Sunday Morning, my favorite television news show, featured some great reporting this week. There was a profile of author and nerd-champion John Green, a segment on the flying-female WASPS of World War II and a lengthy cover story about one-room schoolhouses.
The segment on the lessons of one-room schoolhouses really caught my attention.
I grew up on stories about these miniature primary-grade schools where kids of all ages came together to learn, And, as a kid myself, I also experienced these schoolhouses.
First, my mom’s story.
Mom grew up during the depression years in rural Iowa. Their family farm was surrounded by many other farms owned by relatives of both her mother and father. Punk, as Mom was called by her family, thought everyone grew up that way.
All the kids went to ‘country school’ as it was commonly called. Their country school a one-room wooden structure named the Finnie School. Finnie was my mom’s last name and her father had donated the small chunk of land to build the school.
Unless the weather was brutal, most students made their way to the Finnie School on foot or horseback. As I’ve written about previously, Punk had a stout Shetland pony named Polly that would ferry her back-and-forth to school most days. By all accounts, Polly was a prickly, sometimes unpredictable horse that could quickly turn on a person and bite without warning. Even so, Punk could most-often keep the pony under control. Polly knew who was boss.
During its heyday, the Finnie School probably had no more than two dozen students and most of the kids were related in one way or another.
For several years during Punk’s youth Edith Miller, my mom’s aunt, was the school’s teacher. A tall, imposing woman, Edith was my grandmother’s maiden sister, and she could charitably be described as difficult and opinionated. According to my mom, Aunt Edith was especially tough on her own nieces and nephews, often holding them to higher academic standards and requiring them to arrive early and stay after school hours to clean the classroom and do menial chores.
Kids learned at a very early age that nothing got past Aunt Edith.
As a teacher and a person, Edith had high standards and always thought she was right. I can personally vouch for this as the indomitable Edith lived into her mid-90s. When I was a child, her twice-yearly visits to our Minnesota home were life-altering (and not in a good way).
Even writing about her causes me to sit up a little straighter in my chair.
Growing up I heard so many stories about the Finnie School that I feel as though I knew it, but I didn’t. We probably drove by the schoolhouse on trips to Iowa, but being the youngest in the family, I don’t remember.
By the time I became an adult, the Finnie School had sat empty for years. One day we got word that the Iowa township had decided to sell the school. Surprisingly, one of my mom’s bachelor brothers seriously contemplated buying it. Mom, being the unsentimental, never-look-back-only-move-forward person she was, just shook her head with disdain. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to save that rickety old building.
She told her brother, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, let them tear it down! Who cares?”
I’ve no idea if the school was saved or not, but I like to think it was.
Now, my own one-room school experiences.
Growing up in central Minnesota, these little country schools didn’t seem so special. They dotted our landscape and were just a part of life. By the late 1970s, the one-room school had become the relic of a bygone era. Public school buses now picked up country kids so they would have the larger, town-school experience.
Sadly, most of the one-room schools had simply outlived their usefulness. Most often, they were neglected and eventually torn down or sold. However, a few were preserved some became small stand-alone museums or were incorporated onto the grounds of other museums.
This is the case of the Little Red Schoolhouse that sits in a park in my rural hometown in Minnesota.
If you saw it, you’d agree it is a most charming school that has been lovingly preserved and restored. The school has the original chalk boards, old pull-down maps, framed pictures of founding fathers, an American flag, a bell on a rope and hooks along the back wall for hanging up coats and scarves. Sturdy, much-used wooden desks and chairs are bolted in neat rows lined on the creaky wood floors.
It is indeed charming.
The little red school is open only for special tours. The first time I visited it as a museum, it brought tears to my eyes.
I knew this place.
Several of my good friends attended this very same one-room school, before “coming into town” in seventh grade to attend junior high. I spent countless days and sleepovers at the farm of my good friend, Kathleen, whose father donated land so the township could build a school, just as my grandfather had done in Iowa so many years before.
I loved seeing that schoolhouse each time I visited their farm. We’d walk over to look in the windows, sit on its porch and Kathleen would tell me tales of her school days in the country.
Now, on bulletin boards at the back of the little school that is now a museum hang pictures of generations of the children who attended. There is a picture of dear Kathleen, unmistakable at age nine wearing a big grin and even bigger glasses. There are also snapshots of her sister and brothers and their many cousins.
This school is the perfect example of ‘the circle of family life’ in small town America.
Surprisingly, I learned from the Sunday Morning segment there are still about 200 of these single-room schools still operating today, down from 200,000 at their height in the early decades of the twentieth century. Today, kids attending these tiny but modern-looking schools use computers and study the very same curriculum that students learn in big schools. It’s not quite the same schooling that Punk or Kathleen experienced.
Am I glamorizing the one-room school house and farm life in the Midwest?
In reality, I couldn’t wait to leave my small town and experience the greater world.
Moving far, far away, I created a much different life for myself. However, the older I get, I more I realize that I can never really escape my upbringing. At the heart, there is a small town inside of me and a one-room schoolhouse off in the distance.