When Bennie lost his mom in March 1949, he was to be raised by his grandparents in Smackover, AR. (They proudly proclaim they possess the only “center of the road” traffic light in Arkansas.) The very next month Grandmother Harrell decided it was time for him to start school. Young Bennie thought that since there were only 6 weeks left in the school year he should just wait until the next school year. But, much to his dismay, Grandmother insisted and off to school it was, the very next day, in the Smackover, AR Independent School District.
Here is Bennie’s recollection of that fateful day:
At that time, and for most of my childhood time living with Granddaddy and Grandmother Harrell, we did not have a car. We either walked or got a ride with a neighbor to go anywhere. Of course, we had a saddle horse and a mule drawn wagon, but seldom used either for travel.
Grandmother walked with me to the main road (about three tenths mile) to catch the school bus. Since we did not know the exact bus schedule, we were waiting for the bus a 6:30 am.
The bus came sliding to a stop on the gravel road at about 7:15 am. Mr. Pyle, the local bootlegger (beverage connoisseur would be politically correct today) and bus driver, was known for his accelerate/brake method of driving – and he really was not expecting to make a stop at this particular location. Although there were other children at the same location to catch a bus to school, they – being of another color – rode a different bus.
I really had no problem riding the bus by myself to school since I had ridden the city bus to school in Port Arthur, Texas prior to moving to Arkansas. Grandmother had written a note the night before and pinned it to my shirt before we left the house to walk to the bus stop. Grandmother told me to be sure to bring the safety pin back home! I assume Grandmother thought I would lose the note if it was not securely attached to me. She saw no need wasting time accompanying me to school on the first day. Besides, she had to cook dinner (now called lunch) on a wood burning stove for Granddaddy and the field workers as well as working in the field all afternoon and cooking supper (now called dinner). She was quite a woman!
Grandmother had told me to go to the principal’s office when I got off the bus. Since she did not specifically tell me to go directly to the principal’s office immediately after getting off the bus, I spent a little time along the way getting acquainted with all the new surroundings – it only took about a half hour.
Unfortunately for me, and the principal, I had many visits to the principal’s office in future days at school. Most of my visits to the principal’s office were with my best friend, Max Willett. Max was always getting me in trouble.
I walked into the outer area of the principal’s office and announced to the first person I saw, “My name is Bennie Daniels from Lisbon and I was sent here by my Grandmother to go to school.” I wanted the person to know being there was not my idea or choice. The lady asked me: “Where is your Grandmother?” Answer: “Home, cooking.”
Then the lady told me to follow her and took me into Mrs. Bruce’s office. Mrs. Bruce was the head warden – at least that was how I felt about the situation.
As soon as I saw Mrs. Bruce, I said “My name is Bennie Daniels and I was sent here by my Grandmother to go to school.”
Mrs. Bruce saw the note pinned to my shirt. Why, I do not know, but Mrs. Bruce read the note out loud. Paraphrasing, the note read: “Bennie Daniels is my grandson. His mother died last month. He moved here from Texas. He is in the second grade.” The note was signed Elsie Harrell. Straight and to the point; Grandmother did not waste words. The principal asked me several questions which were mostly answered with “No” or “I don’t know”. After a series of useless exchanges, Mrs. Bruce just gave me a form with instructions to ask my Grandmother to complete the form and bring it back the next day. I don’t ever remember bringing the form back to school. This stuff seemed to be so useless. After all, I was there to go to school and had already told them my name and what grade I was in.
After what I assume was necessary paper work was completed, I was taken to Mrs. Jackson’s second grade room – poor Mrs. Jackson. Really – she was as skinny as a rail and looked six feet tall. Mrs. Jackson introduced me to the class and told the other kids I was from Texas, to the blank look on every face.
The kids had probably never heard of Texas and probably thought it was a foreign country. Mrs. Jackson gave me some supplies and sat me in a desk at the back of the room, which quickly proved to be a major error in judgment on her part. I was soon moved to the front of the class; I do not think the move was a promotion.
Soon it was lunch time; thank goodness! Grandmother had given me a quarter to buy lunch the first day. Did I ever light up when I learned that lunch was only 15 cents. Ten cents a day profit times five days a week would be 50 cents a week. I was going to be wealthy at a very young age. My dream didn’t last long at all. The evening of the first school day, Grandmother asked me how much lunch cost. I told her 15 cents; didn’t know Grandmother well enough to know how smart she was and if I could get by with quoting a higher price. It really didn’t matter however, since she said 15 cents was too much to pay for lunch. That is when the brown bag lunch began for the remainder of the year. Believe me, it was not a Sonic Brown Bag Lunch Special. I had a great variety. One day I would have a hard fried egg with a biscuit. The next day I would have a biscuit with a hard fried egg. Some days there would be a piece of fried dry salt meat in the bag.
Somehow I made it through the first day, got on the correct bus and arrived home about 4:30 pm. I found a few distractions while walking from the bus stop to the house. My initial thought about school after the first day was “This going to school was going to be a real bother.” When was I going to have time to do all the neat things on the farm like fishing, playing in the hay loft, riding the horse, building tree houses, running through the woods with the dogs, wading in the creek (no swimming), cow patty fights with the tenant farmers’ kids, etc., etc., etc?
I think Bennie finally caught the gist of the school thing – he majored in Statistics (boring!) in college.