The elementary school in which I received my first through sixth grade learning was a long, straight brick building with cement steps, an auditorium with heavy, red velvet drapes, a tiny library guarded by a grumpy gray-headed spinster and a cafeteria that was in the basement down a flight of creaky wooden steps.
For afternoon recess, we would clomp down the stairs, step up on a wooden stool that lifted us to a small square window and choose an ice cream — either an orange creamsicle, a chocolate fudgesicle, an ice cream sandwich or a Nutty Buddy. Clyde, the school’s janitor, ran the ice cream concession so we would hand him a quarter and receive, in return, the delicious prize. It even made an hour of math worthwhile.
The school had been built in the early 1930s and was built solidly to last. It did, in fact, survive two mighty tornadoes but about 50 years after it was built, some government officials somewhere decided to tear it down. Before bulldozers arrived, I went back to visit and wrote an article on my school memories in my first reporter’s job for a local weekly newspaper.
In a little mountain hamlet called Suches, the place in the far North Georgia mountains where the Appalachian trail begins, the identical school building exists today and houses not just six grades but first through 12. It’s just like Walton’s Mountain. Several years back, someone tried to shut that school down with the intention of busing kids daily more than 12 miles through dangerously narrow, snaking roads to the larger town of Dahlonega. He was probably kin to the somebody who decided it was a fine idea to tear down my elementary school. Just in the nick of time, another someone discovered that it was illegal to close it because students have to be within a certain number of miles of their school.
I spoke at the graduation service for Woody’s Gap a few years ago and loved how the small gym was filled with mountain people, many of them kin to me, who used phrases like "hit’s a fur piece down the road." I never tire of hearing the musical mountain language of my people. Former governor and U.S. senator Zell Miller told me, with a big smile because he, too, is of the mountains born and raised, that he had spoken to the graduation class there once.
"I did, too," I said. "There were nine graduates in the class."
He squared his shoulders and smiled triumphantly, knowing he’d won. "Mine had seven."
I don’t know exactly what it was - it’s odd how things long forgotten will spring forth in memory with such vigor - but I started thinking about Clyde the janitor. He was probably somewhere in his 30s, an average size man with jet black hair slicked neatly back, small black eyes, a deep olive complexion, very white straight teeth that glistened against his skin and, setting firmly on his straight, strong nose was a pair of large, black-rimmed glasses. It is remarkable that I remember clearly his daily uniform of dark, perfectly pressed khakis, a plaid shirt and heavy black boots that laced up to his ankles.
Clyde was also hump-backed which made him a familiar sight whenever he was spotted at the end of the hall, sweeping or oiling the pine floors or pushing his mop bucket around the cafeteria. We country kids, all raised in humble circumstances, never thought once of mocking Clyde or treating him disrespectfully. I always said hello but I never heard him utter a word. He only nodded.
Though I thought of it not once back then, I now wonder what kind of life that Clyde lived and if he was content until the end of it. And, more than anything, I wish I had used one of my quarters to buy him an ice cream cone.
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