When Joann Fromhart and her husband, Fred, moved to Pocahontas County in the 1960s for his job as Superintendent at Seneca State Forest, she already had four years of teaching under her belt. With her third child on the way, Fromhart planned to be a mother and homemaker.
That plan – as many northern Pocahontas County natives know – did not work out.
Instead, Fromhart returned to the classroom to fill in for a friend. What started as a one-year favor, became a 30-year career.
“The observatory had a kindergarten, and Dorsalene Henderson was the teacher,” Fromhart recalled. “Her husband was going to Puerto Rico for a year, and she wanted to go.”
In Henderson’s search for a replacement, she learned that Fromhart had a teaching degree and experience in the classroom.
“She called me and I said, ‘oh, no, my baby is still at home,’” Fromhart said. “She said, ‘Joann, how old is that baby?’ I said, ‘she’s five years old.’ Dorsalene said, ‘well you can bring her to kindergarten,’ which is what I did. I taught from Christmas to Christmas.”
Fromhart recalled one incident which went much differently in the 60s than it would today. A male student in the kindergarten class got in trouble, and said he would take revenge, which he did, in a way only a five-year-old could do.
“I took the tricycle away from him,” she said. “He wasn’t supposed to be riding it. He said, ‘I’m bringing a gun tomorrow, and I’m going to shoot you.’ The next day he came, he had on a belt, with a [toy] pistol on this side, and a [toy] pistol on that side.”
During her time teaching kindergarten that year, Superintendent of Schools Gray Cassell visited to observe the class. The school system was planning to move kindergarten into the public schools. During his visit, Cassell offered Fromhart a job teaching fourth grade.
She initially turned it down, but after discussing it with her family, as well as after Cassell came to her house, she took the job.
“I got a call from Gray Cassell and he said, ‘may I come to your house?’” Fromhart recalled. “I knew what he was coming for. He had a fourth grade with forty-four students and no teacher. They already had the regular teacher and one or two subs. I said, ‘let me think about it.’”
“Louise was in first; Matthew was in second; and Lewis was in the third, and when they came home that evening, I told them what had happened, and Matthew said, ‘oh Mom, get on the phone, call to tell him you’ll take it right now,’” she continued. “I said, ‘Matthew, I don’t think there’s any hurry. When the superintendent comes to your house, I don’t think there’s a long line of people interested in the job.’”
Fromhart joked that her husband said that if she taught one more year, he could get an [International] Scout.
Fromhart took the job and officially became an employee of Pocahontas County Schools. Her first day at Green Bank Elementary School as a fourth grade teacher is one she will never forget. She refers to her memory of that day as “the famous nickel story.”
“Mind you, they’ve put me in a room that the temperature had to be a hundred and three,” she said. “It was right over the furnace, a coal furnace – which, when they delivered coal, we all just got up and stood and watched out the window as they unloaded because you couldn’t teach, it made too much noise.
“So I have forty-four students,” she continued. “I have a fever blister about the size of my thumb and the temperature is a hundred and three. I’ve taken up the lunch money and written my name on the board, and there’s a knock on the door. I go to the door and there’s this little high school girl who helps in the office and she said, ‘Mrs. Fromhart, your lunch envelope is a nickel short.’ I went to my pocketbook and got a nickel and gave it to her.”
Fromhart couldn’t believe that no one in the office could put in a nickel for the new teacher and instead, sent a girl to retrieve the missing nickel. The story makes her laugh and every now and then, she thinks of what she should have done or said.
“I should have said, ‘call Gray Cassell and tell him to bring a nickel up here because he told me he’d do almost anything for me if I took the job,’” she said, laughing.
After one year in fourth grade, Fromhart moved to the middle school and taught English/Language Arts to sixth and seventh grade students.
There are few things adults remember from school, but those who had Fromhart will always remember diagraming sentences, conjugating verbs, the English handbook and one little poem about ketchup.
“I always said to students in later years, ‘please don’t go home, if somebody says to you ‘what did you learn today’ and you say ‘nothing,’” she said. “That’s when I started teaching them the poem, ‘shake and shake the ketchup bottle. None will come and then a lot’ll.’ I don’t know how many kids I’ve met and they say, ‘I still remember that.’”
