The Old Rural School As I Remember It
Velma Fowler Matson
Having attended a rural school for the first eight years of my formal education and then teaching in rural schools for eleven years, gives me license, I think, to expound upon their characteristics - good, bad or otherwise. I must admit, though, that i n the interests of a good story, the information contained in this paper is about the rural school of my childhood. By the time I was teaching, some aspects of the rural school had changed, although the main characteristics remained the same.
"What is a rural school?'' you ask. A rural school contains a plot of ground, the buildings, (of which more will be said later) as well as the school district and the people within its boundaries. A map of the said boundaries of many school districts c ontained the epitome of gerrymandering. No one really knew why these boundaries were so irregular. Perhaps it was because of the density population or lack of it, or of the distances to walk, or of some families' preferences or of some other reason, but o nce there, those boundaries pretty much stayed that way. Some districts were entirely within one township, others spilled over into two or more townships and were known as fractional districts. In those days people lived quite distant from each other, but families were large, so there was usually a large school enrollment. It was not uncommon to have four or five members of a family in the same school. I personally remember attending school with seven members of the same family.
A three-man Board governed the district and I mean "man". Never, in those days was there a woman Board member. The Board consisted of a Director, a Moderator and a Treasurer. The only qualifications were to be a man and to be respected by your neighbor s in the district. Many a rural school board member did not have an eighth grade education, yet the whole business of running the school was in the hands of this Board and the "schoolmarm" was directly responsible to these men. Except for the one big annu al district meeting, the three men conducted all business relative to the school.
The school building was usually set upon quite a large plot of ground. (Land was cheap and some community-minded farmer would be glad to donate a corner of his farm especially if it were likely the school would bear his name and besides this, it usuall y meant that his own children would not have to walk far to the "seat of learning". Sometimes, this also meant that the "Schoolmarm" boarded at his home which also enhanced his standing in the community.) As a general rule, the only buildings on this plo t of land were the schoolhouse with woodshed attached and two little outbuildings in back. At that time, they were not labeled "His and Hers" or any other such designations, but believe me we knew which was which. Two-seaters were the rule of the day, but occasionally a third hole at a lower level was added to accommodate the little folks.
The school building was usually a rectangular structure with a shed attached to the back. In one end of the building was a cloakroom sometimes a separate room, but more often a part of the big room. The roof was always peaked with the chim ney at one end and the belfry at the other. Inside the big room, in the center or in one corner was a big pot-bellied stove. Students near the stove toasted while those on the outer edge needed an extra pair of "long-johns". The teacher's desk was up fron t. Directly in front of her desk was a long recitation bench. Behind this, packed in like sardines and solidly nailed to the floor were rows of double seats for the pupils. Not much attention was given to putting a child in a desk to fit his size. In fact , in the interests of discipline and help to the teacher, many a tiny boy or girl was seated with big sister or brother. Six or eight tall narrow windows the only light, as electricity was then unknown in rural areas. Tucked in somewhere around the room w ere homemade shelves for the few library books and for the water bucket and wash basin. It was a real sign of progress when the water bucket and dipper were replaced with a so-called fountain the kind where a huge glass jar was inverted onto a standard an d the wastewater ran into a pail under it. Many a time did the teacher turn around during an arithmetic class just in time to see a stream of water from the overflowing pail, streaking toward her high-top shoes. Hands were all washed in a tin basin and wi ped on the same cloth towel. Wainscotting of a dark color, so not to show many dirty handprints, came up about four feet from the floor with a lighter-colored painted wall above it. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin or other early patr iots looked sternly over the pupils from their pictures on these walls. Lucky were those students whose school's walls also held a Rosa Bonheur or still life painting. Every self-respecting patriotic school also had an American flag displayed on one wall as well as one flying from a flagpole out of-doors. Somewhere near this flagpole was the deep well that provided a cooling draft of water after a hard game of baseball during recess, as well as to meet the needs inside the building.
