The Endangered Small Country School--Birchwood Elementary

Birchwood Elementary School, picture courtesy of Shannon Wright (because I can't locate mine!)

The year 2005 was momentous for me. I had been looking for work in an ever widening circle from Athens. I had interviewed in Monroe, Loudon, Bradley, McMinn, and sent applications to every school district that I could drive to in 45 minutes.

Finally in August, I sent applications to Knox and Hamilton counties, even as I cringed at the commute time it would be to any school in those counties. Two weeks after I had sent those applications, I received a phone call from the principal of an elementary school at the northern tip of Hamilton County.

“Would you be interested in doing an interim library position at Birchwood Elementary? she asked.

'Would I be interested? Heck, yes!' I thought.

When I went for my interview, I drove down I-75 to Cleveland and then west on Hwy. 60. In a teeny, tiny town (no traffic light), just east of the Tennessee River sat an old brick school building. Some of the linoleum-covered, hardwood floors had slight dips in them, there were a few cracks in the walls, some stains on the way high ceilings.

Still, I was entranced. I had worked in what I thought was a country school for 19 years, but this was the epitome of a real country school, one that had been there in one form or another for almost 100 years. I interviewed and bit my nails down to the quick waiting to hear back. It didn’t matter if I was a glorified substitute, I just wanted to be in that school. Long story short, I did that interim job for the remainder of the school year and was at Birchwood for another five years after that. I was the full time librarian, depending on Book Fair earnings and grants to put new books on the shelf, but I learned what a community school was really like. I taught children whose great-grandparents had also gone to Birchwood.

Birchwood School was once within the boundaries of the now defunct James County. The current red brick building was erected in 1930 after the original school, which was built in 1915, had a fire. It was a 1st-12th grade school for a very long time, and then it became a K-8 school. When the city and county schools consolidated, Birchwood became a Pre-K through 5th grade school. Not only were kids taught there, but singers used its stage for Saturday night musical events. Basketball games were played on the full court gym, and the annual Sandhill Crane Days is still held there. One of the cafeteria workers raised chickens, and so I often had farm fresh eggs when I headed home. One of the custodians fixed phenomenal lunches for us once a month, as well as during Parent/Teacher conferences.

When I was finally transferred to another school after six years, I missed the sight of horses and cows grazing across the street, the cranes calling overhead, and being able to learn every child’s name. I missed my commutes that were mostly on country roads softened by velvety carpets of fog. I missed the clanging of the pipes in the winter as steam pushed its way to old radiators, the twenty foot windows, and parents walking on the old track each morning. I missed the fun of making homemade slime for a principal challenge and ice cream sundaes for reading contest winners. I missed the ‘cityscape’ one of the secretaries painted on old lockers lining the hallways. I miss the feel, the ambience, and all of the gentle voices of the past at Birchwood.

That old school withstood deluges, tornadoes, and time, but couldn’t withstand societal changes that doomed an agricultural area on the northern tip of Hamilton County. Birchwood Elementary closed its doors to students in 2013, just two years shy of its 100th birthday. Thankfully, the county has allowed the building to remain open for community events.

Susan Kite is a member of Author’s Guild of Tennessee, a retired librarian, and author of five books of fiction. Check those out at: https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B00J91G0ZU/ The author also has an extensive collection of stories on Archive of Our Own under the name of bookscape: https://archiveofourown.org/users/bookscape/works

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Join Now!
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