SnEV98

SnEV98

Macon, Georgia.

MAKING ONESELF USEFUL

REV. W. J. NELSON, B.A., M.A., TH.M., TH.D., PH.D.

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I was the oldest of a large family of children. My father had no income, save what he made on a small farm, and a little corn, flour, meat and other produce with a dollar now and then, which he received for full time pastoring two or three churches. The district schools where we lived were poorly equipped and managed, and ran only a few months each year. Until I was thirteen years old I got the best these schools could give. But with a growing family without a corresponding growth in my father’s income, at thirteen, to aid in the support of the family, I was forced to give up my schooling and do mill work when I was not working on the farm.

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All I had learned up to that time was reading, writing and a little arithmetic. Since the nature of my work did not require that I keep up my writing and arithmetic, I soon forgot both. But the thirst to know about things and people caused me to read all my spare time. My father himself was a college-trained man. He worked hard on the farm or elsewhere all the week and preached every Sunday, never faltering in spirit. But sometimes he would 97 fail in strength of body. Though he never complained, I could often see that hurt look on his face. This was caused by the financial depression which followed Cleveland’s administration, the covetousness of the people he served and other circumstances, which were depriving him of giving his children the educational advantages enjoyed by the children of those whom he served.

All this time I was longing for an education, and saw the disadvantage to which the lack of it was placing me. My father would each year promise me that the next year I could go to school. But when the time came I would have to stay and work and let the younger children go or let a note on a new schoolhouse, a new church house or Howard College, at Birmingham, Ala., be paid. The fortitude of my father, that look on his face, the rainbow promise that some day I should even go to Howard College, and the thought that I was helping him care for the others and keep my sisters and younger brothers in school, made it easier for me. But many times I bathed my pillow with tears till the tired body forced sleep, all because I could not go to school like my boy companions.

Thus I toiled on until I was nearly eighteen years old. My body was already stooping with toil, my hands hard and horny. I had forgotten how to write. I knew not how to figure, except a little “in my head.” But still I read. This only increased my thirst for an education. At last the promised 98 rainbow now appeared just ahead. Next year I was going back to school. And I was to stay there till I had finished at Howard College. But again my father failed me because others failed him. I did not get to go. This was my severest disappointment, and but for a move my father made it would have been almost unbearable.

This time he resolved to sell his little home and go West to try life all over again. We moved to Texas into a frontier section where there were not even at that time the small school advantages back in Alabama. It took all the little home brought to get us out West. We had to start again from the very bottom. The second year my father bought a piece of undeveloped land. For five years I stayed with him, helping him to make sure a home for him, mother and the children. His health was fast breaking by this time. For the first three years there was no opportunity for schooling. I was by that time twenty-one years old, too old for free tuition, and I had no money.

The winter of the fourth year I had one month of a breathing spell which brought to me an opportunity. My father told me of six acres of very fine land he wished opened and if I could get it cleared I might have all it made. Meantime the trustees of a little district school two miles away needed some wood for the school and offered to take it as tuition. So here was my chance. During the day I went to school, furnishing wood for tuition. After school 99 hours and at night, by the light from burning brush, I cleared the land. It made three bales of cotton, the proceeds of which I saved for my future education. The next year I hired to my father for ten dollars a month and my board. This money I also added to my schooling fund. The following winter I got another month schooling at the little district school, again furnishing wood in payment for tuition. I again hired to my father for twelve dollars and fifty cents a month, saving every cent I could.

Things were now getting easier at home. Our new home was paid for. The land was very fertile. My father’s health was much better. Many settlers were coming in. A good district school was being developed. Most of my brothers and sisters were getting the free schooling. Some of my older sisters were being sent away to school. I was now nearly twenty-three. I had taken advantage of what I had. The little school where I had gone for a month each of the two preceding winters was not a graded school. This had made it a little less embarrassing for me. For fear the teacher would hold me back, I had carried a copy-book in my pocket without his knowledge, that I might the sooner learn to make the letters of the alphabet. I had learned how to use figures up to common fractions and how to spell a few simple words. With the exception of these two months’ schooling it had now been about ten years since I left the schoolroom, ten years of the best part of my life for acquiring 100 an education—from thirteen to twenty-three. But after this added waiting and hoping of a little over five more years, my rainbow again appeared as from a sudden burst of sunlight on a receding cloud.

