“Memory of a One-Room School” was written by Emil Schmit in 1994 and was featured in the University of Wisconsin Extension’s Yarns of Yesteryear Contest. With schools reopening across the country for this school year, we thought this post would fit right in.
The door was open and I cautiously looked in – a small 6 year-old farm boy taking his first look at a schoolroom. The room appeared large, cavernous, with a high ceiling, rows of desks and a large teacher’s desk at the front, looking much as my parents had told me it would. Everything about the room looked old, but it was clean and smelled of new varnish and strong disinfectant soap.
On that first Monday of September, the sun was shining,the air was warm, but the room felt cool as I walked in.
My first day of school! The thing I had dreaded for so long, hoping the day would never arrive. But now it had. I was a first-grader! That five-minute walk from my farm home had transported me to this new world – such a strange -new world; so different from my old familiar world of the farm home and yard, my toys, the barn, pastures and fields.
Our teacher, a jolly, smiling young lady, was quick to introduce herself. She showed me the shelf where the lunch pails were kept and then assigned me a seat and desk. I put my new “nickel” pencil tablet, “penny” pencil,small box of crayons and jar of paste in my desk, and then shyly looked around the room.
One of the first things to catch my eye was a crockery “water cooler.” The school’s drinking water was carried into the room in a pail and then poured into the cooler. I realized that to get a drink, I would have to learn how to drink from the “bubbler” that was’ attached to the cooler. That even seemed like it might be fun. I could hardly wait for a chance to try.
Our teacher went to the back of the room and gave a half dozen vigorous tugs on a rope, ringing the big bell up in the belfry, “calling the school to order.” The bell responded loudly, sternly, almost as if trying its best to reinforce the young new teacher’s authority. My schoolmates all hurried to their desks.
Soon we were being put through our paces, as the various grades and classes were called forward to occupy the “recitation bench” near the front of the room. There, the teacher saw to it that we were all equipped with proper textbooks, and she assigned us lessons to study or to prepare for the next day’s class.
As that first day wore on, and the days that followed, I became more brave and began to look over my “new world.” Only a few pictures decorated the drab walls, but I enjoyed even these. Even when the teacher was not looking in my direction, it was almost impossible to escape the stern gaze of George Washington, as he stared down from a copy Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of “The Father of Our Country.”
At times it was difficult not to look at the solemn, sad-eyed portrait of Abraham Lincoln. As we later learned of Lincoln’s background of rural poverty, it became easy for us Depression era country youngsters to empathize and feel a special bond to “Honest Abe.”
I loved Rosa Bonheur’s long, narrow picture, “The Horse Fair.” Like most farm boys, I was interested in horses and all the action and struggle and excitement in the picture caught and held my eye, time and again.
Last, but not least, there was the tall, narrow picture of a young man in armor – the purest and noblest of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. I don’t recall any of us really looking for a role model back then, but Sir Galahad would have been an excellent choice.
The “learning tools” furnished by the school, insufficient and unsatisfactory by today’s standards, were pretty much state-of-the-art for 1930. A full expanse of chalk and erasers furnished ample room for all members of a ‘language or arithmetic class to work at one time.
A cabinet held a large number of large maps that were mounted on roller, and could be pulled down, like window shades, for viewing. A large world globe was suspended from the ceiling by sash cord and pulleys, counter-balanced by a cast iron ball. The globe could be pulled down to the students’ eye level when in use, and then later could be pushed back up and completely out of the way. The maps, like the globe, helped to make subjects like geography more easily understandable.
A pump organ stood patiently by, waiting for our teacher to play accompaniment for one of our singing classes. Construction paper was furnished for our use on art class projects. The school library consisted of one large bookcase, with each shelf having its own glass cover. The bookcase was filled with books chosen to fill the needs of students, ranging from grades 1 to 8. An open shelf held more books, a large Webster’s Dictionary, and, best of all, a set of World Book Encyclopedias.
Before I started school, my older sister had given me a head start by teaching me to read and write quite a few simple words. The well-illustrated, more advanced library books that I could not read became the powerful lodestones that drew me forward, creating a need to learn more, so that I could read and understand those books .
My first teacher, Miss Violet Walz, was succeeded by Miss Lela Eastman, who was later succeeded by Mr. Jack Ronan. These instructors would, I am sure, be at least as successful in today’s teaching world as they were then. They understood their subjects well and knew how to teach them, and they all possessed even greater assets their love for and interest in their young charges.
Today, it would be unthinkable to assign 40 students, representing grades 1 through 8, to one teacher. In 1930 that was commonly done, quite often with great success.
As I look back now, I am convinced that the single feature of the one-room country school that influenced me the most was that recitation bench at the front of the room. In my early school years, I could always listen to the older students as they read new stories in reading class, often tales I had not heard before. They used new words that I didn’t know or understand. Their history and geography classes opened my eyes to more new worlds. I was often fascinated by the poems my older schoolmates had memorized to recite in class. Time after time, those upper grade classes caught and held my attention. Again and again, they stretched my young imagination.
As time rolled by, progress caught up with the old school – and passed it by. Eventually, like all of its ‘counterparts, it was closed. Big yellow school buses came to transport its children off to larger better equipped schools. The old school remained vacant for awhile, then was used to house chickens for a number of years. Mercifully, in the late 1960s it caught fire and burned. Its work was finished. It had done its job well.
I still think of the North Andover country school as “my” school. I still consider myself as a “citizen” of that “new world” it opened for me 65 years ago. It is now no more than just a fond memory – and it will remain so -as long as at least one of its ever-decreasing number of former students remains.
Emil Schmit is the 89 year old father of Pam Buttikofer, one of the owners of Imperfect Women. Emil continues to write although age and health issues have slowed him down a bit. He is a is a self-trained poet, free-lance writer, public speaker, and journalist. His weekly column, “Rhyme and Reason,” appeared for over twenty years in the Dubuque, Iowa daily newspaper, the Telegraph Herald. You can read more of Emil’s Bio here. The typewriter pictured on the bio page is one that he sat at for over 50 years creating many of his “rhymes and reasons.”