Saturday, March 8, 2008

Story Hour XVI

Story Hour is a collection of short, autobiographical stories written by my father about growing up on a farm in rural Upstate New York.

The School

SAGE DISTRICT NO. 6. The neat, white, one room school sat on the crest of the hill between Sawmill Road and Upton Road. In addition to the classroom there was a boy’s cloak room with a toilet and a girl’s cloak room and toilet.

There was no running water, but a washstand with a basin and a pail of water provided the means to wash your hands. The toilets were the conventional farm type except they had a cement pit for cleaning out the waste material instead of moving the building. The clean out job was hired out to a local farmer or student willing to earn a dollar or two.

Strategically located was a wood burning heater. If the teacher was female, arrangements were made during cold weather to have one of the older boys come to school a little early to start the fire and get the school warmed up. Some years we had a man for a teacher and he would perform this task. The well and pump were located by the front steps on a concrete pad. I had a rather traumatic experience with that concrete pad at a later date.

Off to one side of the yard was the recess area consisting of a swing set with four swings and a trapeze bar. The yard was large and maintained for the usual games of tag, foot races and other physical activities.

Multiple windows provided adequate light as there was no electricity and I don’t recall seeing any lamps there during the seven years I attended the school. I do not remember there ever being an evening social event.

The desks were neatly arranged in rows, with the black cast iron frames and seats secured to the floor with screws. The tops of the desks did not lift up but had a shelf beneath for storage of books and papers. The top surfaces were invariably ink-stained and marked up with more than a few initials carved into the wood.

The teacher’s desk was of modest size and was, of course the focus of all attention. There was also a work table for projects and a world globe on an iron stand for geography lessons. A rack of pull-down maps gave an enlarged view of various countries and continents.

The library consisted of a few well-worn primers, some classic chapter books, a large dictionary and various arithmetic books. Other books that were needed could be obtained from Sandy Creek central school by the teacher. Ball point pens did not exist so each desk was furnished with an ink well. We were considered modern so we didn’t use turkey quills, but steel nibs on the scratchy pens. Penmanship was very important and many hours were spent doing the “Palmer Method” practice. Somehow I fell through the cracks on that deal.

The official school day started with a “Good morning students,” from the teacher. The reply was a resounding,”Good morning Mr. or Mrs. Blank,” in unison.

“We will start as usual with the younger classes and their reading lessons.”

Each student would stand and read from the assigned pages or report on an event. Sometimes the teacher would ask for a definition of a word or a personal reaction to a bit of dialogue. The rest of the pupils were expected to behave in a much disciplined manner and concentrate on their own lessons.

Of course there were whispers and giggles as the enthusiasms of young people exceeded the rules. A sharp rap on the desk with a long wooden pointer and a stern look at the offender usually restored order allowing the classes to continue.

As the school day progressed, the teacher would, after the allocated time with an age group or class, move on up to the next higher grade. The lessons got a little more involved; arithmetic reared its ugly head and demanded recitation of multiplication tables.

Quite a bit of the learning process at that time was having a good memory. Practice and recitation was the best route to good grades. Having been exposed to the one room system and then going to a centralized system where you stayed with your own class and changed classrooms several times a day. I have ambivalent feelings as which system is best.

I have to confess I do not recall if we carried our lunch or went home to lunch. I suspect that when there was good sledding we went home and made sure not to overshoot the driveway or we would be late getting back. If we carried our lunch it would have been bread and jam.

At one time the U.S. Department of Agriculture instituted a “Hot Lunch Program.” Mr. Butterworth brought in a couple of sauce pans from his kitchen and us kids each brought in a spoon and a cup or mug. At lunch time the can opener was put into operation and three cans of red kidney beans (surplus foods) and a can of evaporated milk (also surplus) with an additional can of water were mixed together and heated on the stove. This then, was the government’s idea of what a hot lunch should consist of. Mom generously contributed a loaf of bread occasionally. For some reason the delivery of the food was rather sporadic for a while, then stopped completely.

By late afternoon the teaching day reached its pinnacle - seventh and eighth grade. That was as high as one could go. From this point on it was up and out to high school. Something mysterious called “Algebra” and another creature called “Geometry” entered the vocabulary.

My own children have seen many changes in teaching methods with the “New Math”, Number lines and a general deterioration of standards. Unfortunately, many of our students are emerging from school as functional illiterates. Many cannot figure out what their pay checks should be. Simple basic arithmetic is beyond their comprehension.

As I told all of my kids, "The most important thing you can learn is to read and understand what you are reading. If you can do this then you can LEARN ANYTHING.”

1 comment:

Wendy said...

I taught high school English in a "modern" classroom, but there was little or nothing civilized about my experience as a teacher. Now, I homeschool my children, and I say the same thing: The most important thing they can learn is to read ....

I don't think it would be a bad thing to see our school system dissolved and replaced with smaller, one room schools, homeschools, and "virtual" schools. Obviously, as observed here, children in today's schools aren't even graduating with basic academic skills, and it's very sad.

John Gatto has some really interesting views on "modern" education. If you get the chance, you should read his essay, Dumbing Us Down.