@Photo CUTLINE:Grace Spradley helped shape hundreds of young minds as the kindergarten teacher at the Little Red Schoolhouse. The building is still in use as a meeting space for the Covington Service Guild and several other organizations today. - Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith
COVINGTON -- Grace Spradley has newspaper clippings and programs from school plays dating back to 1954 stacked neatly on her dining room table. These are the mementos that jog the memories of what she describes as a joyful time in her life, the 20 years or so she spent teaching at the Little Red Schoolhouse.
Spradley, then known as Mrs. Budd, worked as a teacher's assistant and then as head teacher at the schoolhouse located on Newton Drive from the '50s until the late '70s. The schoolhouse was built by the Covington Service Guild in 1945 specifically to provide kindergarten classes, which weren't part of the public school system at that time.
Spradley paints an idyllic picture of school days gone by when fresh milk was delivered right to the schoolhouse door.
Spradley found she could relate to her pupils best by talking about nature, bugs and insects, and even snakes, creatures she once feared. A mother of four boys, one of Spradley's sons encouraged her to touch a snake he'd found in the yard.
"It wasn't what I thought it would be; it helped me to get over my fear of snakes," she said. So much so that when a student found a green snake near the schoolhouse and asked if the class could keep it, she let them.
Spradley kept the snake in a jar that had previously held a praying mantis, but admitted that much of the time, it was in her students' pockets.
"The little green snake was in the jar one morning. We were looking at it and I said, 'I wonder how long it is?' Can you imagine trying to measure a snake? I wish somebody had a camera," she said, recalling that she and her students got down on the floor with a yard stick and determined the snake was between 16 and 18 inches long.
"Being a mother of young scouts I was very interested in nature at that time and the children loved it," she said.
The snake was returned to its natural habitat by the end of the week, and some of the children, just like Spradley, had seen their fear of the reptiles vanquished. It's one of her fondest memories.
Another is the time she was reading to a little girl; when Spradley stopped reading, the little girl picked it right up.
"I said, 'Who taught you how to read?' And she said, 'You did.'"
She was in charge of up to 64 students a day; so popular was the kindergarten program that an afternoon session was added. The school could hold 32 students per session. Morning session took place from 8:15 to 11:15 a.m. and afternoon session from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m.
Buncie Hay Lanners was a student of Spradley's who remembers her teacher as "a gentle spirit and a ray of sunshine."
"My mother said my Grandmother Fowler got in line at 6 a.m. for registration," Lanners noted. Spradley recalled there were so many applicants, some had to be turned away.
Lanners' favorite memories of kindergarten include dressing up as Old Mother Goose and singing during the popular end-of-year school production.
Spradley said kindergarten was a happier experience for students and teachers in those days, full of dancing, singing and learning poetry, in addition to science and nature projects.
"I liked their enthusiasm and they were right ready to learn. It was a joy to work with them and to see them grow and develop and get ready for the first grade. By the end of the year, some of them could read, all of them could write, copy anything from the board," she said.
"I didn't have any prepared professional curriculum. It wasn't available because public school didn't have kindergarten at that time so I had to do much work on my own of getting materials ready for them," she added.
Spradley began assistant teaching alongside her sister-in-law Margaret Stephenson and then Dorothy McDonald before she was hired as head teacher in 1964. She stayed until the state of Georgia began offering public kindergarten in the late '70s.
"I thought, I'm not ready to hang it up. I just enrolled in Georgia State and drove back and forth up there and graduated cum laude," she said. Spradley earned her degree in early childhood education and went to work at Social Circle Elementary School, where she remained until her retirement in 1992.
Although she appreciated the objectives provided and the testing used to measure student progress, she also missed the close relationships she had fostered with her students at the Little Red Schoolhouse.
"In public school you don't have that family feeling, that closeness with the children like you do in a private kindergarten. They just felt like they were my children.
"I'm a small person and it was easy for me to sit in a kindergarten chair. The children would come and put their arms around me and kiss me on the cheek. You don't have that in public school."
Spradley runs into her students from time to time, though she admits they often recognize her but not vice versa. "They've all grown up," she said, noting that most are parents and some grandparents.
"Oh, I loved those kids and they loved me," she said. She has a thank you card dated 1960, signed by "Your Children," to prove it.