Fromhart is approached by former students all the time and the first thing they usually tell her is that they remember the ketchup poem.
With 30 years of teaching, Fromhart has a multitude of stories she holds dear. Stories about her students and former colleagues. Those stories are what made the years go fast and made Fromhart excited to return to school each year.
“I had [one student], who probably today, they would say he was super-charged or hyperactive, or whatever they call these kids because he just couldn’t sit still,” Fromhart said. “He and I got along so. I’d look and he’d already have workbooks passed out. He’d already have the papers taken up. I said to him one time, ‘were you that efficient in high school?’ and he said, ‘you can’t believe how much time I sat in the hall in the high school,’ because they didn’t know how to work with him.”
One story always leads to another and as Fromhart recalls the student being sent out in the hallway, she remembers a student she sent out in the hall for bad behavior, and he returned with a cupcake.
“He said, ‘they’re having a party next door and they gave me a cupcake,’” she recalled with a chuckle. “I said, ‘did you not tell them you had some friends in here?’”
Along with teaching at the school, Fromhart did homebound lessons for certain students. One in particular lesson she did for a student drew in the whole family.
“One time I was doing a geography lesson and I brought Fred’s slideshow from the Amazon,” she said. “The whole family was there that evening because they wanted to see the slides from the Amazon.”
While the students always kept Fromhart on her toes and gave her plenty of memories, her colleagues became more like a family, and treated one another like brothers and sisters. And like brothers and sisters, they played pranks on one another.
“My license got lost,” she recalled. “I stuck it in a book, so the next day, they fixed up a poster with my pictures, saying ‘Wanted,’ and there was a reward for the first person who ‘turned me in.’ Kids kept running at me, and I was thinking, ‘what’s going on?’ They wanted to turn me in so they could get the reward.”
Fromhart and one colleague in particular – Lynn “Jesse” Peck – spent a lot of time together because they coached girls basketball together. As Fromhart puts it – he coached and she looked after the girls.
“In the fall Lynn Peck and I were together more than Fred Fromhart and I, or Susan and Lynn because we had girls basketball, and we had it every evening,” she said. “We either had practice or a game. They called me assistant. I was assistant, in that I made sure the girls were in the locker room and everything was taken care of. I checked the bathrooms after everybody left at every school to make sure they were clean.”
One bus ride home from an away game tested the patience of Fromhart and the friendship of the two. Before leaving Lewisburg, Fromhart told the girls to be sure to use the restroom because it was a long ride home. Of course, the girls either didn’t listen or had a lot to drink on the ride.
“We’ve already turned and we’re on 92 before you get to Huntersville, and I hear from the back of the bus, ‘Mrs. Fromhart,’” she said. “You know what came next. There, near Huntersville, there was a picnic area and toilets right there at that bridge. So I told the bus driver to pull over.
“So Peck got his flashlight,” she continued. “We got out and looked at the bathroom. There’s not a girl on that bus that’s going to come in here and use this bathroom, I thought. I said, ‘it’s filthy dirty. I wouldn’t use it.’ He said, ‘there’s only one that needs to use the bathroom.’ I said, ‘Peck, as soon as that one said she had to, I bet every girl on that bus has got to go to the bathroom.’”
Needless to say, Fromhart was right. At 11 p.m., after a basketball game and a long bus ride, all but one girl on the bus used that rest stop that night. While some would be discouraged and say “never again,” Fromhart said it was things like that that kept her going for so long.
“There was always something kind of funny going on,” she said.
The impact Fromhart’s students had on her life are obvious as she tells stories about them. It’s even visible in her home as a drawing by one student hangs on the wall in her dining room.
“[She] was a student of mine and she was a good artist,” Fromhart said. “She had that picture and I said, ‘what are you going to do with that?’ She said, ‘I don’t know,’ so she gave it to me.”
Not a day goes by that Fromhart doesn’t think of her former students and her times teaching at Green Bank Elementary/Middle School.
As an active member of the Dunmore United Methodist Church and a knitting club at Green Bank Library, she always has a story to tell, and nine times out of 10, that story is about the students who changed her life forever.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org