A 60-Watt Irish Potato

Copyright 1994
Sam Elmore


I have been out of (and away from) school so many years, I don't know how they do things now-a-days. I am sure, however, that school must have changed considerably since I was in the sixth grade, in 1945. World War II was going on at the time, and school activities were, of necessity I suppose, modified to suit the times. I remember watching my big brother Barge, with the boys of his age group and older, marching on the playing field with dummy rifles, which had been sawn from scrap pieces of 2 x 4.

The Coach (who coached every sport, boys and girls) was the 'drill instructor' who put the bigger boys through their paces. It was thought, at the time, that teen-age boys might have to go into battle before the war was over, and the dummy-rifle training was to prepare them for it; fortunately, it never was necessary.

A few grades behind Barge, I was an awkward, 'country-fied' boy, who stayed mostly in a perpetual state of embarrassment by the goings-on at school. My previous schooling had been at Union Center, a few miles from Magnolia, Ark, where four grades were taught in one room at one time, by the same teacher. Later, I attended elementary school at Taylor, Ark., for a while, until World War II began.

Papa moved the family to Louisiana about then, and I ended up being taught in the Tallulah, Louisiana, High School building; and going to dance class. Yep, dancing class! To this day, I have no idea of the purpose for all that fol-de-rol. We were exposed to several things in Tallulah that I canO't imagine being suitable for teaching in a school room.

There was a wide variety of teachers at the school. Each one had their own idea of what was 'right and proper', and it was sometimes a 'culture shock' just to walk from one classroom into the next. Such was my first day in the classroom of Mrs. Burleigh, a native (she was quick to inform us) of the United Kingdom of Great Britain:

'In MY classroom, do NOT attempt to explain how OTHER teachers conduct themselves in THEIR classrooms. Here, you must do as I TELL you. Does everyone understand? I ASKED if everyone understood, and several of you did not speak clearly; that will NOT be tolerated in my class....you must elucidate CLEARLY when you speak. Did you understand that, Mister....(she looked down at her seating chart, over the top of her half-glasses)....Elmore?' I jumped liked I'd been goosed with a hot poker.

'Yes, Ma'am'.

'WHAT did you call me?'

'I didn't call ye' ENY-thang, Ma'am'.

'The NAME is Mrs. BURLEIGH, not 'ma'am'.Each of you will ADDRESS me as Mrs. BUR-leigh. Do you understand?'

'Yes, Mrs. Burleigh', came a sing-song litany from every mouth in the room....'cept mine; for some reason, my mouth had a mind of it's own, and it said 'Yes, Ma'am' again before I could slam it shut. She nailed me to my seat with a petrifying, aristocratic glare, and informed me that I would be 'graciously allowed' to clean the erasers and blackboard after school, which should 'provide ample opportunity to arrange my thoughts so that they were aligned with the remainder of the class'.....(whatever THAT meant).

Then, Mrs. Burleigh pinched the clasp on a lapel watch she had hanging on her dress, looked at the time and, with a smile, nodded at the girl in the first seat by the door. Cecelia Benjamin....the wonderful-est girl in the WORLD. She had long, gold-colored hair, that hung way down below her waist; such a beautiful face, and when she smiled, it made the overheard light go dim!

Cecelia got up and left the room....Mrs. Burleigh ordered everyone to close their tablets, place their hands on top of their desks, and sit up straight. In a couple of minutes, Cecelia came in the door carrying a silver tray, with a pot, a cup and saucer, a little silver pitcher, and some other stuff on it. She placed the tray on Mrs. Burleigh's desk, and went back to her seat.

Mrs. Burleigh took a silver thing out of her desk that looked like a banty egg that'd been flattened on two sides; opened it up, put a tea-bag in it, then closed it. She poured plain ol' hot water in the cup, and then she sat there for about five minutes, dipping that silver egg-lookin' thing up and down in the cup of water. After a while, she laid the thing down, picked up some pincher-lookin' things, and put two sugar cubes in the cup. She poured in some milk, and stirred.

Then, for what seemed like an hour, but probably wasn't more than a couple of minutes, she sat there staring everyone in the eyeball and sipping hot tea, with her little finger stuck out. Oh, there never was any danger of anyone making a sound during this ceremony. We was all completely flabble-gasketed by the show she put on. We just sat there like knots on a log, wondering how we could ever TELL anybody what we were lookin' at; given the fact that we didn't have enough words to describe it.

