A Tilted Saucer of Delight
Dear Old Golden Rule Days
I loved school—I excelled at school. Perhaps the first fact should follow the second. I like to think that I would have loved school if I had been a mediocre student. To me, school wasn’t just learning. It was life in all of its wonderful complexity: recorded life in literature, history and science books and actual life in the interplay of personalities in the classroom and on the playground. It was life with known boundaries, the main one the “Golden Rule” enforced directly by the teacher, tacitly by most of the older students and reinforced at home. There was mischief and naughtiness, of course; there was bullying and fighting but a basic code of order and respect prevailed and was mostly adhered to. Of course, I think that this is still the standard of behavior in the schools that I am familiar with in rural Steuben County. The standard of learning varied according to the desires of the people of the district and the knowledge and skills of the teachers. I had excellent teachers in elementary school: Julia Barnes (Constant), my mother Helen Bowker Schults and Gladys Randolph Robords.
I attended Beagle District No. 8, a one-room country school just down the hill from my house, from March 1931 to June 1936. Mamma thought children did better if they were kept at home until they were six years old—I turned six on February 21. After I started, I proceeded at my own pace. I couldn’t help hearing the older children recite their lessons so much learning was by osmosis. I read through a reading book as fast as developing skill permitted and then went immediately to the next. Sometimes I was the only one in a class although usually I was doing reading or arithmetic with someone else. All the older children learned current events from the “Weekly Reader.” Sometimes the whole student body, never more than fourteen while I was attending, did a spelling bee or arithmetic flash cards together. Once a week we all had writing, my downfall. We were taught the Palmer method which entailed making rows of perfect circles, humps and tails within the lines of special writing paper, then practicing the letter of the day, and finally writing a perfect sentence. My fingers were “all thumbs” and to this day, my handwriting, unless I’m careful, is close to illegible. My father and sister had beautiful handwriting. How I envied them. Another disaster area was music. I am tone deaf and can’t carry a tune. This was a great disappointment to my mother who came from a musical family and loved to sing. I have learned to enjoy music that is performed by others but will never get rich at “Name That Tune” games. We studied art once a week, too, but the art I remember was making decorations according to the seasons: pumpkins and goblins for Halloween, turkeys for Thanksgiving, paper chains and trees for Christmas. You get the picture; in fact, you undoubtedly made the same cutouts. I preserved over the years several perfect attendance cards that featured well-known reproductions of paintings of children, Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” for instance.
My first teacher was Julia Barnes. I could read a little when I went to school and I learned from her in later years that she thought it was a mistake for Mamma to teach me at home. From my point of view, starting in the middle of the year worked out well. I took to reading books like the proverbial duckling to water. Besides, I was so shy and primed at home to “sit still and listen” that I never caused any trouble when I was finished with a task and others weren’t. Miss Barnes made lovely bulletin boards. I can see in my mind’s eye; tulips and daffodils dancing across the blackboard among the new words from the day’s reading lesson. I think Geneseo Normal School must have insisted that their student teachers do attractive visual lessons. When I was older and my sister Dottie was out of Geneseo and teaching in the Brasted District, I often helped her put up fresh bulletin board material. Julia left at the end of that year so I do not remember very much of her tenure.
Mamma followed Miss Barnes and was my teacher for three years. There is an unease created by having a family member as teacher. There cannot be the slightest sign of favoritism. I always had to be on my best behavior and always have my lessons prepared. Mostly, I think that I took the situation for granted. I know I was proud of Mamma. Later, when I went to high school, my class included two boys, Johnny McAllister and Bud Benjamin, who had been in their mothers' classes at the village school. From what they said, I think they did not like the situation at all. When my children were making their way through Avoca Central School, they always had the other second or third grade teacher, not my sister Dottie. One whole year, I substituted for a history teacher who had hurt his back wrestling. Two of his/my classes were world history but fortunately, there was a third section to which daughter Elaine was assigned.
Mamma instituted hot lunches when she became Beagle District’s teacher. She and I furnished on Monday. One of her tasks on Sunday afternoon with my questionable help was to make vegetable-beef soup. It was so good that I always had a sample. After lunch every day, Mamma read to us so the younger children could rest. She was an excellent reader and I loved stories so that was a happy time. I remember Tom Sawyer, Chi-Wee and Loki by Grace Moon, a book about Pueblo Indian children, and Swiss Family Robinson; I know there were many others. All of my teachers started the day with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer, but Mamma had singing, too, songs like “America”, “Flow Gently Sweet Afton”, “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean”, and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. There was no piano or organ as some districts had but Mamma had a pitch pipe to get everyone started on the right note. It didn’t help me any.
