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‘Miss Polly’ has seen it all in Nashville’s schools

Back in 1946, Polly Sheldon packed up her L.C. Smith typewriter and stepped onto a public bus for a ride to her new job as a clerk-typist for Nashville schools.
Today that position is called school secretary, and every school has one, but Miss Polly — as everybody calls her — was one of the first two in the district.
Over the years, she’s seen dozens of changes, from drastically reduced class sizes to the beginning of the free-lunch program to the integration of schools.
After 55 years as a school secretary and then a secretary and executive assistant in the system’s central office, Miss Polly tidied her desk for the last time last November. When her vacation days were used up, she officially retired Jan. 1, much to the dismay of her boss.
“I just shudder to think what we’ll do,’’ said Aldorothy Wright, assistant superintendent of student services. “Her record of attendance is just unparalleled. Even if she took a vacation day, she’d say, ‘If you need me, call me and I will come in and help.’ That was just Polly, always wanting to do whatever it took, even at an inconvenience to herself, to make sure things were done right.’’
To Miss Polly, who has never married, her devotion to the system for more than five decades has been amply rewarded.
‘’There’s just something you get from the schools, working in the community with the children and parents,’’ she said. ‘’I know the school system has given me so much more than I have given them.’’
Miss Polly was born in Nashville, one of four siblings in a close family with a stay-at-home mom and a father who left the ministry to teach at what is now the Auto Diesel College in Nashville.
“We were never left alone,’’ Miss Polly recalled. “Mother just took such good care of us.’’ Growing up in east Nashville, she attended Warner Elementary, East Junior High and East High.
“We were just one happy family,’’ she said of East High days. “There was such a closeness with our classmates,’’ a camaraderie that remains through an alumni group in which Miss Polly is an officer.
But no one particularly encouraged her to go to college after graduation in 1942, so she took a job at a local brokerage firm. After two years, she was offered a manager’s job there. She turned it down for a year at Nashville Business College, where she honed her skills and began to eye the school system.
She spent 1945 as a substitute teacher, an experience she says made her more empathetic to teachers and principals as they dealt with students.
One day, “I was at West Junior (High) and with this young man at the close of the day, when something or other happened,’’ she recalled. And here she lowers her voice to a whisper, because profanity is definitely not a part of the vocabulary of this devoted member of the Eastview Church of Christ in East Nashville.
“He told me to go to – – – -,’’ she said, spelling out the word rather than pronouncing it. “I sent him to the office and, of course, he apologized. That was unusual back then, and that boy is now an elder at a Nashville church. I think responsibilities are greater for principals today be-cause we didn’t have violence back then.’’
Miss Polly has seen plenty of other changes in the schools over the decades.
When she was hired on Sept. 16, 1946, the 23-year-old divided her time between Warner and Buena Vista elementary schools, where she provided her own supplies and served as a surrogate mom.
“I carried my own typewriter to school every day, and we bought our own supplies such as shorthand tablets,’’ she said. “We would take the children home or give them aspirin for a headache or toothache. There was no free-lunch program; we would provide lunches for those in need or lend money to students for lunches.’’
And the schedule and class sizes back then would amaze modern-day parents.
First grade was only a half day, Miss Polly remembered, and first-grade teachers each taught both a morning and an afternoon session. Class sizes from first grade up averaged 30-35 students, with no official cap set by state regulations.
“We never heard of an oversized class,’’ Miss Polly said.
She skims over the unhappy days when Nashville was caught up in the throes of integrating its schools.
“We had two black children at Glenn and one at Buena Vista,’’ she said. “Throngs of people would come to school,’’ including angry parents, police officers and media. “That is something I would not want to experience again.’’
Through it all, she has maintained the highest professional standards. She became a lifetime member of the National Education Association in the 1950s and was a charter member of the Nashville chapter of the International Association of Office Professionals in 1953. She’s taken classes at Lipscomb University.
“Throughout my career, I have operated as professionally as I know how,’’ she said.
Miss Polly’s relaxed retirement schedule probably won’t stay leisurely for long.
She’s eager to spend more time with Rusty, her beloved kitty cat, and with her sister and brother-in-law, with whom she’s lived for 50 years.
“They’re in their 80s now, and they’ve been so kind to me for all these years,’’ Miss Polly said. “I’m grateful to be able to help them.’’
If her family duties allow, she’d love to visit New Zealand and some Scandinavian countries, to top off her previous visits to Europe and the Holy Land. And then there’s the mystery of her computer.
“The computer intimidates me. Isn’t that terrible?’’ she said. ‘’But I’m going to master it.’’ But she still can’t quite let go of Metro (schools), and she may keep her hand in as part-time historian.
“She’s the history of the system,’’ said Julie Waters, executive assistant to the school system director. Waters was just 6 years old when Miss Polly cared for young Julie and other faculty members’ children during afternoon staff meetings.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do without her,’’ Waters said. “If it’s been done, she remembers it and can tell you about it.’’
Copyrighted by The Tennessean, NASHVILLE, TENN., NOV. 26, 2001

Filed under: People Staff Reports

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