Tuesday, September 17, 2013

From Section Two of My Memoir: NORRIS (Chapter Seven)

Chapter Seven

 When TVA completed the construction of the Norris School in January 1935, the two-story brick building (as I referenced before) was the largest electrically heated structure in the world and was technologically the most advanced school in the United States. There were photoelectric cells that controlled lighting in all the classrooms and an automated sprinkler system for the lawn. Located at the north end of the auditorium high above the floor was a fireproof projection booth equipped with a state-of-the-art motion picture projector.

Norris School 1935
The Henry Hawkins house to the left.

 Early on, TVA contracted with the University Of Tennessee School of Education to manage the school’s core curriculum. The cooperative venture between TVA, Anderson County, and the state’s flagship university was demonstratively superior, exceeding all of the state requirements.

 The upper story of the Norris School in 1935

While the school was federally financed and under an operational contract with the University of Tennessee, it remained an exceptional place to acquire an education. However, when TVA sold Norris in 1948, it also stripped the school of its advanced technology. For example, the high-tech motion picture projector was sold to the Bijou Theater in downtown Knoxville.

When Anderson County bought the school in April 1949 and took over the administration of the curriculum, it soon became clear to faculty, parents, and students that the school would have to make-do with fewer services on a budget greatly reduced. Nevertheless, the school continued to provide a good education for its students, mainly because it had quality teachers, an active and responsible PTA, and a community sensitive and responsive to the needs of its children.

Moreover, though the University of Tennessee (UT) School of Education was no longer administering the school's curriculum, it did continued to utilize the school as a teaching experience for their practicum students.  For six weeks (and sometimes longer) each year the Norris School had a back-up faculty (from 15 to 20 UT students) who became an integral part of our community, living in town or at the Norris Dam State Park.

Norris School Mid 1950s

Originally, TVA designed the school as two independent but physically similar units. A centrally located administrative department on the first floor (simply known as the ‘office’) and an auditorium-gymnasium on the second floor separated the high school from the kindergarten and elementary school. The high school not only received students from the elementary wing of the building but also from five other elementary feeder schools located throughout the northeastern part of Anderson County.

The school building was constructed on the northeast slope of a hill facing what once was Henry Hawkins’ cornfield that became the Town Common, known to residents as The Commons. The slope was incorporated in the design of the school. The result being that the front of the building is two stories in height and the upper rear of the building only one story, adding yet another safety feature to the structure by allowing direct egress from each floor without the need of using stairwells.

My father and me painting the wall between the first and second grade classrooms. My mother is to the right, standing near the water fountain.

In 1957 the first six grades were moved to the new Norris Elementary School located northeast across The Commons, just beyond East Circle Road in a small valley surrounded by trees. Two years later the seventh grade was moved there to relieve over-crowding at the high school. A year later, the eighth grade was moved there as well for the same reason. By then, I was a freshman in high school.


For the most part, my first memories of the Norris School are very pleasant. The kindergarten was located on the back of the upper west wing of the school. It was a spacious, self-contained unit with its own separate restroom facilities, sink, and drinking fountain. The room had a large fireplace and windows on three sides that provided both natural light and ventilation.

Though the room had been specially adapted for small children, providing a safe yet stimulating environment, what I most remember and cherish about being in kindergarten is not the large wooden building blocks, the singing and dancing, the cookies and milk, the afternoon nap, nor the playground outside, it is something less tangible, more like a feeling of fulfillment or contentment. From the very beginning, school became an enjoyable place to be, where both information and the wonder of the unknown aroused my curiosity and imagination.

However, by May 1950 I was ready for summer and our annual family vacation to Florida to visit Mama Nell (my mother’s mother) and Pop (Monty Montgomery, her husband). We often would rent a small cabin for four or five days on the beach near Tarpon Springs, just north of Tampa where Mama Nell and Pop lived.

In late June, while we were in Florida, the Cold War suddenly turned hot. North Korea invaded South Korea. The United Nations led by the United States began what President Truman called a "police action" against the aggressors. Eventually, this led to a heavy military and naval involvement by America, especially once the Chinese became involved. Though no one believed that the task would be easy, no one expected that the violent conflict would continue for three more years.

In September, in spite of being three months short of my sixth birthday, my parents decided to enroll me in Mrs. Rosenbalm’s first-grade. I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, within a few weeks I began to be physically bullied after school by a couple of my classmates.

When my father found out from my sister that I had been for nearly a week taking a circuitous route home to avoid further harassment, he sat me down and gave me some fatherly advice. He told me that if I continued to run from my tormenters their bullying would only get worse. He then told me what he thought I should do and say if they continued to physically harassment me.

