October 13, 2015 (This new essay appears in my new book Whitley County Kid.) —
There is a special section of hell reserved for the children of preachers and teachers. There are advantages but most don’t figure that out until well into adulthood. The label of TK or PK often rests with particular heaviness upon the oldest child, the burden of expectation and perfect behavior.
My father started at South Whitley High School as an agriculture and general science teacher 23 days before I was born. He completed student teaching at Columbia City High School during his final year as an undergraduate at Purdue. He taught one year at Washington Township High School, in rural Whitley County, before getting his master’s degree from Purdue.
Dad met my mother when his supervising teacher recommended he ask Tunker farmer Carl Enz to join the Adult Farmers Class. Grampy welcomed Dad to Homeland Farm and suggested the handsome young teacher meet his daughter, “a junior at IU.”
Married in 1955, the couple returned to Whitley County before my birth, a fact that delighted my maternal grandparents, who lived just seven miles away from their third grandchild.
Within weeks of my birth, my parents took me to a teachers’ picnic. Later many of these South Whitley teachers taught me in elementary and high school. It’s hard to misbehave under those circumstances, so I behaved. My brother, born when I was thirty months old, was not as intimidated as a TK. I won’t implicate Andy’s behavior, but I suggest the movie, Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off, as an excellent primer of the difference between us as children. Andy is Ferris and I’m the long-suffering sister.
My mother, a stay-at-home mom with an elementary school license, often substituted at South Whitley Elementary School. She substituted for my third-grade teacher, Enid Heckman. My friend Michael Butt and I talked in class, so Mom sent us out into the hallway. Not a good strategy as we kept talking, making a ruckus enough to disturb the other third-grade class. The noise drew the other third-grade teacher out from her classroom. That teacher was my friend Michael’s mother, Mrs. Clara Marie Butt. She was not amused.
Michael and I behaved for other teachers, but not our mothers. This was the only time in 13 years of K-12 that I was in trouble at school. In fourth grade and seventh grade my teachers were close friends of my grandmother. She received regular reports on my classwork, socializing, and other aspects from both Prudence Thompson and Barbara Pook. These updates horrified a nine- and twelve-year-old, respectively.
In junior high, my classmates and I walked across the parking lot to the high school after lunch and for a few classes. I had Betty White for home economics and physical education.
During lunch, we sat in the gymnasium and watched the older boys play basketball. Some of the high school teachers chaperoned, including my father. The main action in the old South Whitley High School gym at lunch was never on the floor but in the stands. Teachers broke up necking sessions, and more often, bullying sessions. High school boys picked on the same kids over and over again. The teachers stopped it and within minutes it started again. The tolerance for bullying was nearly zero thirty years later when my son was in school.
After my eighth grade year, the new Whitko High School opened, and South Whitley High School became a junior high. We were very excited to have a new school, which was large and air conditioned, except for the agriculture and shop departments where my dad worked. The new building featured a cafeteria commons and study hall, large music rooms, an auditorium, and a new, bigger gymnasium.
Four elementary schools—Sidney, South Whitley, Larwill and Pierceton—combined at the high school level. Whitko High School offered the anonymity I sought. No one from the other schools knew my father was a teacher, or had held me as a baby. In my sophomore year, one of my classmates, Doug Wise, an ag student, asked me if Mr. McVay was my father. I said no.
Moving to Whitko was a huge adjustment for everyone. With only South Whitley, I knew everyone and everyone knew me. As agriculture teacher and FFA advisor, Dad was fairly well known throughout the Whitko area. Agriculture was important to the community and FFA was important to the school. His many teams at county, state, and national contests won everything from judging livestock and meats to parliamentary procedure.
It was easy for me to be anonymous in high school, much more so than my brother because my interests were so different from his. I was the duck out of water because I couldn’t tell a Guernsey from a Holstein. I was more interested in the difference between Gauguin and Hans Holbein. It took much of my lifetime to understand the beauty of all things in nature and appreciate what my father gave to the community.
Moving away and seeing how other people live and what other people have or don’t have is enlightening. Now I know how fortunate I was to be a TK, and what blessings I netted from educated parents who shared a love of learning. Whitley County Kid can be purchased here.