September 1989

 
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District School #4

on Bluff Point

and Miss Mary Reagan

by

Shirley McNulty

Farm boys were needed for their help at home during the farming season. For the winter months they could be spared to go to school. Some boys attended school during December, January, and February only. There were boys who came not with the thought of learning but to pass the time by tormenting the teacher and the other students. For this reason only a very few schools would hire a woman teacher. My brothers had only male teachers for the three months each year they attended our local school.

Anyone who wanted to become a rural teacher could drop out of the Regents program nine weeks before graduation from high school and learn all that was thought to be necessary to teach country school. They were first taught to keep a register of attendance. This was most important because the attendance of students was the basis of state aid for each school.

During the nine weeks, the prospective school masters were instructed how to teach the 3 Rs for all eight grades. Other courses that they might teach—geography, civics, art, and music—were left to the choice of the new teacher.

Country schools were usually located four miles apart. Children from the surrounding two mile radius walked to school.

The school I went to had a one-step-high platform at one end of the large room. The teacher's desk and chair were on this raised part of the floor so the teacher could better see the whole room.

Set out from the wall was a large heating stove. It burned either coal or wood. Sometimes in the winter we placed our benches on all four sides so that we might warm our feet.

Under the chimney bracket were shelves with a small library of 25 books. The selection was supposed to be the best of children's books. When I returned 32 years later to teach for three years in District #4, where I had attended as a youngster, I found books with library cards containing my name in a childish scrawl.

School days began at 9:00 with the ringing of the bell. First we recited the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer, then classes began. There was no kindergarten and if there was only one student for a grade that child would be advanced to be in a class with other students. Each child heard the recitations of each class of all eight grades every day. I think this system of listening every day to what all of the grades were studying was the reason that most of us could hold our own when we went later to a town school.

The opening for women teachers in our country school came with the hiring of Mary Reagan. Miss Reagan was a tall, raw-boned, freckled, Irish girl living next to us on the Bluff. With the courage of youth or desperation, she faced my Granddad, who was then head of the school board, with a request to be hired as teacher for District #4 the ensuing fall. She didn't know that the shadow of World War I, still ten years away, would add weight to her request. Nor did Granddad have any presentiment of the growing disaster. But he was smarting from a chance remark made by the present male teacher. This man had voiced his opinion that Europe had been under the control of a dictatorial England long enough and that it was time for young ambitious nations, Germany for instance, to cast British domination off. Little did he suspect that with one sentence he had automatically resigned from any position the following year. Granddad loved and respected his new world, but his roots would always be deep in English soil, and no criticism would be allowed from one "not yet dry behind the ears."

At first Granddad flatly refused, Mary, saying no woman could handle the school. She persisted, however, and at last they reached an agreement. He would give her a month's trial. If in that month, she showed that she could discipline the school, her contract would hold. If not, she would resign at the end of the month and he would be left free to hire a man. The word got out and it caused the school to open with unusual interest in September.

Something of importance had happened during the summer. A family had moved in from a nearby district. They brought five children to attend our school. Three were girls and two were boys. The reputation of one boy for being boisterous, disobedient and fairly lawless had preceded him. The story went that he had already driven one teacher into a nervous breakdown. So it was with anticipation and trepidation that school began.

Between the 9:00 o'clock opening and the 10:30 recess of fifteen minutes, he began his usual role: wandering about the room, taking frequent drinks of water, talking out loud, laughing uproariously for almost no reason at all, and upsetting the entire school. Miss Reagan watched him quietly but said not much until recess time came. Then when we lined up, she informed him that he was not to leave the school room. He was to stay in with her as punishment for his former behavior. Laughing loudly he simply followed us out onto the playground, not noticing that he was being followed. He crossed the school yard and turned to go down the road leading toward his home. When he saw Miss Reagan, she was right behind him. He began to trot at a leisurely pace and she followed. He began to run in earnest when he saw that she gave no ground. He was running for the joy of excitement; she was running for her job. There was no question as to what would be the outcome.

A hundred yards below the schoolhouse an outcropping of shale ran across the hard-pounded dirt road. By this time, Mary was close enough behind him that by reaching out one long arm she was able to grasp his hair from the back and pull him over backwards. Then quickly taking advantage of the situation, she knelt on him and seizing his hair in both hands she began pounding his head into the dirt road. Despite his shouts, kicking, and squirmings she continued to pound his head. It was not long before he realized he had met his match. But not until he had answered question after question with a muttered reply of "Yes" did she let him up. We stood in awe as she marched him back to the school room. What had threatened to be a mutiny had failed, and from then on there would be submission. Mary had won.

She taught the school for years, saving her money so she might go to "Normal" school, as the teacher-training college was known at that time. Graduating from there she made her way to Rochester. Word came back that she was making her reputation there in a large school. The First World War opened the door for many women teachers, but it was Mary Reagan who opened the door for women teachers at District #4 ten years before.

1989, Shirley McNulty
 
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