In the Appalachian years of Mama’s childhood, there wasn’t a lot of learning to be done other than that which comes from hard times and harder work.
Scattered throughout the widespread communities were one-room schoolhouses. In some instances, the church houses and the schoolhouses were one and the same.
That’s another wink of Appalachian language. “House” was attached to the names of most buildings: schoolhouse, church house, drinkin’ house.
Untrue to mockeries of mountain life was that most children could read — although the Bible was almost all they had — and write, if only “barely.” It was standard for the children to be offered six years of schooling though many fell away by the fourth grade, mostly because they were needed on the farms or to work some kind of manual labor to earn a dime here and there.
The story of Mama’s learning is, at least to me, most remarkable. It was some years after she died that I found her education story written out in longhand. Hers was a distinctive cursive writing that was easy to read. Some of the story I knew from her own mouth. It was the detail that — as Mama liked to say about something that stunned her — “floored me.”
“When I was a little girl, I wanted to go to school so bad,” she wrote. “I begged Mama to let me go, but she said, ‘You’re not old enough.’ I pestered her all the time.”
School teachers in those days were not married. Once they wed, they had to give up teaching. The only explanation I’ve ever heard is that marriage led to babies and that led to them quitting anyway. Plus, the students would wonder about the teacher’s expanding waistline. That part makes little sense to me because mountain families often had an average of eight children so they should have learned that at home.
Miss Estelle was the teacher at the little Nimblewill schoolhouse, the object of Mama’s pining. When she discovered how much Mama wanted to start school, she said to Mawmaw, “A child who wants learnin’ that bad oughta be taught. Send her on.”
Mama was 4 years old when she sashayed across the pine knob floor in a flour sack dress and proudly took her seat with her black hair shining and her dark eyes bright with anticipation. She took to schooling like a duck takes to water.
For the rest of her life, Mama would often say, “I loved Miss Estelle better than anythin’ in this world. She treated me like I was her little girl. Sometimes, she’d take me home with her.”
Miss Estelle, bless her heart, did what the best teachers do — she poured into Mama, paying special attention to teach her the three Rs (reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic). Mama went through books at such a pace that it was a constant strain on Miss Estelle to find books for her.
Mama’s memory was astounding, which makes it befitting that her last words to me, seconds before she unexpectedly collapsed, were, “And don’t you forget that.”
Mama memorized Shakespearean sonnets, long, mournful Appalachian ballads and complete chapters of the Bible. She remembered them all until the day she died and, sometimes, all a’sudden, she would just take off and, in a haunting tone, recite two pages of prose.
When sixth grade graduation arrived, Mama begged Miss Estelle to keep her in school. “I want you to learn me more. Please.”
Miss Estelle let Mama stay for another four years. Finally, a sad day came.
“Bonelle, I’ve taught you all I know. I don’t have anything else left to teach you.”
She was 16 when, with tears streaming down her face, she left the schoolhouse for the last time.
It is possible that Mama became the first person in the Southern Appalachian backwoods to have 12 years of education.
That gives me a heart full of pride.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.