Voice of the people: Marion Whitley




Memories of Dem School 


Not sure how, to whom, I should address this. In the past I'd have written "Dear Birney," but he has yielded. Still, I'm responding to a fairly recent column of his in which he paid tribute to one of his teachers, Mrs. Brandon, at the "Dem School." That touched a potent memory 'cause I, too, am a Dem School alum aware of nurturing teachers and life lessons learned there. 


I had barely one year, sixth grade with Miss Virginia Mae Ferrill. (She was Birney's teacher too, but long years after I'd gone on to Lee High.) I was twelve, fresh-from-a-farm on Highway 12. Caledonia had one of the state's finest schools. I'd loved every day there so moving to Columbus that October was stepping into an unknown, without the friends and teachers who were my world. The "farewell letter" I wrote to Miss King and my sixth grade classmates was sincere if "a bit over the top." 


The day my mother enrolled us (my sister in Mrs. Brandon's fourth grade and me in Miss Ferrill's sixth), I awoke from despair to a daily unfolding of new experiences. I could walk to school, to and fro singing "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder." (Miss Holf taught us the marching songs of the all the Armed Forces which we sang with patriotic fervor), and folk songs from nations I'd never heard of. We had Art Day with long sheets of 'newsprint' for exploring crayon, chalk and water colors. And! Student teachers! (They were prettier and younger than "teacher" teachers, and there was a bond ... they were "learning to teach" as we were "learning to learn.") They came from towns in Mississippi I'd never heard of. And there was Library Day. 


Miss Ferrill's students lived "in town" and had cut their teeth on Library Day. I doubt she'd met a student from "rural America" and I'd never met a library. I sat decorously at the table and figured out all I could by watching my classmates hunker down by shelves of books, leaf through them till ... it seemed ... they found the book to show the lady at a teacher desk. I didn't know why. You can learn a lot by sitting and watching, and that's as far as I'd got that day till we'd lined up to leave. I saw then that everybody in line was holding a book, everybody but me. 


Miss Ferrill was at the door. As each student approached, she took the book handed up to her, flipped the cover, nodded approval, and turned to next in line. I was learning: A book in hand was your ticket out the door, and felt the burden of the only empty hand in the line. 


My turn. Miss Ferrill reached for a book I didn't have. She seemed mildly shocked, whispered, "Oh, but you must!" till realizing I simply didn't know the drill. She placed me beside her till the last of the line had gone. A teachable moment was at hand. 


But she didn't make a fuss ... just guided me to shelves on the north wall, reading off a title here and there, pointing to category headings, for sports, for fairy tales, for early America. She said I was to think about it so next time I could choose any book to check out to read at home. "But how about this one for today?" 


When I'd nodded my uncertain but willing consent to a book with a dark red cover, she introduced me to Miss Gatchel who penciled in a date, smiled and patted my shoulder like I was a new convert to "libraryis." ("Librarian," "check out" and "category" were added to my vocabulary.) 


On my report card for that marking period, Miss Ferrill wrote a note to "Parent or Guardian": "A joy to teach! Read a library book every week if possible, at least every two weeks." (I still have that report card with her continued encouraging words as the year wore on. Under hers are my mother's familiar signatures.) 


Marion Whitley 


New York City



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