Recently in the news there has been a lot of discussion about the impact of early childhood learning in school and what difference it makes in the lives of children who attend pre-K opposed to the children who do not. My friend Mary and I were just engaging in casual conversation about the findings concerning Georgia’s report, and we ended up comparing our pre-K experiences, not realizing that many years ago South Carolina and Georgia had the same basic things happening in the schools.

She had attended a black segregated school held in a church in South Georgia, and I attended a segregated school built by the Rosenwald Foundation in Allendale County, S.C. The mindset of the educational leaders in the community, the teachers and the parents was about the same. Education was key.

After comparing notes we both realized that if we had to have those experiences all over again, there is nothing that we would remove or change. We concluded that we are the sum total of our experiences. We were hundreds of miles apart having the same exposure to education which molded us into who we are today.

During those days if a child was from a large family, all the children began school by the time he or she was four years old. If all of the children reached school age except one, that one child would be allowed to attend school and a special place would be set up in the pre-primer teacher’s room for the underage children. The pre-primer teacher had three grade levels in the one class, pre-primer, primer and first grade. Since the four-year-olds were not yet old enough to be in the regular pre-primer class the teacher actually had four grade levels in the room.

While in the corner, the children would be required to sit quietly and work on their reading, writing and arithmetic skills. The oldest child in the group would be given leadership responsibility and give assistance to younger children who, by no choice of their own, happened to be in the group. The other children could have been cousins, neighbors or of no relation at all. That is how the black family dynamics were set up then. The older children were responsible for taking care of the younger siblings. That role was taken seriously by all involved.

I began attending school when I was four, but not to actually participate in classes. The pre-primer teacher, Mrs. Greene, also had a daughter, Phillipia, who was too young to attend school, but since the teacher needed to work she was forced to bring her underage daughter along. I was assigned to be responsible for her bathroom needs as well as her snack time. I remember that she always had basically the same lunch which I enjoyed, smoked sausage and biscuits along with other items. All of the Rosenwald Schools had stoops with steps, and that is where Phillipia and I sat and ate her lunch during the fall and spring time. I do not recall what happened to Phillipia during recess. I do know that I enjoyed playing “Pop the Whip,” “London Bridge,” “Hop Scotch” and “Drop It” too much to spend time with Phillipia during recess. I am not sure if Mom knew about this arrangement or not. I certainly was not going to complain about it.

We were given a ruler, timetable cards left by the insurance salesman, pencil and lined-paper. Day in and day out that is what we had to work with, so for us that was our pre-K experience. I have no memory of the teacher giving us directions. We were typical children who would stray from time to time and the teacher must have given some directions, I just do not remember that part.

Misbehaving was not a part of our day in class. Most of the black parents in my South Carolina neighborhood demanded the teachers be respected. In our neighborhood the order of respect was God, preachers, teachers and elders. The parents realized that respect traveled a two-way street. The teachers gave us respect as students and we respected them as teachers. Parents regarded the teachers as our passageway to freedom. To be able to read, write and do arithmetic as a package was the greatest opportunity available, and they as parents were not about to assist us in missing out on that golden opportunity.

I wonder if there are others who had that kind of pre-K experience.

Willie Mae Samuel is a playwright

and a director in Rome.

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