Remember When

West Elementary faculty meet with former West Elementary and West High students at the 60th anniversary.

School House Rocks

There’s just something about an old school house …

You know what I mean. Those elementary schools we attended had a certain style, their own scents, their own tactile sensations. Some of the most crucial childhood memories of our youth are often associated with our elementary school days, moreso than middle school (or junior high, if you’re of that era) or even high school.

I went to Witt Elementary. This was in the days in which kindergarten was still in its infancy (no pun intended), so I began my education in the first grade with Mrs. Reece. Mrs. Lankford was her teacher’s assistant. (And please, dear heavens, I hope I spelled both names correctly. It’s been a long time since those sweet, innocent, heady days of early readin,’ ‘ritin,’ and ‘rithmetic.

This was the time of rooms full of windows along the exterior walls, chalkboards instead of whiteboards and No. 2 pencils with erasers served as data input and delete.

I can remember those halls so vividly: old style waxed tile floors and the school version of subway tiles along the walls.

Thick wooden doors closed and blocked most if not all of the sounds from other classrooms – that is, if there was any noise to begin with. It was quiet all but for the sound of Mr. Harville’s chalk tapping and scraping a note for a lesson on the board, or Miz Penland explaining a special project we would do in class later that week, maybe the scootching sound of a desk across the floor. The BAM of a book hitting the floor was expected at least once each day.

I remember the first expansion of Witt. It went behind the original footprint of the school and allowed for more classrooms and a larger cafeteria, while leaving the gymnasium in original condition. I honestly can’t remember where the library was, or if it was moved into the new addition.

I was part of the last fifth grade class at Witt before the opening of East Ridge Middle School. Before then, there was the junior high school, now serving as the headquarters of the Hamblen County Department of Education (a great show of repurposing a former school), and Witt had been a 1-8 grade school setting.

While Witt remains much the same on the exterior these days, except for the window remodel some years ago, I wonder if it’s changed much on the inside. It would be nice to visit.

Some schools do change, whether it is with structure, layout, dedication or purpose.

Take West Elementary, for example.

First constructed and utilized as a high school for African Americans in Morristown beginning in 1959, it was repurposed in spectacular fashion after the desegregation of students in the early 1960s and the eventual integration of West High students into Morristown High School. Once Morristown and Hamblen County (there were two school systems at the time, operating specific schools based on location in or out of the city limits) built a new high school and students from Morristown High were zoned for either Morristown-Hamblen High School East or West, the former West High became West Elementary.

West Elementary is a more modern example of successful repurposing of a school building. Another is Sherwood Elementary, now serving the community faithfully as the headquarters of the Morristown Parks and Recreation Department.

Morristown is lucky to have at least two other fine instances of school house repurposing (and for those not in the know, “school house” is about as traditional reference as can be found to a structure which serves primarily as a place of congruent instruction and education).

Roberts School and Rose School should come immediately to mind. Both served as schools for children around Morristown for decades. As school districts evolved, Roberts and Rose were left to go fallow for years before men and women with extraordinary foresight and a sense of Morristown history stepped in to give the buildings new life, with one becoming the home of Douglas-Cherokee Economic Authority and the other as the social and cultural hub of the community now known as Rose Center.

Even now, walking into either of these generationally-bound buildings, there is the sense of what they were, what they used to be. Creaking wood floors echo the footsteps of children on their way to class, exposed water pipes occasionally clang when the weather is right and some of the windows are rather wavy from their production at furnaces with imperfect manufacturing techniques.

It makes me sad to find abandoned schools. One, near Mountain City in upper, upper East Tennessee, just screams to be used once again as anything useful. Its exterior is mostly covered in locally gathered stones then finished with brick. It still has windows which obviously reach from one end of a classroom to the other. Rusty playground equipment sits untouched for decades. I have a strong feeling the hallway is that same waxed tile, and the same school version of subway tiles along the walls. Another was found near Mt. Airy in North Carolina. I believe I could sit and listen to those empty buildings for hours on end if they were of a mind to give up their memories and stories of children and teachers from years past.

I wonder if the children in today’s school buildings will remember their days in classrooms will remember them in the same way we of a certain age do now. They’ll never know the need to open a window for fresh air or the thrill of being chosen to pound erasers on the side of the building to get rid of chalk dusk. They don’t have film strips or the excitement of a Scholastic Book order or a Weekly Reader delivery.

And they won’t have the tap-tap-tap of heels on a waxed tile floor on their way to the cafeteria.