A Schoolhouse Essay from Linda’s Mom
My admiration and respect for teachers started with my mother, who taught me English and Oklahoma history at Fargo school. Like the teachers I know today, she was dedicated and determined.
Mom started in 1935 at a one-room schoolhouse north of Shattuck in Ellis County. She was paid sixty dollars a month for eight months of work. Decades later she wrote about that year. “The schoolhouse looked like many others in this area. Longer than it was wide with a high peaked roof, it had originally been painted white. Inside, at the back of the classroom was the teacher’s desk with the blackboard covering the wall area behind it. There was a recitation bench, long enough for five or six students, where each class came to recite its lesson so the discussion would not interfere with the other pupils who were studying.
“Facing the blackboard were the rows of students’ desks, graduated in size from the smallest in front to the largest in the back. Dominating the room was the big old pot-bellied heating stove, the long black stovepipe going straight up through the ceiling.
“I had a desk, a blackboard, a box of chalk, a set of maps in a wooden case on the wall, a pointer, a school bell, an attendance register, a dictionary, a set of phonics flash cards and a set of state-adopted textbooks. There was no library. There were no extra sets of readers. There were no reference books. I was in charge of a group of children in various grades from the first to the eighth, to whom I was to teach all subjects, with all the children in the same room all the time.
“I knew that the teacher must supervise the playground, ring the bell, have the children line up in straight lines and march in, have opening exercises, keep perfect order, and read to the pupils after lunch each day. In addition, the teacher must make out a schedule for recitation with arithmetic classes in the morning and spelling the last thing in the afternoon, with everything else sandwiched in between. And, most important of all, the teacher must always know the answer to all the questions and know how to work all the hard arithmetic problems.
“The schoolhouse was surrounded by a plowed wheat field. In those days of drought, it meant that no blade of grass, no spear of wheat, not even a weed, grew on that ground. It was bare. And when the wind blew, the ground blew also; in gusts and spurts, the dirt blew. It would begin by mid-morning. Long before noon the sun would be obscured, and the dirt would continue to blow until nightfall when the wind died down. Sometimes it would blow all night without ceasing, but generally it would be clear early in the morning.
“I would walk to school and hope that today the wind wouldn’t blow. When I first got there, I would start the coal fire if it was cold. Then I would take a whisk broom to sweep the dirt out of the window sills onto the floor. Sometimes the sills would be so full of dirt that I used the little coal shovel to help. The dirt came into the schoolhouse through the old windows, through the cracks in the floor at the foundation, through the very walls, it seemed. I would sweep the dirt into piles which I would scoop up into the coal bucket and carry outside.
“Some days were so bad the children were not allowed outside at all unless I went with them. On the rare days when it was clear and nice we would open all the doors and windows. Everyone would pitch in, and we’d sweep all the dirt out and dust all the desks and think perhaps times would be better someday.
“One of the families in the district was desperately poor. Early in the year I noticed that these children never ate lunch at their desks in the main room with the rest of us. One day I looked in their dinner buckets and found only pieces of coarse dry bread. The other children brought sandwiches of some kind or fried chicken and fruit or cookies.
“I could not eat my lunch while those children were hungry. The next day my landlady gave me a gallon bucket of milk and enough sugar and cocoa to make hot chocolate on top of the old heating stove. That was the beginning. Most days that winter we had something cooking on top of that old stove. I would bring milk and other things from home on weekends. We made potato soup, vegetable soup, cooked rice and raisins, cornmeal mush, and beans, all kinds of beans. Everybody could share.”
The problems are different, but somehow the same, for teachers and schools today. I hope no teacher in the state is cooking on a coal stove to feed hungry kids, but I know many of them provide mid-afternoon snacks for kids whose parents can’t afford to send them. Many teachers buy their own paper, extra pencils, markers and supplies so their students can learn, in spite of a legislature and a governor that refuses to face the fiscal facts. We’re hoping to change that in November. This fight is personal to us.
Drew and I stand with teachers.