September 2005

Harriet Barkei, formerly of Johnson City, wrote me sharing additional memories of West Side School. We attended separate classes there during the 1949-1950 school year.

She remembers an early morning ritual: “The school had a bell tower, and the principal, Mr. Mahoney, pulled the rope hanging in the upstairs hallway and rang the big bell every morning to call us ‘youngins’ to school.” Ms. Barkei recalled that there were three entrances to the building:Watauga Avenue (west side, with “Built in 1907” inscribed over the door), Main Street (north) and the side facing downtown (east).

She further commented: “The principal’s office was opposite the Main Street entrance. The doors to the first floor rooms were on a diagonal, making the large inside hall an octagon. There were large cloakrooms by the side of each classroom. The classrooms had thick wooden doors with glass transoms on top that could be opened to let a breeze through without opening the door. Those were the days before air conditioning.”

Harriet remembered the little white chairs at the back of the room, where Miss Taylor held her reading circles: “My first grade readers were the Dick and Jane books, written in the 1930s. The famous sentence in those primers was “See Spot Run.”

By 1949, the school had switched to the John C. Winston Company, “Easy Growth In Reading” series, ten books authored by Gertrude Hildreth. Our first book was titled, At Play, with siblings, Bob and Nancy, and their pets, Mac (a black Scottie dog) and Muff (a calico colored cat). How well I remember these characters.

The former student recalled all six of her teachers: Mildred Taylor (first), Mrs. Deer (second), Miss Tomlinson (third), Mrs. Sisk (fourth), Miss Adams (fifth) and Miss Ruth Martin (sixth). The music teacher, Mrs. Meek, was one of her favorites: “When I was in the first grade, she saw that I had a loose tooth, and she tied a string around it and pulled it out for me right during music class.”

Harriet and I both remember the two unique disciplinary techniques used by Miss Taylor: “She would either shake your ear or grab you by the chin and rattle your teeth.” She further recalled the weekly assembly programs on the second floor: “We attended assembly every Friday morning. It always started out with Bible reading and prayer. I was the mother bear in the first grade play, given on one Friday morning and later repeated for a PTA meeting. What fun!”

Today, the only vestiges of this former grammar school are the block walls and concrete steps at the northwest corner of the property. Harriet recollects that these blocks matched the foundation blocks of the school.

The concluding lyrics to “School Days” seem to lament the passing of this and other old schools: “Member the hill, Nellie Darling; And the oak tree that grew on its brow?; They've built forty stories upon that old hill; And the oaks an old chestnut now. 'Member the meadows so green dear; So fragrant with clover and maize; Into new city lots and preferred bus'ness plots; They've cut them up since those days.” 

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“School days, school days; Dear old golden rule days; Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic; Taught to the tune of a hick-ry stick.”

Composers Will Cobb and Gus Edwards wrote that nostalgic song in 1907, the same year that West End School (later renamed West Side School) opened along what was then the west section of town. The massive box-shaped brick building stood on high ground at 265 W. Main Street in the southeast intersection with Watauga Avenue, facing the Holston Apartments to the north.

I attended the first grade there during the 1949-1950 school year. The principal was Mr. Mahoney; my teacher was Miss Mildred Taylor, for whom I have fond memories. Grades 1-3 were on the first floor, grades 4-6 and the auditorium on the second and the cafeteria and bathrooms in the basement.

Surprisingly, first grade students attended classes for only four hours each weekday, with students assigned a morning or afternoon shift. I was given a morning one. Miss Taylor's room was on the southwest corner of the first floor and contained several long tables as opposed to individual desks.

On our first day of school, Miss Taylor read us the Scandinavian folktale, “The Three Billy Goats Gruff. It involved three goats individually crossing a bridge and being targeted as a tasty meal by an ugly evil troll hiding under it. The story concludes with the biggest and tastiest goat physically and graphically disposing of the menacing troll. Miss Taylor’s foot stomping imitation, “trip, trap, trip, trap,” of the goats crossing the bridge still echoes in my memory. Perhaps she chose this violent tale to ensure that we behave in class, lest we fall victim to the same fate. The only punishment I received that year was a mild scolding, resulting from my talking to a cute little red-haired girl sitting at my table.

During recess, the boys played separately from the girls. We cared less what the girls did; they were out of sight and out of mind, at least for a few pleasant minutes. The boys tossed a basketball onto a sloped tin roof over a small storage shed that was attached along the east side of the building. We each fought for the ball so we could throw it back.

Twice a day at a designated time, Miss Taylor led us down some narrow steps to the basement bathrooms. On my first visit, I observed a long ceramic water trough firmly attached along one wall, something I had never seen before. After a brief few seconds of keen observation, I quickly added it to my restroom repertoire.

We next formed two lines on the steps leading back to the first floor, being instructed not to talk, not so much as a whisper. If anyone talked, we were instructed to point our fingers at the guilty parties until Miss Taylor arrived to identify and punish the offenders. This was my first experience at “finger pointing.”

Over time, West Side School slowly relinquished its role to Henry Johnson as the west end school. It was razed in 1961, making room for the Watauga Square Apartments.

In my next column, I will share additional West Side memories from Harriet Barkei, a former resident of our city.

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