Athens from a Distance
Not Necessarily Connected: Town, Country and Other Distinctions
by Linda Hill Mann
I lived about half way between Princeton and Athens, just a short distance from the dividing line that determined where I would go to school. My oldest sister graduated from Princeton High School, the rest of us from Athens. I spent the first three years of my education at Concord Training School which was later renamed Athens Elementary School.
When I was in third grade Melrose Elementary School was built by Mercer County. Lannie Carter, Ray Austin and I were transferred to that school for our 4th, 5th and 6th grades. I was so extremely shy, almost painfully so, but all during 6th grade several other students and I were allowed to give plays almost weekly. I was never in class but spent the day learning my lines, practicing my part or actually presenting the plays to the entire school on Friday afternoon. I can only guess that I was able to do that because it wasn’t me up there on that stage, but I was the actual character that I was playing at that time. I don’t remember any of the plays but I do know that the 6th grade was one of fun and play.
Lannie tried to guide me that whole year. He kept telling me I needed to go to class. He asked how I was going to make it in 7th grade if I did not learn anything. Lannie and Ray were the only school friends I was with through all 12 years of school. I always looked up to Lannie, thought he was the greatest person in the world, but even he could not keep me off that stage. This is to you Lannie. If you ever find and read this I want you to know how very much you were thought of all through school and how everyone who knew you looked up to you. You were one of the smartest students in school but you never held that over anyone’s head or made any of us feel inferior in any way.
I never really formed any attachment to Athens High School or the town of Athens. It was just where I was bused to each morning and bused home each afternoon. I did walk to a little store on the corner and spent 25 cents each day (can you believe a hot school lunch was only a quarter?) for a pop and a bag of chips. Of course, now it is called soda or soft drink. Here in Roanoke no one knows what a bottle of pop is.
For the longest time my mom thought I was actually eating a hot lunch from school each day. One day my older brother, John, threatened to tell mom that I wasn’t eating at school. I worried and worried about that and finally worked up enough nerve to tell her myself so he couldn’t keep tormenting me with it. All mom said was, “That’s alright honey.” I don’t remember but I hope I stuck my tongue out at John as I passed by him.
When I was young I lived in the country far from the town of Athens. I didn't go many places and usually walked wherever I did go. The distance from home to Athens seemed like a long way, but I drove it not long ago and realized it was no distance at all. Since I lived in the country and had no transportation I was not involved in any school activities. My parents didn’t believe in dancing so I didn’t go to sock hops and I didn’t attend any ball games or other school activities. School was just a place to go to in the morning to learn and go home from in the afternoon and Athens just happened to be the town where the school was located.
I speak for myself and wouldn’t presume to speak for the other students, but I always felt there were two sets of students in Athens High, the “townies” and the rest of us. I felt like the students in town were from families with more money, could dress better than the rest of us and they were chosen for more honors than the ones who lived outside the town. I thought, probably incorrectly, that all students from town were from white collar families whose parents were doctors, lawyers, teachers, or Concord College professors and the rest of us were from blue collar families. It was always the haves against the have-nots. I never really felt that comfortable at Athens High so my shyness was much more pronounced there than when I was somewhere else.
The one activity that I was able to participate in was choir and I absolutely loved that. I enjoyed going to Bluefield once each year on a Friday and Saturday to practice with students from all over Mercer County and to holding the concert on Sunday with all of them. I thought I was one of the best singers in the world. Boy you should hear me now, cats serenading from the fence top would sound better than my singing.
Reading this you would think I had a very underprivileged childhood, not being able to participate in any school activities, not even the prom. You could not be further from the truth. I had a great childhood and I give all credit for that to my parents and the pastor of our church. I attended a small church outside Princeton called Johnson’s Chapel Church. If you are familiar with Princeton churches you are probably laughing at my description of Johnson’s Chapel as small; it is probably one of the larger churches in the area now, but when I attended, it was very small. Sometimes on Wednesday night there would only be the pastor’s family, Mr. Wade’s family and my family there for the service. We still had bible study no matter how many people were there.
Our Pastor, Preacher Jimmy Jones - no not that Jim Jones - loved his kids as he called us. He not only loved his own sons and daughter but all the young people in the church. He always said if teenagers were going to get in trouble it would probably be on a Friday or Saturday night so he tried to have something for us just about every weekend. We had pizza parties and not those old store bought or restaurant pizzas but ones made by the ladies of the church. In the summer we had picnics with the church ladies again furnishing the food; we played softball, volleyball, threw horseshoes, and just had a great time.
If we had no way to get to the church, Preacher Jimmy would come get us. The church had an old school bus and with sweat, spit and duct tape my dad and Mr. Wade kept that old bus going. Preacher Jimmy would load all of us in that bus and away we would go for a sword drill competition. If you’ve never heard of a sword drill it is where the preacher calls out the location of a verse from the Bible and the first one to find it and jump up and read it wins a point for their church. Whichever church got the most points was the winner for that night. We really didn’t win anything just feeling good about being the best for that night.
Preacher Jimmy loved Pepsi and peanuts. He would open his peanuts and pour them into his Pepsi and drink that as he was driving to the competitions. He would stop at some little roadside store and buy each of us a Pepsi and a bag of peanuts and we would dutifully pour our peanuts into our Pepsi. Sometimes the salt from the peanuts would make the Pepsi spew out of the bottle and make a mess but nobody cared. Have you ever tried Pepsi with peanuts poured into it? I tried it once after I was grown; nasty, really bad. Thank you Preacher Jimmy for all you did for us. I hope you can look down from Heaven and read this and know how much we loved you and what a difference you made in our lives.
I hope this is not taken as criticism of my fellow students, the school or the town of Athens. It is just memories from a very shy person who has grown up and realizes that what we thought when we were young is not necessarily how it really was.