It was 1977, and the Fort Meade High School Class of 1919 had chosen this opportunity to join together for an October evening. The occasion of their dinner celebration was to commemorate the fifty-eighth anniversary of their high school graduation.
Though she lived far from Fort Meade, Florida, at the time, my grandmother, Rubie McClellan Davis, and her husband Jack were able to attend this special event. Jack and Rubie had made this a part of a grand itinerary, turning their travels from Columbus, Ohio, into a road trip that took in all their favorite sights—as well as adding a few new stops like Disney World.
The year of graduation itself may have brought up questions in the mind of anyone following these posts about my grandmother, who was born in 1899. If you do the math, you’d realize that Rubie’s June 13 birthday followed close after the May date of her 1919 graduation—and would have made her just shy of twenty years of age.
For someone used to current standardization of public schooling, when just about everyone begins first grade at the age of six—or will soon attain that age, if their birthday occurs in the autumn months before the school district’s official “cut off” date—it seems unusual to realize that this student would be two years older than the norm upon graduation.
There are some reasons for this.
First, in the earlier years of the previous century, not everyone started first grade upon reaching the age of six. In several states, parents enrolled their children when they deemed their children appropriately ready to begin formal schooling. Thus, a first grade class might have some students who were six and other students who were seven or eight.
Then, not every student in that century completed all twelve grades of formal schooling. Many left school after completing the elementary grades, or midway through the course of high school study, to find work to help support their family. Take a look at the census records for some of those early decades to see when your own ancestors left school to get a job or take up greater responsibility on the family farm. The earlier you go in our country’s history, the less likely it was to see any given student attain the rank of high school graduate.
Because the general public didn’t see public schooling in the regimented way we currently are accustomed to, it was not considered detrimental for a student to enter the process at a later age.
That was exactly what happened to Rubie. Instead of enrolling her in first grade upon attainment of what we consider the customary age, Rubie’s parents—at least, according to family lore—chose to keep her at home until her younger brother, Charles, was also able to enroll at the Fort Meade school. Rubie then became not only student, but escort and personal nanny for her little brother.
I suppose my grandmother resented that decision. From my aunt, I learned that my grandmother tried her best to conceal the year of her birth, offering instead the year 1900 to mitigate the otherwise obvious fact that she was two years older than “everyone else” in her class.
Of course, if she looked at it all in the reverse, she would have realized that indicating, as graduate, that she was a member of the class of 1919 would have been her ticket to appear younger than she was.