The teacher was almost always a single lady and had to be a "paragon of virtue". She also had to be a tireless worker with the "patience of Job". First of all, because of the transportation of the time, it was necessary that she board in the district. It was not always easy to find a place and when one was found, it usually left "something to be desired". Sometimes, it was with one of those big families and she would have to share a room with one of the younger girls. There was no privacy, so teacher s tayed at the schoolhouse as long as daylight would permit. However, with all her duties, there was always work to be done there. Her typical day went something akin to this: She arose early, dressed for school, ate breakfast, packed her own lunch and walk ed to school whatever the distance. Upon arriving, she carried wood and kindling from the woodshed and built the fire. As the building was warming, she carried in the day's water for drinking and washing hands. The room was tidied, lessons for the day wer e reviewed, plans were made and questions, plans and instructions were written on the blackboard. Time was always too short, as pupils soon began to arrive with things to share, questions to be answered, quarrels to be settled, etc. etc. From 9:00 A.M. un til school was dismissed at 4:00 P.M., not one moment could she call her own. During the day, she "wore the hats" of superintendent, principal, counselor, teacher, coach, nurse, janitor, referee, baby-sitter and others. Decisions to be made were her own - there was no one to help or advise and no telephone to call for help should she need it. Even during recesses and the noon hour, she was on playground duty. When 4:00 P.M. came and the last child had left, she drew a sigh of relief, picked up the broom, did the sweeping, checked the buildings and grounds, began her planning for the next day's lessons and on and on. Finally, as the sun was getting low in the sky, she trudged her weary way toward her boarding home, loaded down with a big pile of papers to correct. Yes, it took a special kind of person to be a teacher in a one-room rural school. And if she were that special person, she received her reward in the satisfaction and joy of her work. Her pupils lobed and respected her - they wanted to help her a nd to share with her. "An apple for the teacher" was no trite expression. There were apples for the teacher and many other goodies as well. Until a monitor schedule could be set up, the pupils vied with each other over who would clean the erasers, wash th e blackboard, raise the flag, ring the bell, etc. Students wanted to learn for her and learn they did in spite of many adverse conditions. Parents, in general, were behind her in her efforts and gave cooperation. Most of them were advocates of the old say ing, "If you get a licking at school, you will get another one when you get home". Therefore, seldom was such a punishment needed. Parents taught respect and honor for the teacher. Many a young female student was inspired by her "schoolmarm" to become a teacher in later years.
The typical academic school day followed this pattern: At 8:30 A.M., the first bell was rung- its clear tones summoning the pupils and they soon began to arrive. At 8:55, the bell was tapped once to remind the children to take care of all those last mi nute duties before they got into their seats where they must be by the time the 9:00 bell finished ringing. Then, for about fifteen minutes, there were "Morning Exercises" which were not exercised at all, but a title for the beginning moments of the schoo l day. Sometimes, teacher read aloud from a good book, other times a quiet game was played or everyone sang. At such times, everyone began by rising to his feet, faced the flag and lustily sang the first verse of "America" or "The Star Spangled Banner." O ther favorite songs included "Tenting on the old Campground", "The Old Oaken Bucket", "May Old Kentucky Home" and "Swannee." The ingenious teacher would also plan little surprises for morning exercises. This cut down on tardiness, as no one knew when thes e surprises would come and no one wanted to miss a thing.
At 9:15 began a schedule of ten-minute classes, which lasted throughout most of the day. If there was only one or two pupils in a class, sometimes classes were combined. For the first session of the day, there were reading classes chart class and the f irst six grades, geography for seventh graders and history for eighth graders. The older pupils studied their lessons while the teacher brought the little ones up to the recitation bench, grade by grade, to recite. As soon as these little ones had finishe d and were given seatwork, they were under the supervision of one of the older pupils who had previously been assigned to this duty, so teacher could go on with inert classes. There was keen Competition for this assignment. At 10:00, the little ones of th e first three grades were excused to go outside to play and their assigned helper aided them in putting on boots, coats mittens, etc. At 10:30, all the rest received a fifteen-minute break unless some poor, hopeless pupil had misbehaved or failed to study his lesson. After recess, there was arithmetic for everyone, proceeding in ten minute or shorter classes as before. A versatile teacher could, at times, have one at the recitation three arithmetic classes going simultaneously- one at the blackboard and o ne at their seats. Again, an older student was employed as a helper until the little ones were excused early for the noon hour period. At 12:00 everyone was ready for the hour-long break. At 12:55, a bell tap denoted that fun was over and preparations wer e made to start classes at 1:00 P.M. Chart class Grades One, Two and Three had Reading again, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Grades had Language and Spelling, Seventh Grade had Orthography, Spelling and simple Grammar and Eighth Grade had real hard-core Grammar following much the same procedure as in the morning. There was recess from 2:30-2:45 P.M. after which one big Language class for all the little ones was held and then they were excused for the day. They could go home, but many preferred to play outside a nd wait to walk home with older siblings. At 3:00 P.M., Eighth Graders had an Agriculture class followed by Health classes for Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Grade and the last class of the day was Eighth Grade Civics. Pupils who were not reciting could always prepare for the next day's lessons, but much learning took place just by listening to other classes recite. How could one teacher do all this in those few short hours? Many teachers learned to expedite classes in many ways. Student help was utiliz ed proficiently. Pupils were encouraged to get help from others it was not considered cheating and the wise teacher could tell if it became such. Time-savers were iced-one raised finger meant,
"May I leave the room?" etc. And yes, there was regimentation. Every student knew his class schedule and was on time at the recitation bench. No one wandered aimlessly around the room or disturbed others. Preparations were completed during those five-m inute periods before school began. And a teacher did have some help in knowing what to teach and what not to teach. The state put out a detailed course of study of what should be covered in each grade. The state also provided a graded book of poems and mu ch memorization of such was required. Also, every teacher of rural Seventh and Eighth Graders had to teach toward the state exams, more of which will be told later.
