GULFPORT — When the students filed into the fellowship hall Tuesday morning, their elderly guests were waiting — each sitting alone at a round table.
The middle schoolers split up, three kids joining each senior citizen. They pulled out their worksheets: two pages of questions.
For weeks, the 16 students at Walden School had been studying the 1920s through 1940s. They had read about flappers and F. Scott Fitzgerald, about the stock market and its crash, dance marathons and the Dust Bowl. They had learned to play marbles and jacks.
Then their teacher had put advertisements in the bulletin at Gulfport's First United Methodist Church, where the school is located, and in the local weekly paper, inviting anyone who grew up during the Great Depression to come share their memories.
In 1998, when Judy Jemison started this unit at her school, 22 people signed up to talk to the students. This year, there were five.
"There are just so few of them left," Jemison said. "This will probably be the last year we get to do this."
Angelo Tarascio, 88, had his daughter drive him more than an hour to be there. Betty Barrs, 90, walked across the street from the house she had lived in since she was 3. Bill and Eva Marie Watson, 92 and 89, only drove a few blocks.
And Gladys Ledwell Spaulding, 94, brought a century of memories.
While the students introduced themselves, she unpacked her canvas bag: an oil lamp, a china doll, an embroidered tea towel. A tin plate inscribed with the alphabet. A worn blue scrapbook, three-inches thick.
"Oooh," she said, opening the binder. "I have so many things to show you."
• • •
How do you explain to children who grew up taking half-hour hot showers what it was like to walk to a well, pump water, carry the heavy bucket home, heat the water on the stove, then pour it into a tub, just to take a shallow bath?
How can you describe to kids who grew up clicking through galaxies on the Internet the joy you got from just watching ants?
"We didn't have television, a phone or even a radio," Gladys told them. "Can you imagine the quiet?" The students couldn't imagine. "But we were never, ever bored."
Dante Vogtner, 12, stared at her in disbelief. Finally, he asked, "Well, what did you do for fun?"
"Oh, we read Grimms Fairy Tales, the whole book again and again. When it snowed we went sledding," Gladys said. "And in the fall we raked the leaves into big piles and jumped in them."
The students looked at each other. "And . . .,'' Dante said. "That was fun?"
Gladys was born in 1918, in the tiny village of Collinsville, Ohio, pop. 125. She was 7 when her father got the flu and died.
"There was no welfare at the time, so Mother had to raise us three children on her own," Gladys told the students. "She got a job making lunches at our school for $5 a week, but we mostly ate out of our garden."
She was 11, the same age as many of the students, when the Depression hit. "But we didn't really lose anything because we didn't have anything," she said.
She told them about stitching together broken shoelaces, darning socks and patching pants.
"When our shoes wore out, we would trace the bottoms on a box of Shredded Wheat, cut out the cardboard and that would be the new sole," she said.
She told them about shoveling coal into the stove, eating chickens from the yard, using a chamber pot.
Dante asked, "What's a chamber pot?"
• • •
At the end of the hour, the students had learned that during the Depression, Bill delivered newspapers that cost 15 cents a week, but most people didn't have the money to pay him.
Angelo told them about raising rabbits as a boy — so his family would have meat.
The kids couldn't believe people actually ate dandelions. Or that, up north, an orange counted as a Christmas present.
"I'd hate to live back then. I mean, they didn't have anything. Not even a phone," said D.J. Worles, 11. "That's the part I don't get," he told his teacher. "They didn't seem mad or sad about it. They all said they were so happy growing up." How could anyone be happy without a phone?
Gladys didn't talk about her husband, about working as a secretary at a safe company, about raising her son and daughter or her four grandkids or moving to Florida. She stuck to the era the students were studying, showed them everyday things, like a handkerchief. "What's a handkerchief?" An embroidered tea towel. "What's embroidery?" In her scrapbook, she flipped through paper dolls she had cut from a Sears catalog.
The students nodded and took notes but kept stealing glances at each other. Nearly 90 minutes had crawled by. They were supposed to be eating lunch.
When Gladys finally closed her binder, the students thanked her.
"Oh, I'm so glad you enjoyed that," she said, beaming. "Because I've got eight more scrapbooks to share."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.