When your children complain about getting up early to go to school, about waiting for a bus, or even when they complain about school lunches, tell them the story of the children who attended Coal Branch School.
The segregated, one-room school that was transformed into a church on Sundays was located in a remote community in Lee County called Tallega. It was about 30 feet long and 24 feet wide with room for 15 to 20 children.
As far as the former students can recall, it was the only school black, interracial and Native American students could attend for years.
Their education was not as good as what white children received and the journey to the school was fraught with danger.
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Still, the students forged a familial bond the strength of which was evident at a reunion held in Jacobson Park on Sept. 17.
Thirteen of an estimated 30 students who are still living met there for the first time since the school closed to rehash memories as well as sorrows, but mostly to see how others had overcome the obstacles that were put in their way.
One was Fred Crawford, 85, who grew up in Beattyville and attended Coal Branch in the mid-1930s after a segregated school near his home merged because the black population in Lee County was dwindling.
"The teacher had a big car and he took us to Coal Branch," Crawford said. "I stood on the running boards and opened up the gates when we crossed through the fields. There were two of them."
At certain points on the trip though, they had to travel by foot, avoiding a bull that gave them chase on occasion.
The group also had to traverse a railroad trestle that crossed a creek. And therein lay the danger.
The trestle was at least 60 feet high and 450 feet long, with no room on the sides to stand if the train came through, which it sometimes did.
In 1955, when he was 17, Charles Lightfoot of Beattyville took over the responsibility of chauffeuring his mother, Lena, who taught at Coal Branch, and several children about 10 miles to the school and then walking with them the remaining three miles.
Mary T. Flynn, 60, said she and her brother Hugh Thompson were among the children Lightfoot helped across the trestle. She remembers the ties being so far apart, Lightfoot would walk down the middle and hold onto a child with each hand as they walked on the rails.
Sometimes, she said, "we would listen for the train by putting our ear on the track."
On Oct. 18, 1955, an unscheduled train rounded the bend and headed for the group.
Lightfoot said when the train was about a half mile away, he yelled for the children to run. Hugh Thompson, who had polio, couldn't move that quickly.
Flynn said her brother froze when he heard the whistle.
Lightfoot ran back and grabbed the boy and then dropped four feet off the side to a girder below the track that was two feet wide.
"It didn't bother me at the time," Lightfoot, now 73, said. "After the train passed, then my legs got weak."
Lightfoot was awarded the Carnegie Medal by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, given to people who risk their lives to save or try to save others.
Despite the danger, the children and their teacher continued to cross that trestle morning and afternoon until the children were allowed to attend white schools in the 1960s.
Former student Nancy Walker, 65, who grew up in the Tallega community near the school, said that because both her parents worked, sometimes seven days a week, she brought her infant and toddler siblings with her to school, which wasn't very conducive for learning. "I had to take the 2-year-old by hand and had the infant in a box," she said. "You get one quiet and the other would start crying."
Walker was the middle child of 11 and the oldest of her siblings still in school. She would leave school shortly before lunch to go home and cook for the children as well as the teacher.
Flynn said she and her siblings were left at the school with nothing to eat until they got back home. Her father, a widower, simply did not have enough money for lunch for his five children.
Someone from the school board noticed that and arranged for government commodities to be given to the school.
After that, the canned goods were put in a pot of water when school started and warmed for lunch.
Their math lessons were taught on a blackboard and they read from well-worn books. Their subjects were reading, writing and arithmetic, with no science or history to speak of.
When Brenda Spillman, 61, entered eighth grade at Lee County Junior High School, she had sat out of school much of the previous year because her parents needed her to earn money ironing for a woman in town. She remembers being far behind the white students, but she also remembers studying more at home to catch up.
Spillman and her brother, younger siblings to Walker, were the first in their family to graduate from high school. Coal Branch only went to eighth grade.
The one regret the Coal Branch former students voiced was the lack of education they received in comparison to their white counterparts. But they used that as motivation to encourage their own children to succeed at school.
By working multiple jobs, helping with homework and pushing their children in school, the Coal Branch students boast of having children who are nurses, skilled workers, and white-collar professionals.
Despite not getting much of an education themselves, or maybe because of it, they taught their children to value academics.
"One day I got up late and the car was gone," Crawford said of his ride to Coal Branch from Beattyville. "I walked all the way, all gravel road. It took most all day, but I got there and got a ride back home.
"I was anxious to learn," he said. "And I learned all I could."
Somehow, parents, we need to instill that love of learning, that need to be educated, in our children.
Tell them the story of Coal Branch School, of the students who bonded there, and see if that will help.
Those students may not have had a great education, but they had great determination and heart.