The next day, despite feeling nervous and anxious, I did not try to avoid my tormenters. As a result I found myself penned against the back brick wall of the school by the leader of the two. In the struggle, I somehow was able to push him off of me and deliver a solid punched to his upper abdomen, as my father had instructed me to do. He immediately fell to his knees. I then told them both in the clearest voice I could muster at the time (using the exact words my father had told me to say): If you ever mess with me again you will regret it.” My father’s advice could not have been more sound. Not only was I never harassed again, both boys eventually became my friends.

After all these year I recognize the experience as a milestone in my life. What I discovered in myself during that confrontation was courage and confidence. Despite my apprehension I was able to face my fear and in the process realize my potential. Given that I was not yet six years old at the time, the realization was extremely powerful, providing me the poise to face even more difficult conflicts in the years to come.


The principal of the Norris School at that time was Robert (Bob) Moore. Mr. Moore’s youngest son, Tommy, was my age. Tommy and I had a number of things in common. Both of us had a difficult time learning how to read and we both had a gift for drawing. (Years later, I would learn that our reading problems were due to the fact that both of us are severely dyslexic.)

One morning during the fall of 1951 when we were in the second grade, Tommy drew a picture of a boy peeing and tried to surreptitiously pass it around the room. When the drawing got to me, our teacher, Mrs. Niles, confiscated it, assuming (since it was rendered so well and anatomically correct) that I was its creator. Though I denied it profusely, she did not believe me and had me stand in the corner, wearing a pointed dunce hat.

At the end of that school year the Moores moved from Norris to Sewanee, Tennessee. Mr. Moore had taken a position as the headmaster of the Sewanee Military Academy.

Nearly 40 years later, while I was on a plan flying back to Nashville from Washington, D.C., I happened to overhear a conversation from the row of seats directly behind me. A man, who was approximately my age, was chatting with a young college co-ed. When he disclosed to her that he was a teacher at a special school in Connecticut for children diagnosed with dyslexia, I began to listen more intently to their exchange.

As he was revealing to her that he was going to Sewanee to visit an old artist friend at the home of his friend’s mother, I suddenly realized that his old friend must be Tommy Moore. Moments later, I was on my knees leaning over the back of my seat, introducing myself and telling him the aforementioned story.


As I said, reading was always difficult for me. Over the years my mother bought numerous books on the subject, including Rudolf Flesch’s 1955 bestseller, Why Johnny Can’t Read. It must have been extremely frustrating for her because she was such a prolific reader.

To compensate for my inability to read, she read to me and not just grade-level books. By the time I was in the fifth grade she had read many of the classics to me, including The Red Badge of Courage, Les Misérable, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. By the time I was in the sixth grade she had read to me all three volumes of H. G. Well's History of the World.

Unfortunately, my inability to read at grade-level made it more and more difficult for me to perform near my potential in the classroom, especially during written test. Though I had successfully completed the fifth grade, the timed achievement test given at the end of that year (which I was unable to complete) decidedly determined that the reading requirements for the sixth grade would be too much for me to manage, unless I was somehow able during the summer to drastically improve my reading skills.

I was given a choice. I could spend the entire summer with my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Shaw as my reading tutor or repeat the fifth grade and use that time to improve my reading proficiency, given that I had already fulfilled the fifth-grade requirements. I suppose in order to help me feel better about myself, my mother reminded me that I had started school a year early.

Since I did not want to miss out on playing Little League Baseball or participating in the Norris Summer Recreation Program, I chose to repeat the fifth grade. In addition, my parents hired two people as reading tutors – Mrs. Blake (Tommy Moore’s grandmother) who lived at the time on the east side of The Commons near the school in the old Henry Hawkins house (one of the two original homes left standing when the town was built) and Peggy Borgers (a peer) whom I had known nearly my entire life (as noted in previous chapters). Both of them played an important part in helping me develop strategies to improve my reading accuracy, fluency, and speed.

I was told later that my sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Arnurius was concern that I was performing far below my potential because of my inability to read at grade level. After consulting with Mrs. Emmons, the school’s guidance counselor, a decision was made to give me an oral IQ test to determine my reasoning skills and my problem-solving abilities. The results of the test not only confirmed but also exceeded what they both believed to be true. According to the test my IQ score was 148.

The first time I ever heard the word dyslexia was in 1959 from my sister. She had just completed her junior year at George Peabody College for teachers. She told our parents and me that she thought she knew why I had had such a difficult time learning how to read. She believed that I was dyslexic. She brought home that summer a battery of test for me to take to determine whether or not I had symptoms of dyslexia.

When I had completed the tests she told us that though her assessment was not a formal diagnosis of dyslexia (which could only be determined by a licensed psychologist), she was convinced that I had dyslexia. She said the tests confirmed that I was highly intelligent and articulate, but unable to read, write, or spell at grade level; that I learn best through hands-on experience; that I am often confused by letters, words, and sequences; that when I am asked to read or write I often repeat, add, transpose, omit, substitute, and reverse letters and words; that I often mispronounce long words and transpose phrases, words, and syllables when speaking; that I am ambidextrous and often confuse left/right; and that my complaints of seeing non-existent movement while trying to read or write (especially on bright white paper) is consistent with being dyslexic. She said she believed that neither side of my brain was dominant.


