The next time you’re cleaning house, and you see a stack of papers, think twice before you toss them aside. A West Tennessee woman is thankful she took a closer look.
One recent Saturday, 34-year-old Tiffiany Lee of Huron, Tennessee was cleaning out a desk that “came with the house” when she bought it last year. “I found these papers, handwritten and folded in half,” she said. There were about thirty of them, and curiosity got the best of her. She read the first one, and she was hooked.
“They were dated 1963, and it was a writing assignment for 10th graders,” she said. Each paper was signed, but she couldn’t find the name of the school. There were references to a town named Trenton, but she thought it might be Trenton, Tennessee. She showed them to her ten-year-old nephew, who was fascinated, but baffled. “They are written in cursive, but since they don’t teach that in school now, it was all foreign to him.”
She was determined to find the authors of these 53-year-old papers, each titled “My Life.” “They were mini-autobiographies,” she said. A teacher named Mr. Smith, who had previously owned the house, had assigned his 10th graders to write about their lives.
The students, around 15 years old at the time, wrote about their friends, their homes, and their hobbies. “One girl had been a junior bridesmaid in her aunt’s wedding when she was 11, and wrote that she got to wear stockings and heels. I guess that was a big deal back then!”
In her quest to find the writers, Tiffiany shared her story with some 700 Facebook friends, hoping that they could make a connection to find the school, and hopefully the students who wrote about their lives a half-century ago.
Within 24 hours, she had tracked down about half of them. Her friends made contact with people who had attended Dade County High in Trenton, Georgia. She learned that S. J. (Joe) Smith, then a first-year teacher, had assigned the three-page autobiographies to his sophomore English class. “He had graded and corrected each of the papers,” she said, “and he kept them all of his life.” She believes he died around 2007.
The response from the Dade students, who went on to graduate in 1966, was immediate and emotional. Tiffiany was thrilled to hear from them, and to share the life stories they had written long ago. Sadly, she learned that five of the students had passed away, but their surviving spouses and children eagerly latched on to a newly discovered connection to their loved ones.
The late Paul Millican had written about his hobby. “I love to draw and paint,” he wrote. He added that his mother had ordered an eight-dollar art kit in the mail, and he was looking forward to using it. His daughter Melinda, now living in Minnesota told Tiffiany that her dad had enjoyed painting until his death in 2012. (His son Zack, who now lives in Boston, wrote to me, “He made art his career. He was so talented with graphic design, painting, woodworking and sculpting. He worked for TVA as a graphic designer. To read that his mother ordered an art kit is so touching. I know $8 was a lot of money to their family. It was such an important part to the rest of his life. To be able to see my dad’s picture at 15 is heartwarming.”)
Another student wrote how about she enjoyed going to a movie theater to see a new movie called “Cleopatra” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Tiffiany laughed as she read a girl’s hobby: “I enjoy the company of boys.” She remarked that she was struck by the innocence of the writers and their dreams, especially compared to the bold, direct language frequently used today.
There were references to the typical teen activities of the era: Pony League baseball, piano lessons, 4-H Club projects, sewing, and scouting. The maladies of the day were mentioned: mumps, measles, and even one child who had battled polio. Several girls proudly admitted they were tomboys who loved to play football and climb trees. One remarked she was embarrassed to have to wear a skirt in school, revealing her scratched-up legs “that make me look like a tattooed lady.”
Linda Bray York was surprised to learn that she had written about her desire to “be a baby doctor.” She said, “I don’t even remember the assignment. But I did have aspirations to be a nurse and was interested in cosmetology. I became a hairdresser in 1978 and am still enjoying it. I’m so glad this young lady found our papers.”
Tiffiany says the papers don’t contain many details of mischief, although one student admitted to “crushing leaves and rolling them in a newspaper, and then smoking them.” Compared to the easy accessibility of much stronger stuff in 2016, those were innocent times indeed.
The Dade class of 1966 reunion, scheduled for October, is likely to have a special guest. Tiffiany Lee plans to make the five-hour drive to personally deliver the papers to the once wide-eyed teens who put their hopes and dreams to pen and paper. “I’m probably more excited than they are,” she told me. “I feel like I’ve made thirty new friends.”