Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


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Memories of School

At this time of year, when the school year is beginning, my thoughts turn to memories of my own school days, beginning with kindergarten when we lived in Lake Charles. 

At that time, kindergartens were held in private homes; usually a retired teacher offered classes from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. My mother enrolled me in one such kindergarten.  After the first day, she came to walk me home and asked how I liked it. 

I replied that it was ‘quite the silliest place I’d ever been’.  A boy was playing the piano and everyone pretended he played real music, not just a mishmash of keys.  To add insult to injury, the teacher wanted to teach us how to tell time. She had us lie on the floor in a circle, each representing one time on the clock, while two students stood in the middle representing the two hands.  The teacher would call out a time, and the “hands” would move appropriately. 

“There was a perfectly good clock on the wall,” I said.

“Do you want to go back?”

“No.”

And I didn’t.

I began elementary school in Lake Charles whose school system required students to be six by June 30th in order to start school the following fall.  I wasn’t six until October 26th, however they would allow students who were not eligible in June to enter the following January. And so I did. 

This was all well and good until we moved to Baton Rouge the next April.  I entered first grade at Bernard Terrace, then the newest elementary school. I could only print up to the letter H, but my classmates could not only print, but they could write in script. I had no idea this deficit would threaten my promotion to second grade until I heard my mother and our principal, Mrs. Daniels, talking in the hall. Mrs. Daniels was telling my mother that I was well qualified for second grade, but could not be promoted unless I learned to write in script. (It took many years for the penny to drop that Mrs. Daniels meant for me to hear this.)  At any rate, I spent every spare minute learning to write script and was promoted to second grade.

However, the haste which I toiled has resulted in handwriting that can vary from excellent to adequate to poor. For many years friends have told me that when they received a note or letter addressed in what looked like the handwriting of a third grade boy, they knew I had to be the writer.

When we moved to Lafayette at the end of my fifth grade year, a friendless summer stretched ahead of me. Fortunately one of my parent’s friends with a daughter my age had also moved to Lafayette only blocks away. We both had large collections of movie star paper dolls and spent the hottest part of the days dressing them and making up lives.

Friends told my parents that they should enroll my sister Kathryn and me at Mount Carmel, and my brother at Cathedral School, which they did. I knew nothing about Lafayette. My ideas about its culture were based on a book titled “Bayou Suzette” which my father had given me. Suzette and a Native American friend went barefoot, fished off the bank of the bayou, picked wild blackberries, killed snakes, and lived in a small house with a long pier to the bayou.  Their English was a patois that I had to learn to understand. Still, it was a fascinating book, introducing me to a way of life as opposite from mine as possible.

My first day at Mount Carmel, I braced myself for a classroom filled with girls like Suzette, and wondered how I would be accepted.  This assumption was blown to bits that day in the principal’s office.  Mother Dolores had arranged for a girl in my new class, Mary Alice Blanchet, to come take me to the classroom. When Mary Alice walked into the room, she was one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen with long black curls and fair skin. She was wearing an exquisite dress with embroidery around the neck and sleeves and a blue silk sash around her waist and black patent Mary Janes with white stockings.

As we walked to the sixth grade classroom, I banished all thoughts of there being a room full of Suzettes; instead, there was a class of normal looking girls, all of whom welcomed me.   Not only did they welcome me, but the second week of school, in an election for class officers, I was elected president, though there were two other girls they could have chosen.  

Some years later, I asked my best friend Gale Dugal why they had done such a thing. 

“Well, Dubus, (she always called me Dubus) we could see you were different, but we didn’t know if you were good different or bad different, so we decided to elect you president to find out.”

“But what if I’d messed up?” 

“You didn’t.”

I still marvel at the wisdom those sixth grade girls showed, and I am still grateful for their trust.  Our class small class of only twenty-three girls stayed together all the way to graduation.  My memories of those seven years are among the happiest of my life.

In the flood of 2016, I lost my only yearbook from Mount Carmel.  It was the school’s first yearbook, created in my  senior year of which I was editor.  With that loss, I felt that I had lost many of the classmates I loved.


