Chester Martin Remembers Skirmishes With School Principals

Friday, October 14, 2016 - by Chester Martin

Yes, I have had a few of those, and they were none too pleasant at best! Looking back (for 70 years or more!) I am willing to concede that I was my own worst enemy in almost every case, and that I was completely in the wrong. Yet there still remain questions in one or more instances. We will get to those in a bit, but at the moment I am itching to tear into a discussion of those ancient Matriarchal and Patriarchal figureheads of our public schools - the principals!

And to call them all "ancient" is no slur, as they all seemed ancient to us at the time - when we were 8 or 10 years old, and they were 40 or 50.

(I am now FAR past their average ages and fully understand what it means to truly BE ancient myself!)

First school principal I had knowledge of was at Anna B. Lacey Grammar School in East Ridge - a County school. (Our city and county school systems used to be separate). Mrs. Ethel Stroud was principal there and ran the place like an army General! She kept all six grades in a straight line, with everything under firm control. Her eagle eye did not miss the slightest deviation, and she even had an incredible fore-knowledge of events...or events about which we students had long since forgotten, or could not anticipate. Like the time when I was in second grade and riding the Brainerd bus home along the lengthy stretch of Anderson Avenue (behind my present home), and several of us kids gleefully started pulling the cord which denoted a desired stop. The bus-driver checked his rear-view mirror of the bus interior and could tell that it was kids playing with the stop-cord. Some adults on the bus tried to make us stop, but it was too much fun, and it went on for several more blocks until we all exited. That incident, forgotten overnight, at school next morning I was immediately summoned – dumbfounded - to the office to account for my misdeeds, and I remember the lame story I gave her. She immediately over-ruled my description of what had happened and was sentenced to some kind of horrible punishment - perhaps having to stay after school for fifteen minutes or so. Her wrath, however, scared me, and I never pulled another bus stop-cord in my life without remembering that incident! I had several other brushes with her authority, but remember that one best. (I also once got in a fight with a boy who later headed a LEADING auto dealership in town – and which is still around, although the boy is not. I lost the fight, to be sure – and was too embarrassed to publicly reveal that secret until now! At any rate, I was BANNED from ever being allowed to carry the room’s soccer ball outside again – a total social disgrace for back then.)

At Sunnyside Grammar School, where I went for 5th and 6th grades, our principal was really an older lady - a Ms. Woodward. I totally forget the grievous offense I did to get called to the office there, but I remember that she became so angry at me she got red in the face and could only sputter her words unintelligibly. Despite this isolated incident I basically remember Ms. Woodward as a sweet and loving lady. Just wish I could remember what I did to make her so angry that time. When my sixth grade class graduated, I asked her to sign her name in my new autograph book, and what she wrote was very kind, with no hint of my earlier transgressions. That little book - and her good wishes for my future - is still here somewhere. Poor lady retired soon after – and died before having a chance to enjoy it.

Oooh! It was what happened the next two years at Brainerd Junior High School that still has me perplexed. Definitely some bad chemistry at work there, folks, and I still think rather quizzically about that brief two year period of time. As an adult, I fully realize that those early teen years can be rough for everyone: the individual teenager, his circle of friends, family, and teachers. But I still have a hard time thinking about the numerous episodes I had with principal V.B! I will not use his name even though he has been deceased since the 1960's - also his wife, who died in the '80's, and they left no children. If you actually went to school there, you will know instantly who V.B. was. I was constantly in his office for one thing or another; I had said the wrong thing to a teacher, or looked cross-eyed at a dog - or some other charge that seemed to materialize from nowhere. Early in 7th grade I had been reported for wearing short pants to school – a no-no in those days - so V.B. and I had a short (but very humiliating for me) in-hall conference about that – in plain view of all who passed! (And plenty did!) Then, it turned out, the school had a state-of-the-art public address system whereby he could listen in on any specific room he wished, or make a public announcement to the entire student body. It was really "high tech" for those days of 1947 and '48! He knew when a particular teacher was out of the room, and would listen in to trap any loud-mouth student and then have them come to the office. No, I was never a loudmouth, but something far, far worse! I HAD BEEN ACCUSED OF SMOKING (ordinary cigarettes) by someone whose name I never learned! (DRUGS were still YEARS in the future at that time). When V.B. confronted me with what brand of cigarettes I smoked I did not even know how to reply! WOW! Back then, folks, smoking was a charge like being accused of big-time drug-dealing on school grounds or worse! I had been "seen" smoking with a friend (whom I knew from church!) in an area just off the ball field behind the school. I was summoned into the office and immediately ushered into his inner sanctum. (This was a new wrinkle, as I had never been called so far inside his office). One whole wall behind his chair - and not visible from any outside location - was covered with paddles of every shape, color and size. Maybe he had a paddle-fetish! I don’t know. Some of them had many tiny holes drilled in them, supposedly to make the instrument speed through the air and deliver a keener swat to the victim! Others were simply ordinary boards with handle-grips, but I was given my choice. I tried to choose one that might not hurt so badly, while at the same time pleasing whatever his own desires might be. I took a while making my selection, and when done, he seemed happy, simply letting me go - very tearfully - but un-paddled - back to class ; tearful mainly because I never understood the charge, and still do not! I think he actually walked me down the hall to the classroom, letting everyone see, and guess, as the door opened momentarily – what might have happened. I was thoroughly humiliated, of course, unable to figure out what had brought that entire incident about. Later, that same principal made a boy sit on a stool all day, just inside the school's main entrance, holding a baby-bottle! The boy's eyes were red and he appeared to be fighting tears. We saw him as we walked past the door between periods. I never knew the student - or what his offense had been, but have often wondered whether the punishment actually fit the crime, and perhaps did more harm than good! Everyone in the school witnessed the event, but no one I knew ever spoke a word about it. But “dropping out”, as a school problem, was still about two decades in the future….

