One-Room School Offers Valuable Lessons
Few can argue about the need to improve the nation’s public education system. Unfortunately, those in charge of making those improvements -- notably, President Barack Obama and members of the Democrat-controlled Congress -- believe the solution involves throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at the broken system. And that’s simply not the case.
To understand how to improve the public education system, Democrats needs only become familiar with the practices and teachings of the one-room country school like the one my father attended during the 1920s and ‘30s as a child living growing up in Wayne County, Iowa.
Below, I share my father's first-hand accounts of his school days as contained in his 1992 self-published autobiography, "Some Events in One Man’s Life: Mine!“ As you read, consider how much things have changed -- notice I didn't say improved -- in public education since the low-budget days of the one-room schoolhouse. I apologize for it's length, but I think you'll find it worthwhile.
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The building was a one-room country school. Like most schools, it had a small entry room or foyer where the kids left their overshoes, coats and caps. A burlap sack was placed on the floor there during rainy days to be used by kids to wipe the mud off their shoes -- if they hadn’t worn overshoes, that is -- before they went into the main room.
Above the foyer, there was a belfry housing a big bell from which a rope hung down. The rope was used to ring the bell 15 minutes before the school was to “take up.” Anyone who was still on the way to school when the bell rang knew to hurry so as not to be tardy.
From the entry room, you went through a door into the large main school room. It was equipped with rows of desks, each of which was screwed into the floor and seated two students.
If you were a friend of the person sitting next to you, then everything was fine. If, however, that person was someone you didn’t like, you were stuck with him or her for the entire school year.
Each desk had an open shelf under the desktop for storing books and, in the upper-right-hand corner of the desktop, a round hole which held a bottle of ink.
As I remember, I was in the fourth grade when the teacher required us to learn to use a quill pen that you dipped into the inkwell. When fountain pens, which held their own reservoir of ink, came into use, the quill pens quickly became obsolete.
In front of the rows of desks was a single row of benches which resembled church pews. Facing these pews was the teacher’s desk and, behind that was a blackboard which was about eight feet wide and four feet tall. The board was fastened to the wall.
Classes from the first grade through the eighth grade were held in these schools.
Class sizes varied from having no pupils in a particular grade to having four or six in another grade. Students from each grade were called upon as scheduled to come to the front and sit on the bench while the teacher held their recitation in a particular subject such as reading. They would return later in the day for math, geography, spelling, etc.
In math class, you might be told to measure your living room at home and figure out how much wallpaper it would take to cover it. You would also measure the ceiling, because it was also wallpapered. After taking measurements, you would figure the cost based upon a set price per bolt of paper.
Another example of practical math was to measure your corn crib and calculate how much money the corn would bring at a certain price per bushel when the crib was one-half full and when it was completely full.
When you were back at your desk, you did your homework for the next day or you could use the time to read a book or to watch and listen to other students recite. This was a great introduction to the next higher grade or grades with subjects you would take during the next year or two.
One functional fixture in every school was a pot-bellied stove that burned both wood and coal.
Wet gloves or mittens were put to dry upon a chrome ornament that sat on top of the stove or on a ring ornament around the middle. These gave off either a mildly unpleasant smell or an obnoxious one, depending upon what was on the gloves.
Sometime during each year, someone would bring some skunk fat to school and sneak it on to the hot stove. Of course, it would quickly stink up the room and was not unexpected.
The teacher would respond by removing the burned fat, throwing it outdoors and opening the windows. Afterward, everyone would get their coats out of the foyer, put them on and sit in the cold room until the smell lessened.
The schools had no lights. However, there were usually a large number of windows to let in natural light.
During cold winter mornings, these windows were covered with interesting patterns of frost and ice. Most, if not all, of the ice would melt by noon unless it was extremely cold outdoors.
The outsides of most school buildings was painted either white or barn red. The restrooms were outhouses.
During the winter, you went to the outhouse only when nature screamed in your ear that now was the time to go or you would suffer the consequences. Who wanted wet pants?
All students -- and the teacher -- brought their lunches. Most of them had a lunch box that contained a Thermos® bottle to keep chocolate milk cold or soup hot until noon. Sandwiches, fruit and cookies or cake rounded out the menu. If someone brought something that needed to be warmed up, they cold set it on top of the stove. No, microwave ovens had not been invented yet.
The school yard was grown up in weeds by the end of summer, so a member of the school board would mow the yard with a regular hay mower, leaving a tough weed stubble that was very hard on bare feet. Most of the boys came to school barefoot until well after the first frost. I can remember running across bridges laden with heavy frost and how good it felt to get the warm dust of the dirt road back under my feet again.
In country schools, Christmas programs were usually held at night with the kids taking part in short plays, singing Christmas songs or reciting short poems, etc. It was a chance for the teacher and the children to show their parents that they were progressing in their pursuit of academic and social skills. Since these programs were usually held at night, the building was lit by kerosene-burning lamps.
Sometimes, a special program was scheduled to raise money for some particular cause. These usually consisted of “box suppers.”
All of the female students and their mothers would bring a box containing a cake, a pie or homemade candy. The box would be decorated and tied with a ribbon but no name was attached to it. A period of entertainment, singing, guitar, fiddle and accordion music was scheduled first. Then someone would auction off the boxes to the highest male bidders.
When you bid, you hoped the box belonged to a girl you admired. If you won the bid, you were rewarded by sitting with the owner while both of you ate the contents. If the box didn’t receive a bid, a couple of kind souls would jump in and bid it up so the owner was not left feeling embarrassed.
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Despite the bare-bones education he received, my father went on to serve his country in World War II, earn two college degrees and forge a successful career as a petroleum geologist and father of six children. To read more about hims from his autobiography, check out the following posts: