I’ve written in past columns about the privilege I had of attending school at Highland View Elementary. Its simple cinder-block walls, painted a pastel green color, and its small classrooms with roll-out windows that looked out over the playground, were where I spent numerous days of my childhood, and hundreds of other kids did, too. I know some of you didn’t get to go to that little school, and I’m sure you have many special memories of the elementary school you attended, and I honor that. But let me tell you a bit about the little green school by the bay.
Our school was staffed with talented people who cared about children; at least, the staff members I came in contact did. Mrs. Peggy Cash was my first teacher there when we moved from North Carolina to St. Joe Beach just before I entered fourth grade in 1976. She was kind and made me feel very special when she tested me for placement in the correct reading group, telling me I had a great vocabulary and I would be in the advanced reading group. (Hat tip to mom and dad for encouraging us to read and increase our vocabulary. It worked!)
Mrs. Cathy Colbert joined our school’s faculty soon after, and as I entered fifth grade, I embarked upon a voyage into U.S. history that I wasn’t expecting. Mrs. Colbert knew all kinds of stories about history, and we begged her to tell us more of them. Some were funny, some were creepy, and I listened with full attention as she told us about things like Martha Washington’s grave in her sweet Tennessee accent. We built replicas of the 13 colonies, we drew and we created, all the time learning about the history of our country. I still love learning about history, and I credit much of that to Mrs. Colbert.
Mr. Herman Jones was my sixth grade teacher. Most of you who are native to our area know who he was. I didn’t know at the time that he was legendary in the diving world, because to me; he was just Mr. Jones, tall and skinny with a head full of curly hair and wire-frame glasses. He took our science classes on outdoor adventures that inspired our learning. We learned about frogs and plants and undersea creatures, and we watched movies about archaeological digs and dives. He had fish tanks in the classroom, and he let us help him feed the fish, even letting us go out into the puddles and ditches around the school to capture minnows in little nets. He even taught me how to properly clean my glasses without scratching them, since I first got them when I was in his room. It was, obviously, an unforgettable experience to be in his class.
We had other adults I loved and respected at our school at various times: Howard Blick, Principal Herrington, Frances Shores, Helen Ramsey, Peggy Whitfield, Elizabeth Howell, Sandra Brock, Sharon Shearer, Marie Anchors, Lois Miller, and many more. We sang, we learned, we were disciplined, and we got away with very little naughtiness. I felt safe there, other than the occasional bullying by a red headed kid who was older than me. I guess every school had that, even then. But almost exclusively, it was a safe, pleasant home away from home.
In 2013 my sister, Sherrin, and I were driving along Highway 98 and were about to pass our sweet old school, which had by then been closed down. We noticed some of the classroom doors were standing open, and decided to turn around and … dare I say it … trespass.
We walked along the sidewalks where over thirty years before we’d laughed with friends, called out to our siblings, created Halloween carnival booths, and raced each other to the bus lines. We peeked into the windows of the locked up cafeteria, where we’d enjoyed homemade meals created by our wonderful lunchroom ladies and where we climbed up on the old wood-floored stage to do our school programs for our parents. I could almost hear our noisy chatter and laughter as I peered through a jagged pane of broken glass.
We went out onto the playground and climbed on the same old monkey bars that had been there when we were children, and had a stranger who happened along take our picture on them. We treasure it!
We went into the classrooms we had learned so much in: Mrs. Bixler’s, Mrs. Colbert’s, and Mr. Jones’, of course. We had one of those moments people talk about when, as adults, we walk into a place from childhood that had once felt large and which now feels so small. That’s how it was for us. But we both were filled with the vast feelings love and happy memories and nostalgia; such bittersweet emotions as we stood in those light-filled rooms once inhabited by the laughter and learning of so many children.
We took pictures, since we had our iPhones with us, a gadget that no one in our school could have ever imagined existing back in those days. It was as if by taking those pictures, we were trying to hold on to at least a little piece of our school, to capture a bit of the vapor of our memories before they were so coldly flattened by heavy equipment.
And now, that’s all we have left of Highland View Elementary School: our memories and those pictures. The land across from the bay sits empty now, and there will likely be battles over what should be built there. Tall apartment buildings? Houses? A shopping center? A beautiful park for children with a walking trail around it? Something else completely?
Whatever happens with that piece of property, I pray that the owner, whomever he is, will consider that the land doesn’t have to be only for accruing more wealth for himself, though I know that’s what successful business people are typically after. But how much more impactful could it be to honor the children, the teachers, the staff of that sweet little school and its surrounding community than to recreate for future generations some of the love and laughter and play that went on there for decades? I would love to see that, though it’s probably wishful thinking. I don’t know what the answer is, and nobody’s really asking me, because it isn’t my property, of course. I just wanted to share what special things have taken place on that land. What it will be next, I hope, will be just as special for the little community of Highland View and all the residents who live in Gulf County, as well.
And now, because I always associate these little treats with the lunchroom at Highland View, I'll end with a recipe for no-bake chocolate-oatmeal cookies. Enjoy with a tiny little carton of icy cold milk (or use a glass; it's almost as fun that way.)
2 cups white sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
1 pinch salt
3 cups quick cooking oats
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a saucepan bring sugar, cocoa, butter, milk, and salt to a rapid boil for 1 minute.
Add quick cooking oats, peanut butter, and vanilla; mix well.
Working quickly, drop by teaspoonfuls onto waxed paper, and let cool.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who love to eat fresh Gulf shrimp, too. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com.You can email her at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.