we now live together. Thus my generation, and to some degree each generation of Harkers Island kids has defied Thomas Wolfe's assertion that "you can't go home again." In a very real sense, no matter how far we might go or for how long we might be gone, we still have the opportunity to "go home again." Home may change somewhat as each new generation leaves it's mark. But, nevertheless, it is still home and that is why this Island continues to send out a constant Siren's call to any of us who, for whatever reason, "temporarily" may be living elsewhere.

Because we are here to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the completion of this building, it would not be inappropriate to recall just how this building came to be. Understandably, that story begins long before the first concrete was poured in 1955, all the way back at the turn of the century.
The great fall storms (hurricanes as we now call them) of the 1890's did more than just destroy the homes of the "Bankers" who called Diamond City home. For, as the several hundred residents of Shackleford Banks began to scramble to find new homes and lives at Marshallberg, Salter Path, the "Promised Land" (Morehead City), or across Back Sound at Harkers Island, the social fabric of the past century was in disarray.

Nowhere was this disruption more evident than among those who ventured to Harkers Island. Families that had been within "earshot" of one another at Diamond City were now separated by the "Sound" from those who had remained behind. And, just as importantly, even the families that had chosen to migrate together were patched in remote clearings among the thousands of pines, oaks, and yaupons that covered the Island they now called home. Fishermen, who had been accustomed to quick and direct access to the sea, now had to sail around Shackleford and out of the Beaufort Bar, or else find a way to move boats, nets, and catches overland across the Banks. And just as importantly, the various churches and the school that had served their former community now would have to be restructured and rebuilt. In the face of more pressing needs, it is understandable that the financing, building, and staffing of a new school were on a "back burner" for the time being.
Decades earlier the few "pre-storm" Harkers Islanders had had a school of their own. It had been sponsored and maintained by the Northern Methodist Church. The Church sent Jenny Bell from Massachusetts to Harkers Island to labor as a missionary and as a school teacher for the "natives." The Church also had directed the building of a small school house on a plot almost directly across from where the present school now stands. To this day that area is still known as "Academy Field," taking its name from Jenny Bell's Academy. From the platform of that school room Miss Bell dispensed not only worldly learning and religious instruction, but also the shoes and clothing that the Northern Methodist Church regularly sent in wooden barrels to the "po' folks" of Harkers Island.
By 1910 the residents of the Island had pooled their resources with those of the County to build a small wooden frame public schoolhouse. It was located at the heart of the community, just to the east of the cemetery and on the same location where a much larger facility would be built a few years later. it eventually gave way to that new structure in the mid 1920's. Because the smaller and older building had to be removed to make way for the newer and much larger complex, classes were temporarily held in the meeting hall of the "Charitable Brotherhood" Lodge. (Soon thereafter the meeting hall was converted into a movie house, the "Charity Theater.")

To the Islanders of the 1920's their new school must have been beautiful and enormous. It included not only enough class rooms to house a grammar school and a High School, but it was also replete with an auditorium furnished with hard-backed theater seats. In addition, there was built adjacent to the school a "Teacherage" (dormitory) to house the various ladies who might be convinced to come to Harkers Island and practice their profession.

Both of these buildings, the School and the "Teacherage," served well their intended purposes. But though they had been built to last for a century, they were rapidly outgrown as the Island's population mushroomed after World War II. Beginning in 1951 all of the High School classes were bused to the mainland to become part of Smyrna Consolidated School. And by the early 1950's even the elementary classes were cramped in the old building. So in 1955 the County appropriated the money that in 1957 allowed us to move into our present building . I know it would be unfair to today's teachers to suggest that they are any less constant or dedicated. I know too that their students will look back upon them with the same degree of affection and respect with which we recall our teachers. But a generation ago a teacher was viewed without exception as the most trusted and dignified of all professionals. If that exalted image has been tarnished somewhat since that time, all of us are the worse as a result.

And finally, by the time that the seventh grade picture to which I earlier referred was taken, we were beginning to see our brothers, uncles, cousins and nephews drafted and shipped off to fight in places whose names most of us had never heard of. But by the time we graduated from High School nearly all of us could reel off names like Saigon, Hanoi, and DaNang as easily as if they were situated just across the Island bridge. Obviously, none of us questioned then, as later we would, the reasons for America's latest effort to "make the world safe for democracy." But when those same relatives began to come home scarred, wounded, and sometimes not at all, we realized that the toy soldiers of our childhood were all too rapidly giving way to the realities of a grownup world; harsh realities that could not be swept away merely by deciding it was time to go home for supper.

Almost immediately the new building became the centerpiece of our community. Only the various churches could compete with it as the object of local affection. But in the churches we were as sectarian then as we have continued to be since. In recent years the Rescue Squad building has begun to house some of the gatherings that once were the exclusive domain of the School. But in my youth the lunchroom of Harkers Island School served as the "Town Meeting Hall" and "Auditorium" combined. It sometimes appeared to my childhood eyes that there might be thousands of people packed into that lunchroom for a Spring Festival or Halloween Carnival. Community meetings, political rallies, the annual meeting of the E.M.C., talent shows, Marine Corps Band concerts, magic shows, and guest celebrities all came to this one location. The citizens of the Island even exercised their voting rights in the same hallway through which we marched to the lunchroom.

Because of our special situation on this Island that really is an island, we were spared from having to witness first-hand the cataclysm that was called "integration." But we had ears to hear and eyes to see the televisions to which by then almost all of us had access. Perhaps because of our isolation from the main battleground of that struggle, I recall that many or most of my classmates and teachers had a deep sympathy with the plight of Blacks in the South. Names like Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King were not the anathema to us that they appeared to be to some other white children throughout our region.

In the middle grades we must have been allowed some more liberal outdoor time as I can recall playing in pickup games of baseball, football, and "ring-around-the-roses." But my first experience at organized physical training came when Mr. David Willis came to our school as seventh grade teacher. He began to divide the upper class boys (the girls were someone else's responsibility) into several teams for intramural games and calisthenics.

Reprinted from “The Mailboat,” Vol. 2 No. 3

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