August 16 is Putnam City’s date. For Moore it’s August 15, while Edmond waits until August 21. But no matter when school begins, one thing remains the same: school doors will open. Outwardly. And all because of what happened in1924 in a one-room—and one door—schoolhouse in Babbs Switch, Oklahoma.
Oklahoma author Darleen Bailey Beard first heard about Babbs Switch when she was only eight. Her grandmother Oraleah would tell Darleen stories about growing up in Oklahoma. The story of Babbs Switch was one that Darleen never forgot. Here’s a synopsis from the book The Babbs Swtich Story:
It was Christmas Eve, and the townspeople had come to enjoy the school’s annual Christmas Tree Celebration. A potpourri of fragrances greeted everyone who entered the newly-painted schoolhouse: fresh spruce trimmings, kerosene oil lamps, a coal burning stove, and leftover turpentine paint rags and cans. The stage was set with a towering Christmas tree decorated with dozens of flickering candles. Light from the candles and the lamps provided much needed illumination, since all the windows were covered with steel netting to prevent vandals from coming back to steal more of the school’s precious coal supply.
During a stage mishap, the tree fell into the audience, igniting everyone in its vicinity. Thirty five people died that night. The tragedy might have been averted if not for four things: the tree was candle-lit, the windows were obstructed, the door opened inwardly, and the door was the only exit.
Seventy nine years after the fact, in 2003, Darleen Bailey Beard received an Oklahoma Book Award for The Babbs Switch Story. Written for a fifth-sixth grade audience, the story is enlivened by fictional characters who lead ordinary, yet extraordinary, lives. For example, the main character Ruthie Tillman (sometimes) hates her sister Daphne; Daphne happens to be obsessed with soft things and counting. The Tillman family has a car; it’s a tin lizzie that drives up hills—backwards. Ruthie and Elden tryst at Lover’s Lane; Stinky the dog comes too. Far-reaching legislation guarantees that 35 people didn’t die in vain; yet the book ends with an unsolved mystery. While the characters in The Babbs Switch Story are marked by tragedy, they are not overwhelmed by it.
Bailey Beard began writing at the age of ten. Her first story, Nancy and her Pet Octopus, was praised by her fifth grade teacher, who said, “You are a really good writer, Darleen. I think if you keep at it, you could write a real book one day.” Darleen says, “I was young enough to believe her.”
Since then, she has earned a degree in Professional Writing from the University of Oklahoma and written four books. (See DarleenBaileyBeard.com.) Her most recent, Operation Clean Sweep, has been nominated for a 2007 Sequoyah Award. (Sequoyah Award books are chosen by Oklahoma schoolchildren, while Oklahoma Book Award recipients are selected by a panel of adult judges.)
These days, Bailey Beard spends much of her time doing what she enjoys as much as writing: making school presentations. During one of the author’s recent school visits, a shy 10-year-old student told Darleen, “I liked your book. I can relate to Ruthie because I also have to put up with an older sister who isn’t quite right.” With encouragement like that, Bailey Beard will keep going back to the place where she first believed she could be a writer: the classroom.
How to . . . Make Reading Intentional
“Give books as gifts,” says Darleen. In fact, she gives books so often that her daughter Karalee commented, “Mom! No one else gets books from the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy.”
“Add a library visit to your list of weekly errands. Before you know it, it will be a habit,” says Darleen, who goes on to say, “It’s fun to visit out-of-state libraries when you’re on vacation.”
See the “Oklahoma Reads” display at Best of Books, Kickingbird Square, Edmond.
Lori Williams is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about international adoption and the special needs child. Lori resides in Bethany with her husband Dean and daughter Aurelia