When I started school at Bennett's Branch, my cousin, Vondie, and I were the only students in first grade. It was great because we were the older girls' pets. They drew and cut out paper dolls for us and let us sit with them when they weren't getting their lessons. By that time, Mr. Sasser taught all eight grades by himself. Each grade sat in its own row, and he took turns with each row, teaching us the Three R's and other things.
There was no running water, but we had a well. A table just inside the door of the schoolroom held a water bucket and a communal dipper. One of our pet projects between lessons was constructing drinking cups out of our notebook paper. The school proper was only one room, but we had a separate cloak room that was like a long narrow closet where we hung our coats and stored our lunch boxes until dinnertime. Out back, at the edge of the woods, stood the outhouse. During warm weather, we played outdoors during recess. But during the winter, it was sometimes too cold or nasty to go outside. On those days, Mr. Sasser would go out and cut a long branch from a tree and we'd line up and make a game of jumping over it inside the schoolhouse. When mine and my cousin's turn came, Mr. Sasser always lowered the branch so we could jump over and stay in the game with the bigger kids. Another favorite pass time was standing around the pot belly stove and holding our Moon Pies up to the heat so the icing would melt and we could lick it off. Could you imagine kids these days being entertained by something like that!
Mr. Sasser passed away not long after I moved back home, but here's an article I found about him that appeared in the local paper back in 1984.
Sentinel Echo Newspaper
August 23, 1984
HE STARTED TEACHING IN 1938, WHEN TEACHERS RODE TO SCHOOL ON HORSEBACK
By Karen House-Combs
~~~~~Tollie Sasser retired from the teaching profession 10 years ago, but when he began teaching in 1938 he rode seven miles to and from school on horseback and had 48 students in an eight-grade one room building. "I told them that there was only one way to handle students, and a girl in the eighth grade who was going to Berea said, 'no Mr. Sasser, there's 48 ways.'""That was my first year," he said, "and I hadn't learned that yet, but I remembered that little girl's advice." Sasser talked about his more than 30 years in the Laurel County school system during an interview Monday afternoon. A graduate of Sue Bennett and Union College, he began teaching at at school in Knox County, located seven miles from his home in the Blackwater community for a salary of $61.90 a month. The next year he was transferred to Blackwater and then to Darrell Jones. Sasser left his third school in as many years for a position at Bennett's Branch in 1941. The school was first opened in 1935 in a one-room log house, with George Sasser as the teacher. A rock school house was built later with the lower eight grades in one room and the upper grades in the other. Sasser said teaching in such a small school and having the same students over several years, enabled teachers to play a larger role in their students' lives than they do today. "I fed them, bought them lunch, sent them to the store to buy overshoes," he said, "and even sent them to the doctor and told them to bill me if they couldn't pay for it. They always managed to sometime pay me back later on." Margie Gray, who lives near Sasser in Blackwater, said she attended Bennett's Branch from her first year of school through the eighth grade. "When you have a student that long," Sasser said, "it's something to take one and wonder if you're teaching them right." Gray said their teacher also played games with the students on Friday afternoon, such as spelling matches and adding races, as well as playing with them at recess. Sasser said the one and two-room schools in the small communities were not closed for snow days like the larger schools today, because the students lived nearby. He said students also began attending classes at an earlier age."One little girl started coming to school when she was three years old," he said, "because her mother had died and there wasn't anyone at home to babysit." Sasser said students in the small schools were also required to cover as much academic material as they do today. "The books were just as thick at a one-room school," he said, "as they are today, and you were expected to get finished with it by the end of the year." He said teachers also kept the same records as they do today, for each class. One Bennett's Branch student, Bobby Ray Cheek, told Sasser that having several classes in one room was an advantage. "If I didn't get it one year," he said about his lessons, "I got to hear him explain it the next." Sasser said each class was taught a 15-minute lesson while the other classes were working on assignments, and since several grades were in one room, students heard lessons from year to year. The lower grades in a two-room school were divided into primer, first, second and third graders. The upper grades were divided in alternating years, into either fourth, fifth and seventh grades or fourth, sixth and eighth grades. Sasser said if a student was supposed to go into the fifth grade, but it was the year to teach the sixth grade, he became a sixth grade student and was allowed to skip the fifth grade. "That was done all over the county," he said, "that's the way they worked it."Sasser said although the schools were small, they weren't lacking academically. His eighth grade students went to Bush one year to be tested with the larger school's eighth graders. The students were tested on four subject areas, and he said Bush Principal Frank Bentley told him his students beat the Bush students in three out of four subjects. Sasser said some of his students later became teachers and some preachers, but whatever they became, he said, after spending all those years with him, it always felt like "they were yours." The article tells the story, doesn't it. Here's a picture of the school taken in recent years that shows the front view, after it was long abandoned and fallen into disrepair. That's me standing in the doorway.
The story ends on a happy note however. Not long after this last picture was taken, one of Mr. Sasser's relatives (who now owns the property) restored the old schoolhouse. It now has a new roof, floor, and windows. And each year, the surviving students of Bennett's Branch School hold a reunion in the old building. My mom and her remaining siblings usually try to make it to that. Me, I don't go. I'd rather remember the old school as it was when I started that first day, when Vondie and I sat down on the stone steps outside and cried and refused to go inside.