This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Basin Education

Most of us assume that the word “education” means reading, writing and arithmetic, and in the restricted sense that would be true. In this restricted sense, these are learned skills that would be taught by paid teachers in some sort of dedicated building. But, of course, in so many ways the true education received by people in general includes much, much more than that. A definition of education in this more general sense might emphasize the need to learn those skills necessary to provide food, clothing and shelter for oneself. Perhaps the need for social skills might be added to this.

The Myette Point families had ample education in the general sense. They learned to convert energy into food and shelter at an early age. They learned the social skills needed to thrive in close living conditions. They learned how to apply established techniques to the problems of everyday life, and to discard those that were not workable – always substituting some variation that might work better. Government agencies have only recently learned this useful process; they call it adaptive management, as though it was a new thing.

If food, clothing and shelter are the primary criteria for life, and skills for achieving those things are available from mentors all around you, then the other skills are simply not essential. During a certain period of time, then, reading, writing and arithmetic were not necessary to living a successful life in the Basin, and the absence of schools for teaching these things was not a serious issue or a disadvantage.

However, even in the Basin some of the Myette Point families had opportunities to learn in the schoolroom. There were two of these schools; the first one in the central Basin on the island known as Hog Island and the other, later one, on the levee after the Myette Point community had been formed. Both of these were the results of efforts by Baptist missionaries to bring religion and learning to Basin inhabitants.

The most memorable religious influence, at least to people who lived there, began with the building of the Little Brown Church. This floating building was used all up and down the middle Atchafalaya region for Baptist missionary work. There were two of these. The first was dismantled and used to build the Hog Island school. Margaret Couvillier Neal was a student at the school.

“When we first started out there, it was the Little Brown Church on the water. And we’d go to church on that. And after that they got it moved on the bank and made us a schoolhouse out of it.” [Margaret Neal, 2005]

The teachers at these Baptist missionary schools were often members of the missionary community. Sometimes they were the wives of the missionary men.

“Now, the teachers at Keelboat Pass was, uh, Ophi Mae Price…and uh…well first off, started out at Hog Island Pass…[. . .] …the last one there was a Mrs. Miller, she was the last teacher. She stayed in that…like, one side had a school room and the other side was like an apartment, and she stayed in the apartment and taught one through the eighth grade. In one room, yeah. And so you…you learned quite a bit.” [Robert Vuillemont, 2006]

It should be mentioned that, prior to the Baptist activity, there was Catholic missionary work in the Basin also, in the person of a Father R.J. Gobeil. With his own boats, he moved himself around the Basin, ministering to the houseboat communities where he found them. Even though there was education offered, it tended toward progressing in stages through the Catholic religion, and there is no mention of interest in starting schools where secular learning could be had. On the other hand, the Baptist missionaries tended to promote schools within the larger framework of general education.

“Well, Keelboat and Hog Island, they had a lot of people on em. But you see, the Catholic had been out there for years, but they never…they never started no schools. When Brother Marks came out there, well, immediately he saw the need to put kids in school.” [Edward Couvillier, 1997]

Increasing pressure from government policies regarding compulsory education was one of the reasons why the Myette Point families decided to leave the Basin and the houseboats they had lived on for generations. Most people migrated to towns and could take advantage of school facilities existing there. The Myette Point families did their best to comply with the required school experience and still continue to live and function in close harmony with the Atchafalaya. They moved to Myette Point and then started sending their children to Franklin schools. This did not work due to the difficulty of getting the kids to a bus, about three miles over dirt/mud roads. After leaving the water permanently, all of them by 1950 or so, the requirement to send the children to school and the difficulties this still presented, attracted more effort from Ira Marks, the Baptist missionary who had been responsible for setting up the school and missionary church at Hog Island more than a decade earlier. The primary difficulty was in getting the school-age children living on the levee to a place where a school bus could pick them up. In the early years, this meant someone driving them to “the front” over questionably passable dirt/mud roads the distance of about three miles. In rainy/muddy weather, they had to walk. Noting this difficulty, and in collaboration with the Baptists, the community built a school on the skirt of the levee that functioned for three years. The school was finally closed when a road was shelled (the building continued to function as a church), improving it to the point where a school bus could reach the levee and transport the children. The children born after about 1945, then, were all schooled first in Franklin, then at Myette Point until the road was improved, and then most of them finished in Franklin.

So, education, formal education, has that kind of history in the four generations of people who make up the Myette Point community. Literacy was spread widely in people born around the Basin in the 1850s, it was not prevalent in those born from 1880 to 1940, and then it was again prominent. It is interesting that literacy, when not necessary to day-to-day life, can be so easily discontinued. Having been a factor in the first generation, it was not encouraged within the second and third generations, and then was reestablished as a functional tool by the fourth generation. Today, children born to the fourth generation are themselves teachers, lawyers, accountants, religious leaders, and many other professions that take formal education for granted.
The black and white pictures are from the collection of Darlene Soule and from Artie Buck.

The river is at 16.7 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling slowly to 15.0 feet by the 17th. Nothing in the Ohio or Mississippi wants to extend the high water this year. Looks like we have had what we are going to get.

Rise and Shine, Jim


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