Teaching For Good

Published 5:04 pm Tuesday, June 4, 2013

CUMBERLAND – She was 15 and standing with her parents outside the courthouse. They were waiting to pay their taxes. That's when Betty Scales decided she wanted to stay in Cumberland County.

The year was 1946 and although she believes they could have gone inside to pay, she remembers that the African-American residents paid outside instead. “I think he would rather not be saddled up with us,” she said of the man collecting taxes.

So, they stood outside while the tax collector was looking at a list, trying to find her mother and father's name, moving his finger up and down the page, up and down the page.

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The 15-year-old Betty reached up and pointed to their names. “And I thought, my desire is to come back and make Cumberland a better place than it is today.”

Betty would go on to teach in Cumberland schools for 46 years, not retiring before she had taught all grade levels. The schools were integrated for well over half of her teaching career.

Now, wherever she goes, she runs into former students. They went on to become doctors, postmen, pastors and teachers. They became plumbers, reporters, lawyers and housekeepers. They are white and black, from America and Portugal and Afghanistan. And she is proud of all of them.

“In 46 years you run across a lot of geniuses,” she says.

The year she decided to make Cumberland a better place, Betty graduated from Cumberland Training School. Training School, of course, because Betty was African-American.

“You did anything but train. We did everything everybody else did and more. More was required of us,” she says.

She finished high school in a tarpaper building. The one building, with a door in the front and a door in the back, housed the library and Home Economics, History, English and Social Studies departments.

“The education was good. It was complete. Our teachers were excellent. But, there were no conveniences.”

She remembers other differences throughout the county, too: separate entrances, walking past empty seats on the bus to sit on the back, and, now and then, people who were blatantly rude.

“I don't hold anybody responsible for what happened, because most of it… they'd been brainwashed.”

Scratch A Little

As we talk, Betty sits in her automated wheelchair and looks out the large window at her front porch. She enjoys watching the birds. There is a crow of particular interest to her. I have been told by her son that she has trained it.

When I ask her how old she is, Betty's face turns serious and she says, “ten.” She smiles at my look of confusion, “I'm 82!” She says, laughing.

No matter how serious the topic, Betty always seems to find a way to lighten the mood or point out the positive. Like she says, “What good would moping do?”

Betty was born in the midst of the Great Depression with, as she puts it, nothing but good intentions.

“My father had one mule and a plow and a college education,” Betty says. And although he taught some, he was a carpenter by trade and would primarily farm to make ends meet.

Her mother was a teacher. She taught in Cumberland for 35 years, according to Betty. What was the most important thing her mother ever taught her?

“Work for what you get and don't be afraid to do it,” Betty says.

Like herself, her mother had also worked her way through school. From the age of 12, Betty and her mother would travel to New York City in the summer, when school had let out, so her mother could both work and take classes at Columbia University.

During those summers, Betty helped by doing housework. When she first began, she was technically not old enough to work, so she drew half-pay, making beds and cleaning toilets.

She enjoyed New York City and got to have a little fun too, like visiting Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes.

Why didn't she decide to stay there, where there were jobs and a little more entertainment? “Because I didn't want to improve a place that wasn't home.”

After graduating Cumberland Training School, Betty went on to Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. She studied Home Economics and Science.

Of course, Betty is the type that never stops learning. “If there was something I wanted, I went for it,” Betty says.

She would take continuing education courses throughout her career. Later in life, she would graduate from Longwood College with a Master's Degree in Education. Over the course of her career she would teach every grade level and every subject.

How did she know she wanted to teach? “Did I have an option?” she asks back, smiling.

Whatever the reason, after graduating from Shaw, at the age of 19, she began teaching first through fifth grade at Cedar Fork School.

Cedar Fork School was on Route 600, not far from the Appomattox River. Her mother had taught there and she still remembers walking down to the river, when her mother was finished teaching, to fish. And although she is not a fisherwoman like her mother, she definitely caught the teaching bug.

Was it a one-room schoolhouse? Laughing, Mrs. Scale says, “It was a hole in the wall.”

It would be two rooms if you counted the cloakroom, she points out. There was one potbellied stove in the middle of the building.

During her first job as a teacher at Cedar Fork she was paid $1,800 a year. At the time, did she think she was being paid enough? “It wasn't a matter of that. It was all you were going to get, regardless.”

If anything can be said of my time with Betty, it would be her refusal to complain. Instead her, can-do attitude was infectious. In fact, she seems to welcome a challenge.

As she would say, “you have to scratch a little.”

You know, like a chicken. “Scratching is what I've always done. I still scratch… at least I appreciate what I get.”

It's Not Where You Come From…

After Cedar Fork, Betty taught at Pine Grove School, a two-room Rosenwald school. From 1917 to 1932, Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, helped build nearly 5,000 schools in rural areas across the south.

Rosenwald schools were built in all three districts of the county, Betty says, and there were ones for white students and ones for black students.