On Friday afternoon, school was dismissed a half hour early and then Mamma had Bible lessons. The children did not have to stay and some didn’t. Mamma used David C. Cook Sunday School materials. Enclosed in their kits were picture cards with brief Bible stories. I enjoyed the cards and learned the stories of Moses and Joseph, the parables and life experiences of Jesus the easy way. I remember Jacob’s ladder climbing to the sky, Moses in a basket in the bulrushes, Joseph’s coat of many colors, Ruth and Naomi gleaning, and, of course all aspects of the nativity. Many years later, when our oldest daughter Elaine was teaching Freshman English at Towson State College outside of Baltimore, she complained that her students hadn’t learned even the basic Bible stories and so couldn’t understand many references in Western Literature.
At Christmas, all my teachers organized a program/party for the children and parents and friends of the district. We prepared for weeks. There was always a play with a Christmas theme, recitations, and lots of singing, usually tableaux of the Nativity during “Silent Night.” The program was at night so the humdrumness of our daytime schoolroom was illuminated by lantern light that cast many mysterious shadows and created scary, dark corners. The lucky girls who were chosen to be Mary and the Angels had costumes cobbled together by the mothers but they looked lovely in the flickering light. The boys who were Joseph and shepherds and the wise men wore their fathers’ flannel shirts but the shadows made them believable, too. Quilts were rigged on a wire to create a stage. The big boys who didn’t want to perform were more than willing to pull the curtain and prompt the little kids when they forgot their lines. The students made gifts for their parents, usually calendars for the fathers and potholders for the mothers. I was as unhandy with a needle as I was with a pen so I recall pricking my fingers many times as I embroidered blanket-stitching around the edges of the potholders. We children drew names to exchange gifts. We weren’t supposed to trade but we often did. What a responsibility to go to the five and ten and find something just right! We bought something pretty for the teacher, too. The teachers gave their students games or books. Mamma gave books and pencils with the students’ names printed on them. Still in the cupboard are some of the sets of sugar and creamers that she received—depression glass purchased for a quarter then but valuable in the 1990’s.
When I started teaching in Wayland in 1945, I came with credentials in dramatics so I did the assembly programs. One at Christmas Time featured the Nativity scene silhouetted against the backdrop of Bethlehem Village. There was never a question of separation of church and state at Christmas Time then. Even 20 years later, when I was teaching at Cohocton, the morning announcements included the Lord’s Prayer but that soon stopped. I’ll never forget that when I was experimenting with the lighting, a spotlight ignited the back stage curtain. I was alone but found a janitor nearby. The school got a beautiful new curtain. Then, ironically, in July the school was struck by lightning and one area burned. We taught in churches the next year.
My last teacher and the last person to teach at Beagle District School was Gladys Randolph Robords. I was in seventh and eighth grades under Gladys’s tutelage and passed all my Regents examinations with high marks. What I remember best of my years with her was the fun she had with us at noontime. In the fall and spring we played outdoors: hide-and-seek or Annie-Annie-over, a game in which we threw a ball over the roof of the schoolhouse. If someone on the other side caught the ball, everyone on that side charged around to the other side. The person with the ball tagged as many opponents as possible. If tagged, you dropped out. Eventually the sides dwindled and finally the person holding the ball had an exciting time running down the last person from the opposing team. On bad days in the winter, Mrs. Robords had the big boys push all the desks into the corners and we played prisoners base with beanbags to tag our opponents. On good days, if there was snow, we tramped down bases and paths for fox-and-geese or rode down the pasture hill on our sleds. Since I often had “my nose in a book”, sometimes I sat on the sidelines to finish my story much to the disgust of my schoolmates. At the end of the year, the mothers organized a picnic either in the “Old Castle” or by what had once been a millpond in Castle Creek on the Wightman property.
After centralization was voted in but before the rural schools were closed, Mr. Guyon J. Carter, the superintendent of the rural schools in northern Steuben County, organized a field day at the end of the year for all of his schools. Once we went to Loon Lake and once to the grounds of the Avoca Union School. Then we played games like bag and three-legged races, relays, balancing and tumbling contests, short and long races and high and broad jumps. At the Loon Lake games, I won a prize for walking on the edge of a board. Strange what one remembers! Mr. Carter was a well-liked and long-tenured superintendent, serving from 1911 to 1956. Since he lived in Avoca, he was a friend of Mamma’s and the other local teachers. Not only Mamma but also all the teachers in his supervisory district recalled how he loved to talk. At his meetings twenty minutes stretched to an hour and an hour to two. After he retired, he moved to Florida and lived to be 104 years old. When I graduated from Albany Teachers’ College in 1945, Mr. Carter recommended me for my first job at Wayland High School where centralization was just taking place.
Gladys Robords and her husband Clair were our neighbors and friends. After our school closed, Gladys went to the central school to teach. Within a year or two, the new board dismissed her—she was a married teacher. This was at the same time and for the same reason that Mamma and my homemaking teacher Anna Edwards were not hired back. Gladys was very bitter. Quite soon, Clair sold their farm and they moved to Horseheads where Gladys enjoyed a long and distinguished career. After Stanley and I were married, we saw them on occasion because my sister and her husband, who loved to play cards, invited them and us to five-hundred parties. It was always a pleasure to see them. After they retired, they traveled, so always had interesting tales to tell. I recall stories of their trips to the Galapagos Islands and to Alaska.