Principal V.B. really liked using that P.A. system! He could listen in, or he could have a conversation with some individual in the room from his distant office. Frequently he would announce fire drills - which he pronounced, "fahr drills", invoking snickers from students who had been taught correct English pronunciation at home. (He probably also bought "tahrs" (tires) for his car!) Years later - long after V.B. had died - my wife worked in the Maps and Surveys department of TVA - sitting at the next drafting table to Mrs. V.B. They became great friends, and I do not think my wife ever mentioned the several scrapes I had with her husband! Nor is there any way to know now if V.B. ever discussed “school matters” with his wife at home. They say Time heals all wounds, but I would still at least like to know who accused me (and my friend) of smoking, as I have never smoked a day in my life - nor has my friend!

Next school principal I knew was Mr. Frank Huffaker at Kirkman Vocational High School. He had the respect of the entire student body and behaved somewhat like a benevolent Army officer who respected his men in return. Mr. Huffaker's wife was THE music teacher at Brainerd Junior High School - a thoroughly beautiful lady - both physically and mentally. She is the person most responsible for my going to Kirkman Vocational HS. I never had any ill dealings with Mr. Huffaker - was never once called to his office for any reason. (A bit gun-shy from my negative experiences with

V.B. at Brainerd Junior HS, I kept expecting such a summons, probably from a slightly guilty conscience, but one never came!)  Unfortunately, Mr. Huffaker died suddenly after my first year at Kirkman and a Drafting teacher, Mr. Robert A. Taylor, replaced him. Huffaker and Taylor were both wonderful men. Robert Taylor was later given a special job as assistant to the City School Superintendent - a post which did not continue after Taylor’s retirement. NOT a principal, but one who officiated virtually as one, was L.B. "Chief" Bender, father of Mrs. Jay Craven. Bender was in charge of a lot of Vocational activities, overseeing selections for the Key Club, etc. He was always jovially admired by his students for driving an ancient Hupmobile car – for which he received many offers to buy. (He finally did sell it to a student, and I forget all details).

Before leaving the subject, I want to mention that a first cousin of mine married John Taylor Leath who was a school principal at the Johnson School at Rome, Georgia, for many years. Always benignly stern and slightly aloof at family gatherings, his daughter Emily reminded me recently of how her father would have handled some of the present situations which arise in our public school systems. All I can say is that John Taylor Leath and Ethel Stroud (see above), would have been the perfect pair for enforcing ZERO TOLERANCE for nonsense of any kind, in any school, anywhere!

Oops…I want to add one more principal to the list, although I never went to his school: Col. Creed Bates. He was a long-time principal at Chattanooga City HS, and a contemporary of my mother’s. They had gone to the old North St. Elmo Grammar School together, and they appear together in at least one class picture. He was a rather large man who was the very picture of a strong principal and kept a firm grip on all school matters. I remember attending an event at the school one evening shortly before he retired. The program consisted of a series of skits put on by the student body, and every one of those skits involved HIM in some way! It was hilarious! One of the heftier, taller boys of the Senior class was dressed and made up to look exactly like him – gray hair and all. Bates must have also worn a particular kind of gray sweater as such a sweater seemed to figure heavily in all the portrayals. The boy had the act down perfectly, mimicking Bates’s gestures and way of standing to a tee. In the act, two students would pretend to be cutting up at center-stage, or eating in the cafeteria while facing the audience. The boy portraying Bates would suddenly appear out of nowhere in each skit, sneaking up on them from behind, or confronting them suddenly face-to-face. The acting must have been extremely good because the audience was kept howling with laughter. THAT was one of the best student performances I have ever seen. Just had to throw that in!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )
Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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