In spite of today’s playful exaggerations about walking distance and incline, the country school experience truly played a crucial role educating youngsters in rural America during the first half of the twentieth century.
My two older sisters and brother, dinner pails swinging from their hands, trekked one and a half miles (not ten, and not uphill both ways) to their one-room schoolhouse. The simple white structure provided a center of learning for not only the three Rs, but also music, art, science and life. Five year olds and teenagers sat in the same classroom. Different age groups took turns with the teacher at the recitation bench and absorbed bits and pieces from the other sessions as well.
The long walks to school ended for Deloris, Don and Darlene when they completed sixth, fourth and second grades, and the Rose Hill District Number 12 School closed its doors. Bus rides, separate classrooms and school lunches soon supplemented their curriculum, but the old-school lessons endured. Public school in the small town of Erwin, South Dakota, provided the new house of learning for them and later their four younger siblings.
Our memories of school are all different, and some probably should not appear in print! Incidents, emotions, tastes and smells melded school to life and encompassed far more than textbooks. Stiff new shoes felt strange on the feet after a summer of romping barefoot. Whiffs of school paste and new crayons inspired creative instincts as we walked in the large classroom door. Maps of the world and the United States, tightly wound on wooden dowels, waited to be pulled down by a string. Chalk “scritched” on the blackboard when teacher or student scribed.
Long metal tables with attached benches lined the lunchroom as students filed in, youngest first. The head cook, Minnie, always greeted us with a smile. We followed our tray as she dished up our choices from the huge kettles containing that day’s menu items. Fridays meant fish sticks. We could have two or three or four. Children needed sustenance, after all! A spoon of green beans and a huge dollop of mashed potatoes soon accompanied the fish. Then Minnie ladled a generous portion of melted butter into the center well on those potatoes. The yellow pool rippled as we carefully carried our tray to the milk machine in the corner. White or chocolate perfectly accompanied the frosted peanut butter dessert bar. After dropping two pennies in the money jar, we lifted the big knob over our glass and watched the liquid stream out of the hollow white rubber tube.
Noon recess followed lunch, and after workouts on swings, merry-go-rounds, teeter totters and jungle gyms, we filed back into our classrooms. Desks were important, like home away from home. In first grade, there were different sizes, so we had to try them out for the correct fit, the Goldilocks standard. Older grades had bigger desks. Some were bolted onto boards, the cast iron feet curving up to a wooden chair. The seat was attached to the flat writing area of the person behind. Random sloppy penmanship might be blamed on the fidgety kid sitting in front of you. Well, maybe once…
In later years we sat in desks with an open front compartment for books and papers. A small hole, once intended as an ink well for fountain pens, repurposed as a receptacle for short pencils or love notes. My favorite desks were the ones with a hinged lid that covered the large sink-like compartment where we stored our menagerie of textbooks, writing tools and personal items. That lid allowed secret communication with the person across the aisle. We could lift the lid straight up and hold it there while we hunkered down behind it and silently “spoke” to our neighbor. Some of us studying Lip Reading 101 became quite proficient until the teacher noticed adjacent desk covers standing open for long periods of time. Busted!
The “library” consisted of a bookshelf in the back of the room with just enough volumes to finish them all by the end of the year. The problem was, sometimes low student numbers necessitated combining classes, and I remained in the same room for two consecutive years. By the end of the second year I had read The Long Winter enough times to hear blizzards in my sleep.
One music teacher taught all grades and accompanied the singing on the big, old, upright piano in the music room. As third graders, we proudly belted out “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” every week. Sometimes we sang silly songs. On occasion, a tiny school memory pops out of the nooks and crannies of my brain like a bubble, and I find myself singing (very quietly) “Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree, merry, merry king of the bush is he…..”
We learned, grew up and graduated. The crayon-paste aroma welcomed new children. Desks, books, songs and lunch menus changed. “New and updated” replaced “old” in classrooms and teaching methods. But still today, Old School Memories receive the highest grade---top-of-the-class A plus!
DeAnn Kruempel grew up on a farm near De Smet, SD, the sixth child of Harrison and Mabel Wolkow. She attended school at Erwin and De Smet. Married Vicar Robert Kruempel and lived in Benedict, ND, Toeterville, Akron, and Missouri Valley, IA. The author now resides on an acreage near Logan, IA and is employed as Children's Librarian at Missouri Valley Public Library.