The county commissioner of schools could be counted on to check each school at least twice a year. These visits were never announced, so the teacher had to be prepared at all times. If the teacher was having trouble or anything was reported amiss the c ommissioner came more often. Therefore, even though the commissioners were good people, the rural teachers dreaded extra visits.
The fifteen-minute recess breaks in the morning and afternoon were barely long enough to do anything except take care of personal needs and make preparations for the next classes, but usually a rousing game of "Dare Base" or "Pom Pom Pull-away" was sta rted with everyone, big and little joining in and everyone going in to classes rosy-checked and sweaty. When classes were dismissed for the noon hour, out came the five-pound metal syrup pails into which mothers had packed wholesome farm foods-sandwiches, boiled egg, a chicken leg, a small jar of canned fruit and a baked goodie- a cookie, a cupcake, a piece of pie or cake, etc. Good as the lunch might be, it was very often bolted down in order to get out onto the playground. The above-mentioned games mig ht be played, but more often during this longer period, the little ones went off to their own small games and the older ones engaged in a game of baseball, "Andy-Over" or others of like nature. Occasionally, an older boy and girl could be seen holding han ds and strolling along the periphery of the playground. "Puppy love" was common for some students stayed in the rural school until they were sixteen years of age or older.
The compulsory school age was from seven years of age until sixteen unless one received an eighth grade diploma before that time. As distances to school were often long, many children did not start to school until they had reached their seventh birthda y. This, along with the fact that many older children were kept out of school many days to help with the work of the farm and household meant that most pupils were fifteen years old when in the eighth grade.
Many of them elected not to take the state exams and stayed in school until their sixteenth birthday and some even longer as the farm work permitted.
Long, teacher and pupil before those dreaded exams endured hard hours of study. The rural school year was usually eight months, so after school was out for the year, the student must continue to study and review for about a month before examination day . The exams were never held in the pupils own school. Bright and early on exam day, the horse was hitched to the buggy and the pupil went to town to the local high school. It was a frightening and traumatic experience for many, even before the questions w ere passed out. Each farm boy or girl felt so alone in this strange situation. A stern examiner was at the front of the room, where many other pupils had gathered, but for the most part were unknown to each other. Few questions were asked after exam paper s were passed out and instructions given - everyone was too scared. Seventh Graders took exams in Health, Geography, Penmanship, Orthography and Spelling.
If a passing grade was received in these subjects, the student need not take that subject in the Eight Grade. Questions were hard and mostly essay type, so it took a long time to write the answers. One question in Penmanship was to write from memory one of the following: the first verse of "America" or the "Star Spangled Banner", the preamble to the Constitution, the "American's Creed" or the first part of the "Gettysburg Address". No one knew which one it would be, so all of them had to be memorize d. And, not only did the handwriting count but also the spelling and punctuation. Even after one year's experience, Eighth Graders found exam day no easier. They took exams in History, Arithmetic Grammar, Agriculture and Civics. Most adults today could no t pass those tests, nor do they need to. There were questions about the "Dred Scott Decision", whereabouts finding the cost of wallpaper for a room, of figuring compound interest, of diagramming complex and compound sentences, about breeds of cattle and r otation of crops and how a bill becomes a law to name a few. After a student passed these exams and became the proud possessor of an Eighth Grade Diploma, high school was a snap for him, should he choose to attend. Many a rural student became valedictoria n or salutatorian of his high school graduating class. Sorry to say, the percentage of rural pupils attending high school at that time was not great. In those days, one did not need a high school education to become a farmer or farmer's wife.
The rural school was the center of the social life of the district. A "schoolmarm" was not considered "worth her salt" unless she could produce a good Christmas program. There was usually a little program for each holiday, but the Christmas program wa s the "piece de resistance". Early in the school year, the teacher began planning and sending for Christmas books and materials. By Thanksgiving, she had decided on her program and chosen students for the roles in plays, monologues, dialogues, recitations , skits, etc.
