Tennessee Mountain Stories


I am always amazed at how quickly the weeks and month speed by me.  Well now it’s graduation season again!  I have already received three invitation (all for the same day at different schools of course!) for my cousins’ children and I’m so proud of them for reaching this milestone.

But it’s really a modern milestone for our region, isn’t it?

A couple of years ago I introduced you to Mr. Elbert Hall who overcame a lot of obstacles in order to earn his high school diploma.  In fact this man, as did most others  of his pre-WW2 generation, had to earn a lot more than the grades to finish high school.  

Most recently we’ve talked about Clyde Whittaker who graduated from Monterey School in 1943 and was probably the first in his family who could claim this accomplishment.

None of my grandparents finished high school.  Of their combined37 siblings, only 3 finished high school.  Over the years I’ve asked the family why they didn’t go to school and the answers varied.  For some it was all about money – either not having enough to buy books and such, or needing to earn money for the family.  Many, many male relatives went to work either in the fields or mines at a very young age.  Then there was a matter of location.  I don’t want to minimize Clyde’s accomplishments, but he did live within walking distance of the Monterey School.  His aunts and uncles growing up in Martha Washington didn’t have the same advantage.  Still, we know that where there’s a will there’s a way and as we talked about here, the whole community worked together to keep their high school and therefore many families took in student-boarders who didn’t live close enough to get to school everyday.

When I was in high school in the 1980’s I boarded a bus at the end of my driveway.  My books were provided by the state and while my parents didn’t promote idleness, neither did they expect me to leave school to contribute to the family budget.  Yet with all of that convenience the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the rate of graduation in 1980 was just 74% and in 1995 it was down to 71%.  In fact, they report that the percentages have been generally declining since the 1960’s. 

Do you suppose that my generation and those that followed me did not hear stories like Elbert Hall’s or Clyde Whittaker’s and therefore couldn’t really appreciate the blessing and privilege of compulsory state-funded education?  Winston Churchill predicted, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” 

So as you watch a sea of mortarboards stream toward a stage laden with diplomas in the next few weeks, remember the hard fought victories for education and literacy.  Say a prayer of thanks for your own diploma or GED.  And even if you have neither, you can read – you just read this!