A long time ago, in a land far away, the people built a little schoolhouse. It was made of lumber cut in the sawmill that stood on the other side of the mountain and hauled to a clearing in the towering oak trees. A team of grey mares brought the lumber on an iron-wheeled wagon and all the males over twelve years old that lived as close as five miles, gathered to put the building together.
All the women came too and they brought fried chicken, bowls of fresh boiled corn and pans of green beans and fresh rolls in a wicker basket lined with a cup towel embroidered by the widow Jones. The ladies fetched jugs of cool water and long-handled dippers for drinking.
The children played “ring around the Rosie” and “three deep” and “pop the whip” while their fathers wielded wooden handled hammers that drove 10-penny nails into pine posts and oak shingles.
Before the sun set that day, the schoolhouse was finished. There was a snug little room with puncheon benches for students to sit on and a cane-bottom straight chair up front for the teacher. Later in the year when the first frost covered the fields of dried cotton stalks and cold winds came across the empty fields from the north, there would be a wood heater glowing in the west corner of the room and firewood stacked by a door opening on the east.
Scholars from ages seven to 17 came to the school and the teacher stood before them, sometimes glancing at the hickory switch in the corner but seldom having to use it. Her students were glad to get the opportunity to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. As long as they stayed in school, they didn’t have to go to the fields in the spring to hoe 1,000 yard long rows of cotton. They didn’t have to head maize and feel the chaff burn inside their collars. They didn’t have to slap the lines along the lean backs of a pair of mules as they walked behind a turning plow across the black land. If you were a girl, you didn’t rub a pair of your dad’s overalls across a rub board until the bar of lye soap vanished away to nothing on washday. You could sit there on a bench and learn about George Washington and how he could not tell a lie when he chopped down his dad’s favorite cherry tree.
The teacher was young, not married and boarded with a local family during the frosty winter and early spring. She could not go out buggy riding with a man friend except a chaperone ride along as well. She was sometimes paid a wage of fifty cents a day and for this she was grateful because there were few women that could go out and earn money.
School teachers had to make fires in the one-room stove on cold days and they swept out the classroom daily. They never dreamed of an “off” period but were in the classroom and on the playground from the time that books took up until the final bell in the afternoon. They taught all subjects for however many grades there were in the room, graded papers, checked homework, organized programs, supervised Interscholastic League entries, invented games at recesses, made out report cards, inspected finger nails in the mornings, looked to see if each student had a ‘clean’ handkerchief, listened to stories about what happened at home, made sure that every child felt he was important, and gave special achievement awards with money spent out of her own pocket.
There were no classroom aids, no teacher retirement, no paid days off, no class limits, no curriculum plans, no parents or relatives were asked to buy candy, cookies, magazines, or anything else because students weren’t asked to sell anything. They were just sent to school to learn something so that they would be better educated than their parents.
Students weren’t asked to take any tests other than those composed by the teacher who knew what had been covered during the year and could see readily what they had learned. She passed them on or held them back accordingly.
I had teachers like that. My favorite was Miss Beal. I wish that I could tell her what she meant to me and how much I loved that little school that was bulldozed years ago and the students sent to a bigger school.
Someone very wise once told me this, “If you have someone that wants to learn, and someone that wants to teach, set them on either end of a log and you have a school!”
Joyce Whitis is a free-lance writer. She writes a weekly column for the E-T that appears on Sundays. She can be reached at 254-968-8450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.