Her "Thanksgiving vacation was spent hand copying such parts. There was no typewriter available and she didn't know how to use one anyway. Parts were handed out to her students and they were supposed to study them at home. Morning exercise period becam e a time to practice Christmas songs. About two weeks before Christmas, practice on the whole program began in earnest and lessons were all but forgotten. Makeshift costumes and props were brought from the farm homes. About a week before the program, two or three fathers raided some one's lumber pile and came to build a stage, Mothers hustled up enough bed sheets for stage curtains. But wait - there is more to come. About three days before the program, teacher and all pupils, big and little, armed themse lves with ax and saw and went to the woods to cut a tree and gather greens for wreaths trimmings. Back at the school, the tree was set up and bits of foil, lace and cloth, scraps of colored papers, yarn and ribbon, tin can tops, walnut shells and all the things that have been saved for decorations for the tree and room. Teacher might have some tinsel ropes and artificial icicles, but all the rest was hand made including the strings of popcorn brought from home. Then, there were a couple of days of intense practice and the big day was at hand. One practice all the way through and it usually was a bad one, as the participants were tired of it and they were too excited anyway. Desks were cleaned and put in order, most everyday necessities were packed away an d school was dismissed early so everyone had plenty of time to get ready for the big event.
Sleighloads of people began arriving early, each with a lantern to help light the building. Every parent greeted his neighbors and tried to find a desk in which he could be semi-comfortable. Pupils scurried around to get into costumes, find their props , etc. Finally, the big moment was at hand, the curtains were pulled and the whole school stood on the stage facing the audience to begin the performance with traditional Christmas Carols Silent Night Jingle Bells, etc. And from that time on, inspite of the poor last practice, the program usually proceeded smoothly, but if there should be a small mishap no one seemed to mind, as mothers, fathers and grandparents beamed proudly upon their favorite to be proud! Even the teacher had cause to be proud! Aft er the program, many pupils seated themselves awaited the arrival of Santa Claus. He could be one of the district farmers but it worked out get someone unknown to her pupils. Each pupil received a small gift from the teacher and a bag or box of candy and nuts sometimes from the teacher and sometimes from the school district. (This was a negotiable item at contract time.) But it was the "schoolmarm" who really received the gifts, usually a home-made item an apron, a crocheted doily, embroidered pillow cas es, a box of fudge, a fruit cake, etc. from each family in her school. And, she had to open them, admire them and sometimes model them. Each child was so very proud as she opened his family's gift. Now, it was all over. Each family collected its brood and left but poor teacher, had to stay to bring about some semblance of order to get ready for the schoolhouse annual Christmas vacation cleaning that is, she did if she expected to go home that night with her own family, who were apt to attend her program. No wonder, that she needed a two-weeks' vacation.
Besides the Christmas and other holiday programs, teacher was expected to put on one or two all-district spelling "bees" and couple of box socials each year. These last brought in the funds for a new flag, a few library books, another picture or other things, which the district budget did not cover. The last day of school was also a gala occasion under teacher's supervision. Near noon, families began to arrive with well-filled lunch baskets and everyone partook of a bountiful picnic dinner. Teacher was responsible for the program, which consisted mostly of games and contests for all ages. After this everyone went inside and sat down while Certificates of Promotion, awards, honors and prizes for the games were passed out.
The demise of the one-room rural school came with the demise of the small farm and large farm families. School enrollments became smaller and smaller. At first, the rural school did not want to give up its autonomous position, so two or th ree school districts would band together to make one school and pupils were transported in a covered wagon or "hack". Later, there was consolidation with the graded school districts in the towns. The one-room rural school became a thing of the past, but i t had served a purpose and left a great legacy. Some very good academic learning took place within its walls. But even more important were the values implanted in those of us privileged to attend one of them - the values of love, compassion, independence, unselfishness, helpfulness, industriousness, patriotism, honor honesty integrity and many more.
The one-room rural school from which the preceding remembrances were derived was Towne School, District #6 fractional (Wilcox and Monroe townships, but located in Monroe on old M-20 between White Cloud and Woodville). The writer, Velma Fowler Matson at tended this school, from the fall of 1916 until the spring of 1923. Her teachers during that period of time were Jessie Davis, Helen Gleason, Mabel Wilson, Blanche Boss and Milo Fry. Helen Gleason provided the inspiration for Velma to become a schoolteach er.
In subsequent years, Velma's brothers, Byron and Arthur and her sister, Ruby also attended this school. Her father, Clarence Fowler was on the school Board from about 1916 to 1942, when the school property was sold. Her mother, Belinda Fowler, sometime s provided room and board for the schoolteacher, although not while Velma was in school there.
In those days, the population was not very mobile, so most of the farmers in the district remained for many years. Other pupils who stayed in this school through out their elementary years came from the following families: the Townes, the Halls, the Ka isers, the Richards, and the Bouchers, the Swartzs the Leenhouts and the Kersteins. Many others attended this "little red schoolhouse" from time to time, but the above families were more or less permanent.
The school's last year of operation was the 1936-1937 school year. Because of a governmental "mix-up", the Civilian Conservation Corps was ordered to demolish the building within two or three years after its closing. The district was paid for the demol ished building and soon put the property up for sale. It sold in 1942 and thus ended the saga of one one-room rural school.