It is easy to recall my days in school as a halcyon time, though the happiness was not, of course, unstained by some coarser events. But that is childhood, is it not? Mother delayed my entry into formal school by a year because, she said, I was ill with some sort of respiratory disease, but I have no memory of being ill. In later days, I teased her, saying that she had a baby in the house for so many years that she delayed the "empty nest syndrome" as long as possible. This is not to say that I learned nothing in the pre-school years!
My youngest brother started to school when I was only in the toddler stage. From that time he, like the other boys, spent his time either in school or working at tasks assigned by my father. This left Mother home alone all day, every day. And she was a garrulous talker, spinning out her stream-of-consciousness verbally in order to banish her own boredom and loneliness. And I had nothing to do but to listen and to absorb her life into my own memory.
I heard tales of adventure as her grandfather strode the decks of a freighter plying the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Hudson River as it made its way even deeper into the New World, bringing trade goods to the Indians and returning loaded with valuable furs as the result. He was following his father in the endeavor as did his many brothers and, between them, they established permanent residences and families ashore all along the boundary of what became Canada and the United States.
I heard tales of hardship as her mother accompanied her own husband, first to a logging camp in what would become the state of Washington and then to Oklahoma after the Land Rush where they lived in a "dugout" cabin on the arid plains and where my mother lived her own childhood. She had known both cowboys and Indians and shared her many memories of her daily life and that of her mother and her older sisters. Every tale was an entertaining movie in my over-active imagination and one which would be acted out in my out-of-door play in the summer.
When the school day was over, the door would open and in would troop an assortment of brothers, eager to change out of their school clothes and go outside to do their assigned chores. Later, they would all return, accompanied by Father, to line the long kitchen table and eagerly fill plates with the result of Mother's afternoon work at the wood-burning cook stove.
Mother baked 12 loaves of homemade bread every other day and, on fresh-bread day, the aroma would be a great appetite-inducer. There may have been no meat on the table but there would be Navy beans and home-canned vegetables, usually potatoes and, always, white gravy. Gravy was a staple in our diet since Father insisted on it, three meals a day, every day, while praising its "stick-to-the-ribs" qualities.
I do wish I could recall verbatim some of those dinner-table conversations but, fortunately, only snippets remain. If I had ever written anything like them, I would likely have been arrested for writing obscenities. But Mother listened carefully to learn of weather conditions, neighborly chit-chat, and political doings. She, too, was a farmer, being in charge of the gardening, chickens, and turkeys, as well as attending to the milk, cream, and eggs that were produced to provide food for the brood.
After supper, all moved about the house, getting settled for homework time. This was my first school! I would move from brother to brother, asking questions and getting answers.
"What are you reading? What does it mean? How do you do that? Show me!" And, bless their hearts, I got real answers! I was shown unfamiliar words, told what they mean, and encouraged to study the letters therein. With my little slate and a short, grubby piece of chalk, I would approach a boy who was working on arithmetic and repeat the demand, "Show me!"
On occasional Saturday nights, our neighbors would show up and get set for a night of card playing. First, I was allowed to keep score for their games of Pitch. That was easy and already within my range of abilities, but I yearned to also learn to keep score for Rummy, which required a good deal of multiplication as well as simple addition. I put the heat on my brothers, who obediently taught me to multiply through the number 13!
Back then, the school systems were set up according to "townships." The State was divided by counties which were, in turn, divided into townships and each township maintained a school. These were simple one-room buildings containing desks, a wood-fired heating stove, and either a bell tower or a little hand bell, according to what the district could afford. The first school I attended was in a larger township and had a two-room schoolhouse.
Teachers were hired on a room, board, and tiny salary basis. Almost all were young women and a new teacher created a bit of excitement among the young men of a community! The room-and board were usually contributed by a local taxpayer who had an extra bedroom. Only a dedicated person would have dared accept such an offer but these were hard times and jobs were scarce. During the coldest winters, the teacher arrived at the school early to rekindle the fire in the big stove so that little fingers could be warmed in its glow as the children arrived by whatever mode of transportation was available to them. Sometimes the aroma of a pot of hot soup simmering on the stove would make a warm and welcome addition to the cold sandwiches which were taken from the lunch boxes.
We must remember that, "In the Days Before," each school was funded only by the property taxes paid by the farmers in that township with no State or Federal assistance whatever. Each autumn, a teacher was confronted with a deluge of children of varying ages and abilities, some prim and proper while others were as wild as little mavericks. She was charged with the task of turning them all into literate young people who would be able to make their way in the world. The miracle was that teachers were usually successful. Not only did they teach the academics but also contributed some small knowledge of whatever talent they possessed. One teacher might play the piano, another a guitar, and still another would teach awkward little girls to tap-dance!
In short, these miracle-workers brought a finer example of civilization to small offspring of unlearned and largely rough-hewn humanity to the status of up-standing citizens who could function to further build a growing nation into a united entity which could exert great influence on the world. They were over-worked and underpaid and, unfortunately, they still are. We entered our school years as blank slates and departed from them as literate and understanding individuals with a mission to make ourselves and our nation capable of bequeathing to our progeny a better life than we had experienced.
Many of these children would find their education cut short after less than a high school diploma, and those early years must of necessity cram a lot of learning into the very young. Many young men were required to assist their parents on the farm and girls could expect to be married by the end of their teens. Few women worked outside the home and those who did not marry young were condemned to clerical work or to teaching. Thus, the small proportion who were able to extend their education became teachers until marriage, so most of the teachers were young. It was amazing that so many of them were excellent, considering that the work was only a stop-gap to support themselves until marriage.