07 August 2011

Early Lessons, #2

Mrs. Sharpe's house was like this.

My 5th grade teacher at Byesville Elementary was Mrs. Winnie Mae Sharpe. She was the wife of the mayor, O.J. Sharpe. They lived in the biggest house in town, a large (palatial to us) colonial with green grass in the yard and a garage that was used for putting cars into. This was different from other houses in Byesville.

Whereas our houses were more or less like this.

Mrs. Sharpe was formidable for reasons beyond those trappings, though. She was considered the meanest teacher you could have at Byesville Elementary. (Personally, I favored my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Thorla, in that spot and not just because of the name--Thorla vs. Sharp would be a hard one to call. No, I was going on first-hand evidence from when Mrs. Thorla shut my hand in the classroom door, on purpose.)

Mrs. Sharpe traditionally assigned seats at the beginning of the school year. You were to sit in one of five rows, lettered A, B, C, D, and . . . F. Hm. Mrs. Sharpe explained that the very best pupils in the class would be in the front seat of each row. If you were at the front of A row, then you helped all the A students who sat behind you. And so on. Down to F row. Being in 5th grade already, we caught on almost immediately. Mrs. Sharpe was very careful to explain that the "front-row person" (that was the official title, we were soon to gather) of the F row deserved our respect because it was very hard to help all the F students.

At this point you probably think I am making this up. I am not. This was 5th grade in Byesville, Ohio, in the 1970s. And it's not like these kids weren't already carrying around emotional and intellectual baggage. On top of the fact that they probably didn't have enough to eat. Or warm enough clothes. Or eyeglasses if they needed them.

To the point where American education had progressed in Appalachia by then, no one questioned the schools about anything. Teachers were the only college-educated members of our community. Usually they were clueless first-year teachers who beat it out of there after a year's experience. But there were also a few lifers like Mrs. Sharpe, who became "pillars of the community." What with being all that and the mayor's wife, Mrs. Sharpe could have eaten a kid for breakfast and no one would say 'Boo.'

Dunce by Shadowland-Dreamer
So no one did say, 'Boo.' This was the classroom arrangement for our whole 5th-grade year, and for years before and after. As a front-row person myself, I was delighted and proud and queasy and ashamed. Christ, I was only in 5th grade. If I can't forget that experience, I wonder how many of Mrs. Sharpe's students can't forget their own version of it. The only thing an adult perspective has added to my understanding is that I don't think Mrs. Sharpe was an evil person. I don't think she wanted to hurt kids, really. At least not as badly as she did. But that kind of thinking doesn't mitigate; it just complicates. There's really nothing redeeming to say about it. It's just a melancholy story from the past, in Appalachia.


  1. I was in Mrs Thorla's 4th grade and Mrs Sharpe's 5th grade from '67 - '69. It was exactly the way the writer stated. But what about the square dancing in phys ed class?

  2. Ha! Well, hello. And thanks for reminding me of the weird square dancing classes!

    Thanks for commenting and for verifying my story. Please come back and let me know who you are, if you will.


  3. I went to Byesville Elementary in the 70's. I loved Mrs. Thorla. I think I had her in 1977 or 78 I've often spoken of her to my own children as one of the best teachers I had in all my time in public schools. Because of her, I learned phonics and got a good foundation in reading.

    I vaguely remember Mrs. Sharpe. I didn't have her though...I had the other 5th grade teacher, I believe Mrs. Frederick was her name. I don't remember much of the 5th grade at Byesville. I had Mrs. Billet and what I remember about her is that she cried...a lot! Once on her way home from school she ran over a chicken. The next morning when our class came in she was at her desk with her head on the desk crying because she had run the chicken over. Another time she cried as she told our class about a tree in her mothers yard that had been her favorite as a child and how it had to be cut down. As a young adult, I thought perhaps that I wasn't remembering Mrs. Billet correctly or that my memory had been skewered somehow but when I mentioned her name to my mom, my mom got an exasperated look on her face and said how she was the cryingest teacher she had ever met and how Mrs. Billet cried all through parent/teacher conferences.

    Anyhow, I found you blog doing a search for Mrs. Thorla. I liked her and my 3rd grade teacher Vicky Veselenak a lot.

    Have a great day!
    Dana (Cooper) Wilson

  4. PS. Mrs. Billet was my 2nd grade teacher. :D