My chance had at last come and I was going to use it. It came in this fashion: It was one March day just after the noon hour I had started to the field, when there came to me a letter from the principal of a boarding school which had both a graded and high school department. He wanted someone to live with him and do his chores for board while attending the school. The crop was started, and, of course, to leave at this time would disconcert my father and his plans for the year. But there were only a little over two more school months in that session. And if I would go then I could have the place as long as I wished it. If not, someone else might take it and my chance would be gone. My father saw the opportunity for me and acquiesced.

With the money I had saved and this opportunity to work for my board, I now left home and began my schooling in earnest. I entered this school in the low sixth grade. However, having a strong body and willing mind, I carried eight studies while the others carried only four. In the two remaining months of that session and the two following years I completed the high school course. I graduated with honors, was valedictorian, and received the faculty medal for the highest grades made in school my senior year. The week following the close of 101 school I passed an examination for a county teacher’s certificate.

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But to do all this I had to work. For my board in that home, I had all the wood to cut, water to draw, fires to make, garden and yard to keep, horses and cow to care for, fences, etc., to repair and many other odds and ends to do. In order to prepare my school work I did not retire till ten and arose again at three or four, getting only from five to six hours’ sleep out of the twenty-four.

There is one little incident connected with my stay in this school that might be worth mentioning, as it shows how I met one of the greatest difficulties which a young man just entering school at my age has to meet. As I have said, I entered this school at the age of twenty-three in the low sixth grade. Those in my classes were children about twelve and thirteen years old. You can imagine how I felt, a big awkward young man twenty-three years old in classes composed mostly of little children from ten to twelve years younger. But my embarrassment was intensified when one day a little twelve-year-old girl made fun of the way I was trying to work an example in common fractions. I felt hurt; I closed my book and quietly walked to my seat. A cousin of mine was teaching the class. She caught the look on my face and saw that it was not that of rebellion, but that I was only hurt, embarrassed, and was trying to conquer. I shall never forget the kind look she gave me, as she said, “Will, you are excused, 102 if you wish to go.” Her remark was not only a rebuke to that member of the class, but it helped me to conquer. I took my books and went to my room resolved to show this little girl that, “He laughs best who laughs last.” And I did. When I started she was almost a grade in advance of me. But I finished one year ahead of her with honors while she hardly got through a year later.

I had been working heretofore during the summer vacation months that I might be able to return to school each winter. But as I was to teach the coming winter, I spent the summer studying at the North Texas State Normal, Denton, Texas. To do this, I now for the first time borrowed money, fifty dollars, from a friend of mine, a banker, who had once struggled for his education. He had been watching me and gladly came to my help and voluntarily offered all the money I needed. With this fifty dollars I was able to take the summer normal course. At the close of it I passed an examination for a state teacher’s certificate which entitled me to teach in any of the public schools in the State.

On returning home I was given the home school where four years before I had learned to figure and write, paying for my tuition with wood. The salary was forty dollars per month and the length of session was now six months. This seemed like a big salary to one who had never before received more than twelve dollars and fifty cents per month. But it was not the salary, it was the opportunity that I 103 now saw further to pursue my studies and to instill something of the same spirit and enthusiasm in others, that now meant so much to me.

I had once hoped for no more than the mere knowledge of how to read and write and figure, which this little district school had in former days given me. But with that knowledge had come a broader vision and the ability and opportunity to pursue that vision—that of getting a high school education. And now I had reached that goal, had gone to the state normal and held from the State a recognition of the right and ability to pursue this still greater vision of giving knowledge and inspiration to others, how could I ever wish or hope for more?