Chapter 19

Memories of the Sanibel School

By Christine Gault (Daughter of Mary Bell)

I remember the outhouse out in back of the school, how smelly and scary it was to me, a scrawny six-year-old. I remember the yawning hole into which I could fall if I wasn’t very careful. My memory has the corners draped in spider webs and big black spiders staring at me from their lair. Lizards scooted about. I tried very hard to hold my urge as long as I could to avoid that terror.

There wasn’t running water. To wash our hands we used water from a pump out back. There wasn’t a phone. No surprise, the only phone available to us when we moved to the island was down by the ferry landing.

My mother, Mary Bell, tells me that when we were deciding to move to Sanibel in 1953, she made sure there was a school but never thought to make sure there were bathrooms. Soon after our arrival she and Fanetta Stahlin, the mother of one of the two families that moved with us from Michigan, made the trip on the ferry to Punta Rassa. They drove past cattle ranches, orange groves, and gladiolus farms all the way to Ft. Myers. There they demanded that the school board provide bathrooms. The following year a brand new addition was added to the back of the school with two bathrooms – one for the boys and one for the girls. I remember the smell of those bathrooms – new cement. Since there were only about 15 children from first to the sixth grade, this was luxurious.

There were several teachers at first. Later I was told that teaching on Sanibel was considered a hardship assignment that didn’t attract many applicants. Mr. Combs, an islander, briefly taught us when there wasn’t anyone else available. Sometimes Mrs. Rhodes, our bus driver, substituted. I remember that she would sometimes declare nature study days and take us all to the beach. Once on our way from school she screeched the bus to a halt, lumbered out of the driver’s seat and out the door. A few minutes later she returned with a gopher tortoise that she set up side down on the floor by her feet. It was to be her family’s dinner.

I remember one day Linda Jack, the daughter of another family that moved to the island with us, went into insulin reaction. The teacher didn’t understand diabetes and didn’t understand the danger. My older sister Mary Jo did. She took Linda outside on Periwinkle, flagged down a car, and convinced the driver to take them to the Sea Horse Shop, our family’s business. My mother took the girls down to our house on the bay and managed to stabilize Linda’s blood sugar by dribbling orange juice into her mouth.
Miss McCann was the teacher who stayed. I remember she made us sing the same song every morning, “Good Morning to you, good morning to you. We’re all in our places with sunshiny faces. Oh this is the way to start a new day.” She made us line up and show her our hands and nails. If they weren’t satisfactory, we were sent off to clean them. Or maybe that was one of the earlier teachers.

Miss McCann loved baseball. Every year we had to listen to the World Series. At recess we all played softball. With so few kids, all of us were needed to eke out two teams. We played in a large open field next to the school. To start the game, Miss McCann tossed an upright bat to one of the captains. Fist over fist the two captains alternated until the one whose fist last fitted on the bat won the privilege of making the first choice of teammates. I was always the last to be chosen. Since I was the smallest kid, I was pitched grounders that I mostly missed anyway. I hate baseball.

I remember there was a big old stove near the door farthest away from the entrance – close to where the stove is today. My older sister, Mary Jo, remembers burning her arm on that stove. There was a huge blackboard across the wall behind the teacher’s desk. Of all the jobs listed on the board, cleaning the blackboard was my favorite. I loved how shiny and dark the naked board looked. My next choice was cleaning the felt erasers. I remember the muffled sound of the erasers as they knocked together and the clouds of dust that engulfed me.
I remember storing the lunches we brought with us every day in the refrigerator in the back room. Little red cartons of milk were delivered every day.
I remember a large metal swing set on the other side of the school from the ball field. The repetitious brushing of our feet across the ground wore shallow scrapes under each swing. After rains, it was often damp in those depressions. One day there was quite a hubbub because a large animal print was found there. It was thought to be a panther print. My memory is that someone made a plaster cast of it. A few days later, all the kids in the school were walking down Periwinkle to visit the annual shell fair. We were all very excited. The big boys went first as scouts. I have a memory that after we had gone quite a distance, they came running back to tell us they had seen the panther. We had to turn around. I was so disappointed. Maybe the boys were merely pranksters, but if so, they must have been mad at themselves because instead of spending the day at the shell fair, we spent it back at school.
Since there were so few of us in all six grades, we were split into basically two grades – first through third, and fourth through sixth. It must have been difficult for any teacher to address the needs of all of her students in that situation. And I don’t remember much of the actual lessons. I do know that although there were some weaknesses in my early education (such as spelling and punctuation); I learned a lot at that school. And what great memories it gave me.

Mary Bell was the original owner of the Seahorse Shop and Cottages. Many recall that it had the most unusual little outdoor market atmosphere with a row of doors that opened back, leaving the entire front adrift with the sounds and winds of the sea. It provided an outlet for the shell jewelry made by her husband. Today the Seahorse Shop is the second-oldest retail shop on the island. Mary’s involvement in numerous pre-city issues aided in the incorporation of Sanibel.

Mozella Jordan was a crusader for equality in education for all island children. Along with Mary Bell, she was instrumental in the Sanibel School becoming the first integrated campus in Lee County. Mozella and her husband were the first African American couple to purchase property on the island. Mozella was dedicated to her family and church. She became Sanibel’s most popular caterer.