Marion Whitley: Love letter to the Dem School (and student teachers in Navy Blue)


Marion Whitley



I was fresh off my grandfather's farm on Highway 12, broken-hearted at leaving my Caledonia classmates and Miss King. Life didn't end, but changed in unexpected ways when I found myself enrolled at MSCW's Demonstration School. Afternoons, instead of going home via bus over familiar graveled roads, I fairly sailed home over city sidewalks humming snatches of "Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder," or "Waltzing Matilda." (There was a war on, see, but time, too, for learning folk songs from around the world.) My head swiveled as I tried to take in all that was new and different in my life. 


The Dem School had the usual desks, chairs and chalk boards, of course, along with Miss Ferrill to teach and guide us, but, topping the list of "new and different" was a band of other-world beings that blew this country child's mind: "student teachers"! In occasional trips to town, "College Girls" had been pointed out to me along College Street or shopping in Egger's or Woolworth's. You knew them by their head-to-toe Navy blue clothes, no matter the season, but now, in my new sixth grade classroom, they were 'up close' and real, with pretty hair and ready smiles. And we had something in common; they were learning to teach while we were learning to learn!  


They came from all over Mississippi and Alabama, of course, even as far as Arkansas. On first meeting, they'd show us their hometowns on the map and challenge us to spell odd names such as Tuscumbia or Talladega or Tishomingo. Besides widening our geographical scope, they utilized the latest modern teaching methods, one of which was "Visual Aids." Sets of flash cards were over a "distant horizon" so clippings from MCCALLS and SATURDAY EVENING POST often appeared in our language arts lessons. (It was forbidden, of course, to clip from NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.) 


One week soon after I arrived, Miss Jill, (Tupelo, I think, with curly brown hair), was guiding us through a list of spelling/vocabulary words beginning with 'L', two of which may have seeped into my DNA. One was "license." She introduced the word with the cut-out ad for a shiny new car glued to a SX7 index card. Several "citified, well-off" hands went up for permission to use the new word in a sentence such as, "My father needs a license to drive our brand new Buick!" 


We had no car, new or old, but my right hand was itching to participate, so I raised it and added, "My father needs a license to shoot squirrels." Silence fell. A few heads turned slowly 'round toward new-girl me, ('cause the only squirrels they knew lived in Lee Park and were "cute and frisky.") Miss Jill covered the awkward moment with something like, "Well yes, that's probably true." But! On-the-job Miss Ferrill, rapped her desk with the pointer and pronounced, "And I need a license to teach Sixth Grade in the Demonstration School." Suddenly, I felt I was IN, and ready for Miss Jill's next word. 


The picture she showed us, however, held more visual confusion than aid, but it's the one most memorable. Glued to the index card was the picture of -- a woman's hand holding a serving spoon overflowing with bright green English peas (A Del Monte ad from MCCALLS.) Tentative hands twitched as we searched for an 'L' word that fit the picture. Somebody behind me whispered, "I like peas a lot?" and got a "Tsk tsk" look from Miss Ferrill. But, seeing a disconnect between the picture and the word in question, she wisely nodded a signal to Miss Jill to move ahead, to reveal and define the sought-for word which was "liberal." 


Miss Jill, bless her heart, must have searched every mutilated magazine in her dormitory for a pictograph for "liberal," while tearing her pretty brown hair at the oddly abstract adjective that popped up in that sixth grade curriculum. Hard as she'd tried, the persistent jiggling of the green peas ad failed to light up our blank faces, so she pronounced with unexpected emphasis, "It's "LIBERAL!" and whirled 'round to the board and wrote "LIBERAL = PLENTY, ENOUGH" in capital letters and with a force that left chalk shards on the floor. Then she made her own sentence, not trusting or asking for a volunteer. "Everybody got a liberal serving of peas!" 


Understandably, our collective "Oh" lacked the enthusiastic "A ha!" she'd hoped for. "Liberal" was a sneaky adjective that needed a noun to lean on, like her serving. But I liked the sound of it. It was right up there with "goodly amount," but not so biblical. I set about playing with it ... "Everybody got a liberal slice of cake. Not skimpy." Our liberal garden grew peas enough for everybody ... (Uh uh, that sounded "off," but grammatical niceties would self-correct with usage and time.) And years on, when "liberal" took on political connotations, the image of Miss Jill, still in Navy blue, would pop up with the Del Monte ad to say "Liberal means Plenty. Enough for everybody." What need for update or revision? 


I don't remember the other 'L' words or names of those tall, pretty, short, cute, blonds or brunettes; those awe-inspiring College Girls striding across the Dem School playground in their sweaters and skirts of Navy blue. Chances are, after gaining teaching certification, they packed up every last thread of Navy and headed home to closets of rainbow colors in Biloxi and Starkville, Macon and Natchez, Holly Springs, Canton and beyond. Then, colorfully clad and duly licensed, they stepped confidently into careers motivating sixth graders, liberal or otherwise, to learn, as they'd been trained to do at the Demonstration School. 


P.S. That may have been the last year W students were mandated to wear Navy blue. Years later, as a "College Girl" myself (wearing whatever "Mr. Singer" and Simplicity Patterns could put together), I realized none of my classmates seemed aware of that era in 'W' history. I've heard, however, that at graduation, seniors still sing "Hail to Thee", and in its last line: "Here's to our uniform of blue". 


Marion Whitley, who grew up in Caledonia and Columbus, lives in Manhattan where she reads, writes and remembers. Her email address is [email protected]



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