Over the years I have place myself into some very embarrassing and troublesome situations from which there is often no clear or easy way out. And yet it seems I have a knack for cleverly extricating myself from these self-imposed jams. For example, I once found myself during recess in the third grade needing to pee, but I was having too much fun to take a break from the game I was playing. So, I waited until the bell rang. As I was rushing to the restroom to relieve myself I realized that I had perhaps waited too long. My urinary sphincter muscle was on the brink of exhaustion. As I struggled to unzip the uncooperative zipper to my pants the muscle relented to fatigue.

Now, this was a fine-how-do-you-do! The crotch to my pants was soaked with urine and the next class period had begun. For what seemed like a long while I just stood there looking at myself in the mirror, desperately trying to come up with a solution to my predicament. And then, suddenly, it came to me. I walked over to the sink and began splashing myself with water. By the time I walked into Mrs. Higdon’s third-grade classroom I was soaking wet from head to toe.

Of course, I was asked by everyone, including Mrs. Higdon, “What happened?” My explanation, I believed at the time, was clever. I told the class that a group of older boys bombarded me with water balloons. Everyone seemed to accept my fictional account of what had happened. That is, until my pants began to dry. Though no one ever challenge my story or informed me that they knew what really happened, the smell of urine eventually became quite noticeable, at least to me.

There also have been over the years a number of self-imposed jams needing instant solutions that were more troublesome than embarrassing. For instance, there was that time in Coach Carl Bean’s seventh-grade general science class when I had completely forgotten to prepare a mini-science demonstration.

Coach Bean was surprisingly a pretty good science teacher. One of the things he had us do was to prepare, on our own initiative, a demonstration of some basic scientific law or fundamental principle. Through the drawing of lots each week a student or two was responsible for a short scientific presentation. As a reminder at the end of each week he would write on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard the names of those responsible for the next week’s presentations.

One Monday morning, as I sat down in my desk a fellow student leaned over and asked me if I had prepared a presentation. Sure enough, when I looked up, there on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard was my name. Immediately, my mind began brainstorming, desperately trying to spontaneously generate some creative idea to solve my self-inflicted crisis.

When Coach Bean entered the classroom I still had not come up with an adequate idea or a viable excuse. As he was calling the roll, suddenly, an idea came to me. When he asked me if I was ready to present, I told him I was, but that I first needed to go to the drinking fountain in the hallway and get a mouth full of water. Permission was granted.

Returning from the water fountain to the classroom, I began by gargling to demonstrate that there was actual water in my mouth. I then proceeded to stand on my head and swallow the water. While still on my head I informed the class that what they just witness was a demonstration that water and food actually pass from the mouth to the stomach by a series of wavelike muscle contractions of the esophagus and not by gravity. Though I cannot say that the applause was deafening, I can say that I received an A+ for my scientific demonstration of esophageal peristalsis.


Although my poor reading skills continued to cause me to perform far below my academic potential, my confidence in my value and abilities remained high – thanks in no small part to my family, friends, and wonderful teachers who never made me feel embarrassed or ashamed of my disability.

When I started high school in 1960 the school was over a quarter of a century old. Nevertheless, certain preconceived opinions and attitudes among those who lived in and outside of Norris prevailed. The lingering ill-feelings associated with the town’s creation and the often contrived social disparity made it difficult at times to overcome the animosity and develop meaningful friendships.

Nevertheless, I believe my athletic prowess, especially on the basketball court, including my observance of fair play and respect for others, singled me out as a leader on and off the court. My calm self-assurance, appreciation of differences, and willingness to confront and challenge my inadequacy and anxieties allowed others (city and county) to see me as an approachable and assessable friend.


mythopolis said...

Dee, this was just such an amazing read at so many levels...you do such a great job of painting the backdrop of your early life...the evolution of Norris, the larger political arena, it's local impact (school projector goes to the Bijou in Knoxville) and then you describe such poignant personal memories, some of them painful, and yet ones we all can identify with...it is just such a wonderful reflection and I am in awe of all you can remember...perhaps because some of it was so traumatic...I wonder how many people have a tale of that urgent need to pee, and how to cover it up and so on. I had to laugh about the demonstration of swallowing while upside down since back when we were doing the backyard circus on Cantrell, one of the things I demonstrated was peristalsis...thanks Dee for giving me so much to think about and such personal glimpses into your own past!

Stickup Artist said...

Oh, this is such fun and informative reading. Despite a few instances, I get the clear impression of a very happy, highly creative, totally lovable and well-loved little boy. And from what I know, the boy is clearly alive and well within the man...