She was a teacher. She was a mentor. She was an artist. She prepared a generation of Roanoke children for first grade. She was Genevieve Quinn Whitton, owner of the Whitton Preschool, otherwise known as Miss Gen’s.
Back when there was no kindergarten in Roanoke’s elementary schools, there were preschools like Miss Gen’s, which Genevieve operated out of her large home on Avenham Avenue in South Roanoke. She taught students from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. She lived on the top floor and ran the school on the first floor and in the basement.
For many, it was a first chance to be part of a larger group, yet she made each child feel unique and special at the same time. Each child was given a hand-drawn diploma upon “graduating.”
I attended Miss Gen’s in the early 1960s and also had a family connection with her: she was my grandmother’s first cousin. I spoke to several people who also attended for their recollections.
Annie Waldrop, a Roanoke artist, calls Genevieve “My first mentor. Her drawing demonstrations made a huge impact on me.”
Annie remembers all the ways in which Genevieve inspired the imagination, from music and dance to the weekly marionette show on Fridays.
“It was a little performance piece,” she says.
The days at Miss Gen’s also included French lessons, drawing, clay, recess and nap time. Annie still recalls the orange rug with fringe on which she took her nap.
“How lucky we were to have such a sophisticated experience,” she says, adding that in the mornings, she wanted to go to Miss Gen’s. “It was magical.”
Genevieve taught children from age 3 to 5. Lisa Evans, also a relative, attended for three years in the late 1950s. Her mother worked at the preschool, and her brother and two sisters attended, the youngest of which graduated in 1974. Genevieve died in 1975 at the age of 78.
Lisa, herself a retired teacher, says she learned the “value of structure and organization” from Miss Gen’s. “We stood in line, we rode our tricycles in a clockwise direction,” she says, adding the consequences of misbehavior meant “you had to sit on the steps.” She’s passed that lesson on to her grandchildren.
Reading was an important part of the day. Every student, at the beginning of the day, had a colored piece of felt pinned to his or her clothing, indicating the child’s reading level. The color would change as the child progressed in reading. The felt pieces were called “trains”—purple, red, green, etc. Genevieve, or one of her teachers, would greet each child in the morning at the foot of the steps with their train.
Like Annie, Lisa remembers the French lessons.
“What little French I know, I learned there,” she says. “I can count to 10 and I know the colors.”
She also remembers the marionette shows. She says Genevieve would admonish her mother to keep the marionettes’ feet on the stage, otherwise “they’re flying.”
Roanoke attorney Elizabeth Barbour says the early exposure to the French was an opportunity that, later in life when she lived in France, gave her confidence that “I could get along in another language.” She called Miss Gen’s “a great foundation” where children could learn and socialize in a warm, homelike atmosphere.
That environment allowed the children to learn to be around each other. Genevieve “cherished each child,” says Annie, but yet created a collective.
“It was our first opportunity to socialize with other kids,” Annie says.
Nowhere was that more evident than during recess in Genevieve’s backyard. There was a fort with a slide, a sandbox and other toys. Lisa remembers the sign by the slide: “up the ladder, down the slide.”
Elizabeth recalls a recess encounter with a little boy when she realized “I have a new friend.” Lisa also noted she made lifelong friends at Miss Gen’s.
Genevieve was small in stature, with a head of red curls. But in spite of her size, “she commanded respect,” Elizabeth says.
She provided a “gracious, loving environment where she was the mother hen,” Annie says.
In a time before technology and overprogrammed childhoods, Genevieve gave us “structure and freedom at the same time,” remembers Annie. She prepared her students for first grade and beyond through art, music, French lessons and play.