Winter 1998

 
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Going to Rural School in Erwin

by

Joseph J. Kane

October 27, 1913 - September 2, 1997

WHEN I was old enough to go to school, in 1918, I went to the Erwin District No. 4 schoolhouse located on the south side of then New York State highway 17, close to the railroad crossing and Beartown Road.

I remember we went into the building from the north side through a vestibule. On either side of the entry were cloak rooms where we hung our coats and caps and left our boots when we wore them in wet or cold weather. Each closet had a small window opening from the front side of the building.

The short hallway from the front door opened into the high-ceilinged schoolroom. In the east half were several rows of chairs and desks. The size of the seats and desks increased toward the south end of the room. Light from several large windows in the east wall shone in from behind us when we were seated at our desks which faced the west wall and the blackboards that ran nearly the length of the room. Most of the west side of the room was open space for general use.

Near the center of the room was a large bench where we sat for our classes. The teacher's desk stood a short distance in front of the recitation bench. All of us, of course, heard the instructions and the recitations and saw the work at the board for all the classes, so we picked up easily what the older students were learning. Teachers would often move eager pupils to a grade above their age level. Many students finished eight grades in six years and passed all the required tests.

Sometimes students of different ages were combined into the same class for convenience. One year three boys arrived in school with a note from their former teacher that she had put them together into the third grade. Their ages were about eight, ten, and thirteen. After a few days our teacher put them in the third, fifth, and sixth grades.

The number of students in our district varied from as few as eight to as many as twenty, or more, as families moved into and out of the district. Often it was simpler to have several students even of different ages in the same reciting group.

One year a boy who did not get along very well with anyone talked back to the teacher and she really bawled him out. He lived near the school and could go home for his lunch. This day he came back for the afternoon session with a gun sticking out of his pocket. One of the girls told the teacher what she had seen, and when we were seated at 1 p. m. , the teacher very slowly walked by him and asked what was sticking out of his pocket. He took it out, held it in the palm of his hand, and said, "Just a gun. " The teacher told him to take it home NOW and to never bring it back. I think that was the bravest thing I ever saw a teacher do—she had no way of knowing what he would do with it. Not long afterward his family moved out of the district and he was gone.

When I was in the sixth grade, the teacher had just completed a training class and was beginning her first year of teaching. She lived near Addison and came to school about 8:30 a. m. on the Addison-to-Corning bus. A bus going toward Addison came by about 3:30 each day when school was over. She rode home on that bus. Soon, however, she acquired a boy friend with a car and he would pick her up after school; then he began coming before school was over and she would dismiss classes and go with him. He came earlier and earlier until we were missing about an hour of schooling each day. When the trustee who had hired her learned this, he informed her that she was getting paid for a full day's work and that he expected her to be there for a full day. She quit.

The district superintendent found an older teacher who had been retired for several years and she took over for the rest of the year. That was the only time that I remember having an older teacher while I was in grade school.

The district superintendent did make regular visits. On his first visit of the school session he would check just the teacher's attendance record. On his second visit, he probably checked a few more records and observed a class or two, and on his third visit he might question some of us about different things we were supposed to have been taught. When I was in about the seventh grade, he took me to one side of the room and gave me a list of about ten long words to arrange in alphabetical order. It was very easy to do as each word started with a different letter. He marked my work "good" and gave it to the teacher. When he left, the teacher quickly asked me how I could spell all those words. When I told her that I hadn't needed to spell them, she smiled and said I was lucky!

Another visitor we always had was the truant officer. He, too, would check the attendance records and also give us a lecture on the importance of being in school every day. He would then advise the teacher to let him know if any of us did not attend regularly. If any of us did not, he would see to it that we did!

A heating stove was located in the front center of the room, convenient for bringing in wood to fuel it. A long smoke pipe ran to the chimney which fastened to the south wall. The black pipe, as well as the stove, radiated heat and warmed the room. The first stove I remember was a large round one. It was replaced by a square stove that had a firebox about two feet wide and three feet long. Small pieces of pine to start fires were cut from the stump fences that ran around the schoolhouse lot. Blocks of dry wood from the woodshed were used during the day to keep a warm fire going. At night, a couple of large chunks of green wood were put into the stove, and all of the drafts were closed to hold fire overnight and provide some heat and enough hot coals to rekindle a fire in the morning.

Each day an older boy would bring a pail of water to school. We all drank from the same dipper whenever we were thirsty.

There was a path on the east side of the building leading to a small outhouse for the girls in the back corner of the schoolyard, and another path along the west side of the schoolhouse led to a similar privy for us boys. One September when we returned for school we found that the two cloak rooms had been equipped with toilets. My older brother advised me not to use the boys' room because there was no water to flush the toilet. The teacher and the girls were happy to use their new indoor toilet for awhile, but it wasn't long before they were again using the path that led out back. No one seemed to know either who had installed or who had paid for the indoor facilities.

Every year there was an evening Christmas program. It was usually held on the Friday before Christmas Day. The parents of all the students brought their families to the Christmas party. There was always a large Christmas tree standing in the front corner of the room decorated with paper chains and drawings the children had made, and small lighted candles. Nearly every family brought a farm lantern. The room was always well lit for the night-time community gathering at the school.

All of the pupils, of course, had a part in the program. My last year in school I was assigned to take the small gifts hanging on the tree and the larger ones from under the tree and pass them to Santa Claus for him to pass out to everyone. This year Santa came in, his face covered with white cotton, exclaiming, "Merry Christmas, Everybody!" Then he got too close to one of the lighted candles on the tree and his cotton beard ignited in a flash. Luckily one of the men quickly put an overcoat around Santa and smothered the fire. Santa's face was burned a little and his own hair shortened but we all escaped what might have been a horrible tragedy.

Two years later Erwin School District Number 4 was absorbed into the Addison district, the building was abandoned, and all the local students from that time on were bussed to a new school. I went to the Addison high school from 1927 until 1931.

1997 Evelyn Kane
 
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