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Summer is the Time for Books

​Since I was in elementary school, I have equated summer with books because in summer one can read what one wishes, a luxury to be thoroughly enjoyed. Even now, years out of school, summer still gives optimal opportunities for reading. The long hours of daylight allow daily routines and tasks to be dealt with early leaving plenty of time to read.  Read in a hammock or on a screened porch with an overhead fan or inside near a window that looks out on birds, butterflies, and dragonflies combining the gifts of Mother Nature with the gifts that  books are.

At bedtime during the school months, my mother read to me, my older sister and my younger brother.  In summertime she also read to us at naptime. As the rhythm of her voice and the slow whirl of a ceiling fan blended, sleep came easily.  Later at bedtime, we would hear the parts of the story we missed by drowsing off.

My parents were both great readers as were other members of our family. Katherine Anne Porter’s comment about Eudora Welty  – that she came from a family whose members all read the same books so that when they visited each other they didn’t have to take their current book because they would find it on their hosts’ library shelves –  reminded of my family who also read the same books. My maternal grandfather, William James Burke, had a personal library so extensive that it served as a sort of public library in New Iberia until the city built one.

One of my most pleasurable memories of reading is of sitting in a seat formed by the meeting of three large sycamore branches – shielded from the sun, and high enough to catch a passing breeze. My father tied a ladder securely to the branches so I could reach the seat. If there were any place more conducive to peaceful reading, I don’t know it.

We lived in Baton Rouge from 1940 until 1943 where my brother and I went to Bernard Terrace, the newest school in the city. Our sister went to Baton Rouge Junior High so we braved our new school together. The principal, Mrs. Daniels, is still one of my models of effectively educating children. She recruited superb teachers – one of whom was Miss Causey who taught geography with such thoroughness and creativity that I still remember many of her classes.

Mrs. Daniels considered reading and math the foundations for all learning, devising ways to make them interesting to us. One semester, she chose the best readers in each class to pick a book to review at a school assembly and, if possible, to wear a costume the main character would have worn.

I chose to review BETSY AND TACY, the first book in what would become a popular series written by Maud Hart Lovelace. Set in Minnesota in the late 1800’s, the imaginative and spunky Betsy caught my attention because she had two qualities that I wished to have. My mother made me a costume copied from an illustration in the book. Until I outgrew it, I called it my “reading dress.”

I hardly need mention that Louisa Mae Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN, and the following books in the series, were required reading.  Not by a teacher but by the fact that just about every girl I knew had read them, and discussing the various characters and their choices could occupy hours.

A series by Annie Fellows Johnston followed the life of Lloyd Sherman beginning when she was five and stood up to her formidable grandfather through to her wedding to the boy next door.  Starting with the first book, THE LITTLE COLONEL, they are set in the fictional town of Lloydsborough Valley, KY (based on Peewee Valley, KY, the author’s home) and reflect the manners of mores of the late 1800’s-early 1900’s. When my daughter Aimee worked at the ACTORS’ THEATRE in Louisville, we visited many of the homes which still existed that had been featured in the books.

Such innocent books were all based on an ethical code to be upheld at all costs – drawing a line between what was right and what was wrong. In my view, this country desperately needs reminders that if one doesn’t have an ethical code – consisting on one hand of those things you would always do, no matter what, and on the other those things you would never do, no matter what – then one will soon make decisions based on less noble reasons.

I think watching a video is nowhere near as effective as reading a book. The brain has only the time of the video image to process the intent and meaning; however by reading passages of books repeatedly one can processes them.

One of the most significant days in my daughters’ lives was the day they could get their own library card – an opening to a boundless world, a magic carpet that could take them anywhere, and into any time. I think any avid reader sees their library card the same way.

My second husband, Dick Baldridge, was a great reader. He credited his aunt, a librarian in Alexandria, with introducing him to books. I went with him to her funeral and was moved to tears by the memories he and her remaining friends shared. I like to read aloud, Dick loved it. I was reading THE THREE MUSKETEERS in the weeks before he died, a book we both thoroughly enjoyed. Those hours together with the companionship of a favorite book are some of my happiest memories of our time together – another gift from books.

One can hold a book in one’s hand and open it to passages that take one back to significant moments in one’s life – no video can do that.