It was a crisp fall day in November 2014 when Ms. Bessie Pearly excitedly recounted her experiences as a student at the Historic Russell School. Bessie told me she attended Russell School from 1939 to 1945, beginning at age six and continuing there until sixth grade.
Ms. Pearly eagerly recalled her first day at school. She said her mother had dressed her in a brand new white dress which "had big red apples on it." "We didn't dress like that every day," she noted later, “but the first day of school was a special occasion.” After being at the school for a few hours, Bessie "ran away and went back home," telling me, "I got tired of sitting there." Bessie lived just behind the school. "My mother met me at the door," Bessie recounted. Her mother asked, "Well, what are you doing home?"
Bessie told her, "The teacher let me come home." It wasn't long before Bessie's older brother came looking for her – her sister and two brothers also attended the Russell School. After a short discussion with Bessie's brother, Bessie's mother learned that Bessie had not actually been allowed to come home by her teacher. Bessie finished her story by telling me that, "Mom made me go back to the school," where, it turned out, Bessie ended up creating many fond memories.
Some of her memories included stories about Ms. Walker, the kitchen lady, who Bessie said "made the best dessert.” She also talked about the nurse who would come to the school to give the children shots. Laughingly, she told me that when the children saw the nurse, “We would all start to cry because we knew we were going to get shots.”
Bessie recounted the daily schedule at the school. The boys would arrive several hours early in order to start the wood-burning stoves, so the school would be warm by 8 a.m. when class started. Recesses, one at 10 a.m. and another at noon, were filled with activities such as "Hide-and-Seek, Hop-Scotch, and Ring-Around-the-Rosie." The children of the school had their snacks, lunch, and recesses in the front yard of the school.
Bessie enthusiastically told me about how the whole community came together to run Russell School, and that even the children helped. The girls "cleaned the chalk-boards and desks" and the boys "helped with mopping." Women such as Annie Mack, who she often spoke of in our conversation, helped the teachers at the school. The women from the community watched and guided the kids, and "Annie Mack even sewed clothes for the children." Bessie also recalled that when the weather was poor, people from the community would open their homes to the school's teachers, giving them a place to stay.
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