Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Chata-Ima Junior High

In February of 1976 News Banner reporter Polly Morris wrote an elegy for a burned out school building in Lacombe. Entitled "Elegy Written in Country Courtyard," the article told of the shock and impact that the burning of Chahta-Ima Junior High School had had on the community.

As she often did, she captured the myriad detailed emotional reactions of not just the fire, but also the loss of the physical locations where so many memories had been made over the years.

Here is her article:

Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard

By Polly Morris, Feature Writer

It was like going to the wake of a steadfast friend...

People came in funeral gloom to pay their last respects to the blackened remains of what had once been a school that had pulsed with life. Now it lay defeated and defenseless, a grotesque thing that was without the decency or dignity of a peaceful death.

The twisted girders, the contorted pipes, and the charred timbers told of a grim story of the violent convulsions and consuming flames that laid it low long before its useful life was over.

Even in its death throes, the building seemed to resent the end of its service, for an occasional flame would rise briefly in protest above the plumes of gray smoke that were like crape floating from the ruins.

This pitiful thing had once been Chata-Ima, the Lacombe school that was named after a black-robed priest, faithful Father Rouquette... and quite appropriately. Both had served the community for about a quarter of a century.

From 1962 to 1976

Chata-Ima Junior High School was built in an area where they Choctaw Indians once roamed. It was not an old school, for it had begun life in 1962, when its ten classrooms held 175 pupils. Year after year, its school bell had summoned to class the students, the pupils, and the teachers... and the drama of life within the four R's.

Here tearful mothers brought their frightened children for the first day in the first grade. They had learned their A, B, C's and how to write their names, and how chalk screeched on a blackboard. They had stayed after school to wash erasers, or do extra lessons, or to write 100 times the words "I am sorry I pulled her braids."

Here bashful juvenile beaus slipped affectionate notes to shy girls who only pretended they hated boys. Here the teachers desktop was piled with apples and flowers, while the desk drawers were filled with forbidden things like slingshots, water pistols and comic books.

Chata-Ima knew many secrets about blobs of bubble gum stuck under desks and initials carved into its walls. It knew of the shame of when a pupil was caught cheating... of whispering in the study sessions... and of tears shed in the restrooms when the teacher had scolded a pupil, or the dumb-bell of the class had failed to pass the exam.

Chata-Ima knew when the pupils were punished or applauded. When new pupils moved in, or when they moved away, or when they left in caps and gowns. The school also knew the parents who came to protest or promote many events that happened within its rooms. 

The Sprucing-Up

It remembered the summer when it was so shabby that mothers and teachers and children trooped to the school, armed with brushes and buckets of paint, giving some of their vacation to brighten its scuffed and scarred walls.

Chata-Ima school was also as aware of its faults as fully as were the parents and pupils. It was only a frame building on a one way street. If it caught fire, there would be panic indeed on the little road, as fire trucks competed with parents for the right-of-way.

Police Juror Angelo Bosco constructed a new street to the school, but his efforts were thwarted by the railroad who refused to give permission for a crossing.

The Bayou Women's Republican Club tried repeatedly to plead with the railroad through petitions, but were politely refused. The new Jaycees of Lacombe decided on more drastic action, and called in Ed Marten, the Action Reporter of WWL-TV.

Chata-Ima, the country cousin of a school, was suddenly a celebrity. Camera crews came over the the spotlight was turned on Chata-Ima for over a year. Under such scathing publicity, the railroad finally consented to the crossing, and Chata-Ima went back to the daily routine... until February 1, 1976.

The Fire

Chata-Ima was sleeping peacefully in the early morning when tiny tiny flames broke into a furious roaring fire, whipped by a strong wind. Chata-Ima did not have a chance. It was doomed before the Lacombe Volunteer Fire Department could fill their portable tanks with water.

By the time the Mandeville, Covington, and Slidell firemen arrived to aid the local firemen, Chata-Ima was in its last agony of death. By dawn it was only a smouldering skeleton.

One man who had learned his 3 R's in Chata-Ima was heard to regretfully remark, "There was a lot of memories in that building." Another replied, "And they are all gone up in smoke."

Soon the bulldozers will haul away the debris of Chata-Ima, and the only thing left will be the smoky memories of a school that pulsed life like an almost living thing. 

See also:

Other articles by Polly Morris


Polly Morris joined the writing team at the Mandeville Banner in February of 1974.