RUTH BARNES By: Winston
We were fortunate to have extraordinarily
good teachers at Opelika High School fifty or more years ago. One reason may have been that, for highly qualified females,
teaching was one of the few career paths open to them back then.
the best and the brightest who taught us in those days was a lady named Ruth Barnes. She was the strictest disciplinarian
in the school. She administered corporal punishment herself. None of this business of sending the recalcitrant
pupil down to see the principal. Her instrument for meting out instant justice- several yardsticks stacked together
with which she inflicted severe blows to the head, back and shoulders of the offender.
Oddly, she was probably the best-liked teacher in the school. Students worshipped her.
It was said that her chastisements were, in fact, a sign of her preferment- that she hit her favorites harder and more often
than ones less favored.
Miss Barnes was
brilliant- that’s the only word for it. She was an honors graduate at Randolph Macon- back when that institution
was considered the premier girl’s school in the South. She taught in the mathematics department at our high school.
Heck, she WAS the math department.
Barnes was a member of a prominent Opelika family. She lived with her sister, Celeta in a big Victorian house on Avenue
A. That section of Avenue A in Opelika sported several blocks of fine homes that housed a number of Opelika’s
well-heeled and influential families.
Reid Barnes, was a lawyer. After the death of his brother, Augustus, his widow married Reid. It was often said
that Ruth’s baby brother, Reid Jr., was one of the smartest boys ever to graduate from Opelika High. He went to
Birmingham and became one of the state’s leading lawyers. The Barneses had and have lots of family connections
here. Just to mention a few- Mary Barnes Newman, Polly Samford Jernigan, Orrin Brown IV and the late Victor Cherry and
Ruth had a sister-in-law, Marguerite Barnes,
who ran the cafeteria at Northside Grammar School during WWII. Later Miss Marguerite and her husband, Gus, opened a
world class eating establishment at the fork in the road where the Lafayette Highway veered off from US #29. It was
called the Chicken House. They featured the very best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten in my whole life. To
be that good they surely had to cook with lard. People came from miles around to eat at the Chicken House. They
had a dessert they were famous for- Lemon Icebox Pie. Miss Marguerite never would share the recipe with any of the many
folks who begged her for it.
We took two years of algebra from Ruth Barnes in the ninth and tenth grades. They weren’t my favorite
subjects, but I did okay- I guess because I was afraid not to. But then in the eleventh grade Miss Barnes taught my
favorite course in high school- plane geometry. I can see her now standing there before us on Day One. Like an Old Testament
prophet she intoned, “We are all going to agree on a few things that- though they cannot be proved- you and I both know
intuitively they are unquestionably true. We will call them axioms and postulates and on these axioms and postulates
we will build and prove a complex system of spatial relationships among points, lines and surfaces.” I still recall
some of those axiomatic truisms: “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points. The whole
is equal to the sum of its parts and is greater than any of them. Things equal to the same thing are equal to one another.”
On Day Two we plunged into Theorem One. It had
to do with two triangles- each with an angle and its adjacent sides equal to the other triangle. The object was to prove the
two triangles CONGRUENT. Miss Barnes insisted we say CON’ grent. She would hit you over the head if you
pronounced it con GRU’ ent. I know they say con GRU’ ent today, because my children made fun of me when
they took plane geometry and I called it CON’ grent.
to tell the truth I never even bothered to look it up in a dictionary. I believe now, as I believed then, that Ruth
Barnes knew everything there was to know about Plane Geometry not the least of which was the proper way to say “Congruent”.