After I went on to high school, Beagle School stayed open one more year while the central school was constructed. When the school closed at the end of June 1938, there was one last school meeting to divide the property of the district. The Schoonovers took the big jacketed heating stove, my mother and father asked for and got the filing cabinet and the pottery water jar, both of which we still have. Dr. Alexander Conner (our neighbor Pat) bought the building for the lumber to build a garage. He did not tear it down immediately. One summer day I pushed open the door to an empty, silent classroom and felt that I was stepping on sacred ground.
After renters and all parents gained the right to vote, the school meeting was almost pure democracy. When my mother came to the Shults farm, the women of Beagle district had never voted although New York State had made it legal for women to vote at school meetings years before. One of her first community projects was to enlist Nettie Wightman and Edith Conner to go with her to school meetings. After Edith was widowed, she became a trustee. I wrote a poem about a school meeting that I attended with Mamma and Daddy. The event described in the poem took place in 1937 according to Ida Ackley whose husband owned the Early Sunrise Farm. The barn was actually a shed.
This poem was published twice, once in Log on the Water, Reflections of the Bath Area Writers’ Group, 1986, and later in my history of Avoca, The Sweet Vale of Avoca , c. 1993.
Centralization aroused the population. To most of the people involved, it represented a better education and more opportunities for their children. There was much opposition, also. Mamma and Daddy opposed it on the same principle that, in later years, some people opposed integration by busing: namely, that closing the neighborhood schools with the resulting long bus rides would be detrimental to little children. Actually, one of the favorable aspects was eliminating the long walks that some rural children endured but, with our school on our property, my walk was too short to be a problem. As it worked out, the children adapted very quickly to the larger classes of the central school and to the busing. Some of the rides are still too long. When our neighbor children Liz, J. J. and Emily Barry were in school, they were on the bus an hour both morning and afternoon.
There were some problems on the buses. The bus driver did sometimes have to do some disciplining. When our older children were little, the Meese children who lived next door looked after them. By the time our youngest daughter Mary was riding the bus, her older siblings were into after school activities. When she had no one to look after her, a certain big boy in the neighborhood bullied her by whacking her on the head with his books. We protested and the bus driver brought her to a seat up front.
In The Sweet Vale of Avoca, I wrote a defense of the education received in the one-room rural schools by citing the life experiences of some of my contemporaries who attended Beagle District School in the first third of the twentieth century. It follows:
Education in the Rural Schools
One of the principal arguments for the centralization of rural schools was that education would be improved. Perhaps this is true. However the work experiences of the students who went on from the small, poor, rural school that I attended leads us to appreciate the schooling that was given and apparently received. After high school, Mark Calkins attended training class and then Geneseo Normal School. He became principle at Letchworth High School and then worked for the University of Rochester in their research department during World War II. The research involved the atomic bomb. Mildred Wessels Miller worked for many years as a bookkeeper first at the produce office in Avoca and then at Longwell’s Lumber Yard in Bath. After she retired, she served as librarian for Avoca Free Library. Alton Wightman went to teacher training class and taught for one year. He attended Alfred University for a year and then studied law with Judge Floyd Annabel for four years. He became a trial lawyer, then Steuben County Judge and finally New York State Supreme Court Judge. His brother Vernon attended training class, then Geneseo and earned a Master’s degree while teaching at Haverling High School in Bath. He was Superintendent of Schools there for many years. The primary school is named after him. My second cousin Margaret Conner went to Rochester Business Institute for secretarial training and then worked for Steuben County Welfare Department. She became a caseworker for the elderly, then supervisor of caseworkers. Meanwhile she earned an associate degree from Corning Community College. When she retired, she was Deputy Commissioner. Her brother Alexander Conner attended Cornell University and became a veterinarian. Dorothy Shults attended Geneseo Normal School and taught first in the Brasted District and then at Avoca Central School for almost thirty-five years. I attended Albany Teachers’ College and taught social studies and English at Wayland, Avoca (as a substitute) and Cohocton Central Schools for twenty years. After I retired, I took up writing, especially writing about local history. Beagle District is not unique. A similar list could be made for other districts. Furthermore, there were many men and women who lived productive and knowledgeable lives with the skills they acquired in the eight grades of rural schools.
We cannot—we would not go back to the rural education in one-room schools. In fact, the trend in rural education in the last twenty years of the twentieth century is to combine the small central school. Two of the schools where I taught have combined into Way-Co, the Wayland-Cohocton central school. Another trend is home schooling, a practice which reflects some of the values and advantages of the one-room school.
Copyright 2006, Grace S. Fox