Betty proudly points out that her mother was the first teacher at Pine Grove when the school was built. As if to complete the symmetry, Betty would be one of the last to teach in the building. She says she stayed there until 1964 when schools were consolidated, “I closed the doors.”

There, Betty taught grades one through seven.

The two rooms were divided by sliding doors that were opened for programs and plays put on for the parents. There was room for a May Pole in the back yard.

“We did everything in those four walls that the other schools did. We memorized our poems. We wrote them. We wrote stories. We read our lessons. We did everything. I'd say we were more effective.”

She says the test scores for students in these small schools were higher than for students in consolidated schools. “In other words: it's not where you come from, it's where you are going.”

Sometimes, when she taught there, her voice would leave. “You got used to it. It was just another day's work.”

“You didn't have to out-talk them, because they were very mannerable. But there were seven grades to a room. You had to be pretty clear.”

We're All Related

After closing the doors at Pine Grove, Betty says she began teaching at Luther P. Jackson, when the schools were consolidated.

What about desegregation?

“We worked hard for it,” she says.

But, she quickly points out, “We weren't after integration. We wanted separate but equal.”

But, that didn't stop her from taking it in stride.

The most challenging part of integration for her personally? “Having people accept you as knowing what you know.”

By that time, Betty had married Robert Scales. An agriculture teacher when she met him, Mr. Scales would go on to become a principal and later an administrator for Cumberland Public Schools.

Was it hard on her family? “You know, we never discussed that. You accepted it as a challenge…”

“If I had to do my lessons. I did it…I was hired to teach. I was not hired to worry about who was where and when, other than behavior. I wasn't going to tolerate that. I didn't care where you were from.”

She says, “if you take most any person apart you will find bits and pieces in their chromosomes and so forth that say we're all related…Some of my favorite students, I never looked to see what they were.

“If you were mean and hateful, you were mean and hateful. If you were good, I love you, too.”

Betty would go on to teach for almost 30 more years. She taught at Luther P. Jackson, Cumberland High School and Cumberland Elementary School.

When she taught at Cumberland High School, she focused on English, even teaching English as a second language to students from Afghanistan, Portugal and Mexico.

Changing Their Outlook

A lot changed over all those years of teaching. But, through it all, Betty seemed interested in teaching her students more than just how to memorize their times tables or write out a lesson.

She remembers when the school day began with a reading from the Bible, prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. She is sad it has changed.

“I thought that even after they took the Bible out, that you at least should have read poetry each morning to start the day, because a lot of the kids needed an outlet for their thoughts.

“They come from unsure homes. Not even safe homes. And they come to school and hear a beautiful poem or participate. It changes their outlook.”

She would have her high school students memorize Rudyard Kipling's If.

She was also actively involved in extracurricular activities in the schools, coaching the Drill Team and helping with Kee Club.

Not to be confused with Key Club, Cumberland High School's Kee Club was not officially affiliated with the national club, so they adopted their own spelling.

The motto of the club was, “Happiness is giving and giving is the Kee Club.” The club encouraged students serve the community and school by doing such things as fundraisers, donating to organizations like the Cumberland Rescue Squad and Virginia Lung Association.

Over that time, she also had four children, three of whom she taught.

She was active in the County's 4H program, played piano and organ for local churches and sang in the choir. She started a children's choir, drove her kids to dance lessons, wrote poetry.

“I didn't attempt to be as busy as I got to be, but I didn't know how to spell 'no,'” she says. “There was always something that was needed.”

Attempting Many Things

What's her greatest contribution to Cumberland County? “No great things. I can't say I did great things. I attempted many things.”

“I never thought about what I did until I'd done it,” she adds.

Does she think that Cumberland is better for the many things she attempted: “I hope so,” she says, crossing her fingers, “it's hard to say.”

How has Cumberland changed? “We've gone upward and downward.”

She points out that the County went up for a while, but “we've gone downhill lately.”

She thinks the County needed a grocery store more than it needed the new ABC store. “It's a shame to have to go to Farmville to buy some potatoes.”

But, while considering the changes in Cumberland County, she refuses to look on the downside for too long. “At least our schools didn't close. We can't get food without going to get it, but at least we can buy the gas.”

“I think we've done a good job of enjoying each other. I don't think there's much animosity among the people,” she says, “Cumberland is always the place I wanted to be and didn't intend to leave it.”

There are few in Cumberland County whose lives have not been directly or indirectly touched by Betty Scales. She may have taught them in a classroom or at church. She may have taught their teachers, pastors or doctor.

She may have taught them more than just a science lesson or a few lines of poetry. She may have taught them how to work hard, serve others and always move forward. She may have taught them that we are all related.

And, all though she has been retired for almost 20 years, Betty believes she's still a teacher. “I never stopped, really. As long as you live, you teach, one way or another.”