By C. Paul Bergeron
Part 7: Teachers
I have already mentioned Ms. Bessie Knox, my first grade teacher. Like all the others, she was a dedicated teacher with a kind heart. She was a widow with two dependent daughters who attended the Old School at the same time as I did, but in the higher grades. At Christmas time she dug into her pocket to buy each one of her students a gift. Mine was a little wooden man who swung from a trapeze when I manipulated the swing frame. But her greatest gift to me was changing my name.
My second grade teacher was Miss Ruby Hebert, who later became Mrs. Lull Broussard. She also was kind and patient. When Al Booth, graduate of Abbeville High School when the Old School was the high school, and famous stunt flyer in the Army Air Force, was killed in an airplane crash, she escorted our class to the school playground to allow us to watch the missing man formation flown by his comrades at his funeral. Seems like I can still see those World War I type biplanes with engines roaring flying just above the roof tops.
My third grade teacher was Mrs. Adeline Stuller. She was a widow with a young son who also attended the Old School. Like the others, she was a dedicated teacher with a kind heart. Word around the school was that she had served as a nurse in World War I and had met and married a German aviator who had been shot down and was recovering from his injuries
in the hospital where she worked. My fourth grade teacher was Miss Alma Rogers. She was not a native of Vermilion Parish. I believe that she was from Central or North Louisiana. I remember her best for helping me overcome a very common grammatical fault that beset most of us little Cajun students. Like so many others at the time, I pronounced the word "ask" as "ax." I was standing in front of the class making some kind of presentation when I mispronounced the word. So she stopped me and explained how it should be pronounced and then asked me to do it. But I was so afraid to say "ass" instead that I became completely tongue-tied. She prodded me a little bit but it never came out right, so she suggested that I practice at home that night and try again the next day. Sure enough the next day I could say "ask" as well as anyone.
My fifth grade teacher was Miss Corrine David, later to become Mrs. L. A. Moreland. She was my all time favorite. She was kind and dedicated like the others. She was also observant and saw needs that some of us had that did not pertain to the classroom. For example, just about all of the boys and even some of the girls, went to school barefooted. But she saw me at church one Sunday and probably noticed that I had shoes on but no socks. That was because I did not have any. Later she contrived a way to give me a pair of socks, making it look like it was a reward for an achievement in the classroom.
One day when it was her turn to have duty during the noon hour, she sent me to pick up her lunch at her parent's home. She said to tell the cook that she was very hungry. So I assume that the cook took the cue and made the portions somewhat more generous. I delivered her lunch to her and went to get my sandwich. A short time later I happened to pass near the room and saw that she was sharing her lunch with Oscar, a young boy who had no mother and who often came to school without a lunch.
I am sorry to say that Miss Corinne was the first and only teacher to ever spank me in class. One of my classmates, a girl, was making a presentation to the class. She was standing right in front of a roll down map. I noticed that Miss Corrine was standing near a window and occasionally looked outside. I was really good at propelling a spitball with a rubber band, and this looked like an ideal situation. I quickly tore a piece of paper off the top page of my spelling tablet, rolled it up, chewed on it for a second, loaded it on the rubber band and when Miss Corinne turned her head to look outside—zip—POW! I missed the girl and hit the map with a noise that to me sounded like a clap of thunder. Miss Corinne knew exactly what it was. So she faced the class and said something like: "Okay, who did it?" No one said boo. Again she asked. Again silence. So she questioned each one individually. When my turn came I said "No, m'am" very emphatically. So when everybody had denied it, she walked over and picked up the spitball, opened it up and walked to each desk looking for a spelling pad with a missing part, so when she got to my desk the piece fit perfectly. So at her command I walked up to the front of the room, put my hands on the chalk trough of the black board, assumed position and got whupped pretty good with a sturdy wooden paddle.
But even while doing this, she was kind. She explained to me that she didn't spank me for shooting the spitball but for lying. I learned a very valuable lesson that served me well in later years. No, I can not say that I never lied again. But when I did, I made certain that there was no incriminating evidence lying there in plain sight for all to see.
My sixth grade teacher was Miss Aline Abadie. Like the others she was kind, patient and dedicated. She did not marry. I understand that during World War II she served as principal of the school. The school was indeed in good hands.
My seventh grade teacher was Mr. Gillis Ledet, who was also the principal of the school. He was a great teacher and administrator. Eventually he became the Superintendent of Vermilion Parish Schools. While he was our teacher he exhorted us to develop our vocabularies. He pointed out that words were the tools that the brain worked with, and the more words we knew, the better the brain could function.
Before I got to his class he spanked me in the school yard. I had provoked a kid who was bigger than I was but who was younger than I was. He rushed at me with his fist flying and I struck back. His blow missed and mine landed on his right eye. He hollered and put his hand over his eye, which was already beginning to swell a little bit, just as Mr. Ledet came around the corner of the building. "What happened?" The boy said "He hit me!" Did you hit him?" "Yes, Sir." (I did not lie this time) Mr. Ledet did not have a paddle with him, so he gave me a spanking with his hand. I hardly felt a thing.
I got spanked one more time at the Old School, by an after school duty teacher. I was standing in the yard waiting for my school bus when I heard a commotion on the girls' side of the yard. It appeared that something being thrown from a third floor room had hit one or more of the girls. That sounded interesting so I hurried up to the third floor to see what was happening. Two boys were in the room, laughing. So I went inside the room to learn more, just as the duty teacher walked in with a paddle in her hands. The boys admitted to having thrown chalk outside, so she grabbed one of them by the arm and paddled him good. When she turned to the other one, he told her "You can't whip me because I don't come to this school. I go to Mt. Carmel". So she said, "I can't whip you? Well, just watch me!" And she poured it on him. Then she turned to me, and I pleaded "M'am, I did not do anything. I just watched." "OK, she said, "then you just watch me, too." And she applied her paddle to my behind also.
There were two other principals at the Old School besides Mr. Ledet while I attended the school. The one who was there when I started, Mr. Roberts, was disliked by a lot of the students. He had a little mustache like the bad guys in the movies and he patrolled the school yard with a paddle sticking out of his back pocket. His objective was to stop completely the use of the French language on the school grounds. When he caught someone speaking French, the paddle came out and the child was spanked. This was a common practice in all Acadiana schools and has been criticized even to this day. But look at it objectively. Roberts was just doing his job. The schools were there to teach us, using the English language. I feel certain that if I had been allowed to revert to French to communicate I would have done it. Even today, I prefer Cajun French to English, but I am more articulate in English, thanks to the dedicated teachers at the Old School who gave me a good foundation.
The other principal was a Mr. Richardson who served a couple of years. He smiled a lot, did not carry a paddle, and joined the older boys when they played baseball.
A Cajun Boyhood, by
C. Paul Bergeron
© 2007 by C. Paul Bergeron