Memories of a one-room country school, near Merna, Illinois Published in the Minneapolis (MN) Star, Friday, January 5, 1979. Later, re-written for the Burnsville Current Newspapers. By Mary Ziegenhagen, of the Opinion Page Staff Teachers in the Minnesota Education Association are asking the Legislature to mandate a 15-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in kindergarten through 3rd grade. And they're gonna hate me for this. Unlike our own children's new, brightly carpeted, sky-lighted, brilliantly equipped learning center, mine was a one-room country school--the kind you see nowadays boarded up in fields overgrown with weeds in rural areas. It was single story, white clapboard, large windows on the north side, and just two rooms, the classroom and the cloakroom for coats and overshoes. Two outhouses stood across the yard. When I entered first grade, my teacher was barely 20 years old. She had just completed training at the normal school, and she was responsible for 23 of us in six grades. Though it was, in fact, an eight-grade school, most years there were no children in one or two grades. We called her not Miss Gould but Mary Katherine--a familiarity that shocked our lace-curtain cousins who attended a similar school several miles to the west, conducted by a more formal instructor. Like 16 of the 22 other pupils, Mary Katherine was related to me, my second cousin. Her younger sister Helen and I together made up an entire grade. Some grades had one student while others had as many as four. I remember the awe with which I later entered 6th grade in town, where 30 students all the same age fill the room--and the desks were, incredibly, all the same size. In most country schools, desks near the windows were small, for the first and second graders, and became larger as one proceeded across the room. Near the opposite wall, desks were adult-size, for the strapping and prestigious 8th graders. Mary Katherine arrived at school around 7 a.m. to sweep the floor, prepare lessons, wash the blackboard and clap erasers if those tasks hadn't been done the previous afternoon. In winter, she stoked the coal furnace in the back of the room so that by 9 o'clock it was warm for the rest of us. At about 10:30 on winter days, Mary Katherine strode down each aisle and collected from each child the potato brought from home, to be placed on the hot ledge just inside the furnace door to bake for lunch. Sometimes the potatoes were charred black and steaming hot when she returned them. Slathered with homemade butter brought in wax paper from home, they were delicious. Some kids kept a salt and pepper shaker, just under the inkwell, in their desks. When the furnace wasn't lit, our lunches were mostly peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, and water from the well. The only visual aids in that school were maps of the world, state and county. Palmer-method alphabet cards lined the wall atop the blackboards, and two six-foot shelves of books were our library. A small globe sat atop the piano. While many classes were taught by grade � 1st-grade reading, 3rd grade arithmetic, 4th grade Page 1 of 3
history � others were what today we might call open school. Science, for example, was a subject all grades worked on together. We gained an understanding of soil conservation and agricultural practices that supported it, such as crop rotation and contour plowing. We learned to recognize and say the names of rocks, birds, grains, flowers, and several types of clouds and weather. The few chapters we studied on health and the human body rather than enlightening us only confused us more. World War II was raging and everyone seemed involved in the war effort. Our community seemed mostly to be helping the Navy. Mom and the other church women knitted navy blue socks and sweaters while it was the duty of school children to walk along the railroad tracks gathering dried milkweed pods into gunny sacks, to fill life preservers for the sailors. All sorts of goods were rationed: meat, shoes, sheets, nylon stockings, sugar, Men came around the farms to collect old tires, iron and metal refuse, and bacon fat saved in crocks by the stove. Dad answered his government's request to grow 80 acres of Manila hemp for ropes for ships at sea. To this day, he swears it was marijuana he grew and that when the field was burned over in preparation for fall plowing, people for miles around were high from the smoke. He's Irish, of course, but even so it might be true. Never again will we feel that painlessly noble. At our school, physical education was whatever we could find to do outdoors. Playground equipment was two swings, a teeter-totter and a rubber ball that we used for playing annie-ayeover, throwing it up and over the school house, then rushing around to the other side before one of the opposing team caught it and tagged us. No programs for the gifted were found in our school. I did notice, though, that when some kids always won the spelldown, Mary Katherine tried to find harder words to stump them with next time. Patty Jane was very pretty and had a lovely voice, so she got to sing solo every time there was a program. And children fond of reading usually received books on their birthdays. No psychologist or speech therapist darkened the door and yet many of us entered first grade pronouncing our r's like w's. By 2nd or 3rd grade, usually everyone had it right. There were no special education classes, and yet I remember John, who had a hole in his head, right behind his ear, spoke in a high vague voice, and couldn't hear. He read a lot, and seemed to understand the lessons, but he stopped coming to school sometime around 5th grade. Even in a school this small, we had a dominant culture and a minority population. Three in all. To begin with, they were not cousins. They were neither Irish nor Catholic; and even more exotic was the fact that they were from Kentucky. Their fathers worked as hired men on our fathers' farms and we hardly ever saw their mothers. They never came to our homes and we never visited theirs. One measure of our isolation was that we thought their name was strange. It was Smith. Along with the church, 4H meetings, and family reunions, the school was a community social center where our families met for bonfires and wiener roasts in the fall, Christmas programs, and Memorial Day celebrations followed by a visit to the cemetery. There, we placed flags on the
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graves of military veterans. Such events gave children dozens of opportunities, and obligations, to perform, sing, or recite a piece and be praised for it. I have no idea what Mary Katherine's salary was, and I don't know what she thinks today of teachers' strikes. In truth, she didn't need much money since she lived at home. But frankly, I doubt she could imagine teaching just one grade or having only 15 students. I just don't think she could. .
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Illinois State University, Milner Library, Normal, IL, 61790 - for the Towanda Area Historical Society/Towanda District Library
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