When she finished her tea, Mrs. Burleigh looked over at Cecelia, nodded and smiled, and Cecelia repeated her task in reverse. When she had returned to her seat, Mrs. Burleigh resumed her teaching; them `r's rollin' off-a her tongue made her sound like a fox squirrel in a hicker-nut tree.

In my next class that day, the teacher (Mrs. Post) was the nicest, down-home, country-style teacher ye' ever want to see. Yet, she's the one that stood all of us up and marched us down to the auditorium, where she put a record on a victrola and commenced to pairing off boys and girls for dancing lessons. I was absolutely terrified.

For one thing, I did not yet understand much about 'girls' (a condition which still abides to this day). I was still kickin' a Pet Milk can, and rolling a tire with my chums for entertainment. Another thing was, I didn't know the first thing about dancing, and didn't have any real urge to learn, either. The worst thing though, I was wearing a pair of hand-me-down britches that day, and they had a patch on the seat.

Now, please don't misunderstand....I wasn't embarrassed to be wearing britches with a patch; for one thing, them hand-me-down britches was about one-third of all the pants I OWNED. Plus, Mama was a wonderful seamstress, and could do magic with that foot-pedal-powered sewing machine of hers. In addition, I had an older sister who'd been appointed the 'generalissimo-in-charge' of the personal hygiene of her three younger brothers. So, I knew that I was clean, and neat; I knew I'd been raised right, and everything like that; so I didn't fret none about them other things.

But, it didn't take me long to find out, once I started going to that high-falutin' school in Tallulah, that we were considered 'pore folks' by all of them well-dressed town kids; most of whom walked from home to school. Us country hicks had to ride a bus fifteen miles just to get there.

I was not overly eager to get up in front of everybody and try to dance with a girl. I knew them town boys would be sniggerin' behind my back about my 'tail-light patch', 'cause I'd already heard 'em callin' it that several times, out in the halls between classes.

Somehow or another, I survived dance class that day, and went on to Mrs. Riley's room, for the last class of the day....Home Economics. That's right. Boys AND girls were taught home-ec in those days (maybe they still do that; I don't know). Girls had to learn a bunch of 'boy stuff', too, so I guess it all came out even, on the back end of things.

Mrs. Riley told us that, when we came to school the following Monday, we must all bring a sock with a hole in it, and a light bulb; she was going to teach us how to 'darn a sock'. When the bell rang, everyone stood up quietly and filed out of the room with our mouths shut (another of the weird rules in that 'uppity' school---no talkin').

As soon as I cleared the front door, I broke into a run and was half-way to the school bus when that frosty voice from behind turned me into a pillar of salt:

'Am I to ASSUME that you have ALREADY taken care of the erasers and BLACK-board?'.

‘N'ome, Miz Burleigh....I'm gon' do 'at right NOW‘; and I scurried back to the classroom. The blackboard was quickly washed, and four erasers beaten against a brick wall; then I ran for the bus again. One of the senior boys, who lived on the far end of the line past all us other riders, was driving the school bus. He had the bus full loaded, 'cept for me, and he got mad having to wait; so he chewed me out for holding everybody up. That was plumb fine by me. He didn't scare me HALF as much as that icy stare and the bone-chilling voice of Mrs. Burleigh.

I finished my assigned chores that evening just before dark, and as Mama was about to put supper on the table, I sidled into the kitchen and asked her for a light bulb. You'd have thought I'd asked her for angel wings or something. She had a few choice words to say about 'foolishness', and bade me get out of her way, as she lit the coal-oil lamp on the eatin' table.

We lived in a tenant house provided by the owner, on the plantation where we share-cropped. We had a drilled well and a long-handled pump to provide our water supply; an outside privey; a fireplace and wood-burning stove for heat; and coal-oil lamps for light. During supper, I put my head down and ate my food without a word.

Afterwards, I got ready to go to bed while Mama and sister cleaned up the kitchen. Mama called me up to the fireplace room. I trudged up there, and she asked me what I'd been talkin' about, askin' for a 'light bulb' like I'd done. I s'plained about having to take a hole-y sock and a light bulb to school next Monday, 'cause we was gon' learn how to darn socks from Mrs. Riley. Mama told me not to worry; she'd take care of it.

The following Monday, we filed into Mrs. Riley's room to learn how to darn socks. Every one of the 'town kids' whipped out a sock and a light bulb. I broke out one of Papa's ol' wore-out work socks and.....a big ol' red (60-watt-size, at least) Irish tater!

(I would also like you to know that I can, to this very day, darn a hole-y sock with the BEST of 'em.....if I can lay hands on a tater of the right wattage).