When I attended elementary school way back in the 1960s, Cherokee County had a population of less than 25,000 people and when I graduated Cherokee High in 1970 only 31,000 called our county home.

When the 2019-2020 school year kicked off last week more than 42,000 students walked the halls of county elementary, middle and high schools, an unbelievable 10,000 more students than our entire population was back then. Our population is now over 250,000, 10 times what it was when I was in elementary school.

As I sat listening to Cherokee County School Board Chairwoman Kyla Cromer talk to the Rotary Club of Canton Tuesday about this school year I was struck with how much things have changed for our students, and also how much they remain the same.

I was also reminded of the mammoth job our educators have to transport, feed and educate all those students, and to do it at the absolute highest level of success.

It made me proud to call Cherokee County my home.

One of the new endeavors Cromer talked about was the Social and Emotional Learning program started this year and headed by native and former Cherokee High principal Debra Murdock.

The program is designed to help put focus on letting our young people know they are not just numbers in the classroom, and that teachers and all those in the school system care about their emotional well-being and their individual paths to success.

In a world of increasing pressure for high achievement, peer pressure through social media and other means and changing world values, it is wonderful that the school administration recognizes the need to go back to the basics of caring for the child.

We had that when I was growing up. But those times were so much simpler. Most of our mothers did not work. Those who did had grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles to help look after their children until they could get home.

Almost everyone had extended family nearby. Back in those days everyone really did know everyone. Most people worked right in the community, and of those who did commute out, most went to Lockheed to work and knew each other there.

Neighbors took care of neighbors, and watched out for each other’s children. People just seemed to connect more back then face to face.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there were no children who struggled in different ways, whether from not enough to eat at home to disciplinary problems, but somehow we all seemed to circle around more to let folks know we cared and understood.

But it was Cromer’s remarks about school lunches and nutrition that most transported me back to those days when I was growing up in small town Canton.

This school year, statistics from the Cherokee County School System show that 5 million meals will be served.

Cromer told us about the School Nutrition program under the direction of Tina Farmer, and how much lunches have improved since the good old days.

She mentioned how when we were all growing up we all seemed to have at least one meal a week that was sort of a mystery meat, no matter where in the country we lived.

These days in Cherokee County students are eating such nutritious dishes as kale salad, honey lime rainbow fruit salad, black bean corn salsa, or Tex-Mex quinoa bowl. There are even recipes on the county school website for those who want to make them at home.

Menus for the month are published online so that students can know what to expect.

Back when I was a student, we just filed into the cafeteria in a neat line and found out what we were eating that day. Lunches cost 35 cents and I think those who didn’t have the means to pay were just sort of waved on through. Everyone ate.

The lunchroom manager at Canton Elementary was Mrs. Fanny Bell. She was a relative of mine, and lived just down Main Street from my grandmother.

She stood there at the front of the lunchroom every single day. She was always immaculately put together with her hair up in a sort of French twist, if I remember correctly. And she seemed to know every student by name.

Our lunches were hardy. I had not even heard of fast food back in those days. We didn’t have anything like that in Canton until I was in high school.

We were all used to eating a well-rounded but unimaginative meat, starch and vegetable diet, cooked at home by our mothers and at school by the lunchroom staff. We ate a lot of pinto beans, turnip greens, cornbread and chicken, as I remember.

I do remember that we always had fish on Fridays. I assume it was because of religious dietary concerns, but everyone I knew was either Baptist or Methodist, and as far as I could tell all that really dictated was whether you could drink alcoholic beverages in public or not.

I have heard so many former students over the years talk about how much the lunchroom staff always meant to them, how a warm smile and a friendly greeting always meant just as much as the food served up.

These days, a lot of new things are cooking in our school system, helping to make it the best it can be.

Most of all, there is a new emphasis on caring about the individual student’s well-being and that is the best news of all.

Rebecca Johnston is a native of Cherokee County and a retired managing editor of the Cherokee Tribune.

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