School Days, School Days

Ellie S. Thomas

© Copyright 2011 by  Ellie S. Thomas


Photo of interior of a one room schoolhouse.

     'School days, school days,' we sang, trudging off swinging our lard buckets, travelling down the dusty roads of our childhood to the country school where we would be civilized, educated, and prepared for whatever life would hand us.  When the schools became centralized, a way of life was gone forever; the little, red schoolhouse was no more.

     Our schools may have been staffed by teachers with little formal education, but what they lacked in these areas, they made up for in expertise in human relations.  Our teacher was an Emily Post, a hygenist, a diplomat, a choreographer, a theatrial producer, and a paragon of virtue and moral rectitude.

     The country schoolhouse was a one-room affair without plumbing or central heating. Eight grades and a primary class learned their ABCs under one teacher, who usually drove some distance to park her car safely within the sight of the classroom windows. She had the fearlessness to send children home because they had headlice, or to discipline those with whom their own parents had trouble.  Her day was not over a four o'clock because she had to stay to correct papers and give help to slow students, or to show others the error of their ways.

     The day began with 'saluting the flag,' then the teacher checked hands and nails for cleanliness, or looked for infectious sores, and cautiously seperated the strands of hair with two pencils, looking for nits, or headlice.  After that, we went directly to penmanship. 

     The tiny tots, seated across the front rows, were called upon for their brief drills. Once finished, they could draw on the 'board' or color while the next grade recited.  This accounted for the early forenoon, and we enjoyed the first break while the older ones who had been exercising their high spirits by throwing spitballs and passing ugly notes, finished using up energy with 'Simon says-'

     The morning passed; the different grades were called  upon to display their knowledge, or lack thereof.  The building grew warmer, permeated by a variety of odors.  Sometimes a jar, strategically placed on the top of the wood burner to keep warm, would give a loud crack and we'd smell the odor of scorching cocoa. There was usually a child with a bag of fried onions around his neck for disease prevention, others reeked of mentholated salve, unchanged socks, or kerosene applied to kill headlice.

     Before the advent of the water cooler, our supply was kept in a bucket at the rear of the room.  I committed the solecism of drinking directly out of the dipper, which remained in the pail. By the number of crumbs already at the bottom, I was merely the one who'd got caught. After many excuses to go for a drink, there was the inevitable journey outside, permission gained by holding up one finger that signalled the teacher what was needed. On the way out, one might meet an adventursome boy just feeling his hormones and a brief scuffle might ensue until the threat of a scream brought him to his senses..

     Wintertime or spring were difficult seasons for the one-room schools because infectious diseases began, entire families were noticeable by their absences. One year, I won the coveted role as fairy in the Christmas play, only to get chicken-pox at the last minute. I was certain my life was over as my rival cavorted across the stage in the glory of my winged costume.

     Then there was the year of impetigo.  One after another, we were sent home as the festering sores manifested themselves, but it was already too late. The epidemic swept through homes, infecting all.  When it was over, many bore scars for the rest of their lives.

     But there were happier days when we put on our pageants and made our parents proud of us. We planted trees on Arbor Day...and sometimes, we went on nature walks, and at the end of the year, there was the picnic!  The entire family was invited and we took our baskets to a nearby knoll and enjoyed the view..  It may have been the one time during the year when the parents paused to see it. 

     Looking back on those days, I suppose the schools wouldn't pass present safety requirements,  state health laws, nor even the teachers be academically adequate;  however, we acquired a great deal more than the credits  of our particular grade by listening to the older students recite and to the teacher advising other grades.

     I realize that progress must come, but I feel a great nostalgia for the country schools.  They said the teachers were over-burdened and it was unfair to the child. If so, how did so many instructors turn out such excellence?  I think they were able to know each student so intimately by the time they'd had him for eight grades that they knew just where his problems lay.  They knew what was going on in the home, and where the family stood in the community.  If the student was in a slump, the teacher had a good idea why.  

     A way of life has passed...and we cannot return to it, but we can learn from it.  And if I can do nothing more,  I'd like to bequeath my memories of the 'little red schoolhouse, where I used to go to school.'


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