The One-Room Country School

February, 2014

Lincoln -- Oh, the joys of reminiscing about one's early education, and the sorrows about its shortcomings.

I'm in touch with some of my one-room country school classmates in rural Lancaster County, Nebraska, where we started our formal education in the late 1940s and early 1950s. We've gone over pictures of ourselves and our teachers. How wonderfully primitive it all was: coal furnace in the basement; water carried into the school from an outside well; two outdoor privies; all children in one room, from kindergarteners to eighth graders; maximum about a dozen of us in a good year.

I liked our teachers for the most part. One recently passed away and I regret not contacting her about her subsequent life and asking what she thought of the school and her charges. Apparently the teachers had little or no college education, but I didn't know that at the time. Many of the students went on to do well.

My ears are still burning from what I recently learned about another of our teachers. One version of her year at the school was none too complimentary: the teacher was engaged to be married and spent all her time planning her wedding rather than teaching the pupils. Another version makes an even better story. It seems one night a neighbor drove by the school and noted two cars outside and a light in the basement. He contacted the chairman of the school board, who went over to investigate and found the teacher, her boyfriend, and unmentionable hijinks fueled by a bottle of whisky.

She was allowed to finish out the term. I never knew the difference, as I thought she was doing a fine job. She encouraged us to read widely by asking us to make miniature representations, out of construction paper, of the books we had recently read. She posted them on a wall as something of a contest to see who read the most. My mother had been a one-room schoolteacher herself, so I knew how to read before I went to school and was quite a voracious reader (as well as being a competitive sort). The school had too few books itself; my parents would drive to Lincoln to get books from the library in the tower of the state capitol.

My one difference with the teacher was over the color of the construction paper. She said each pupil should choose a single color as a theme. I went for the conceptual rather than the concrete and said my theme would be multi-colored. She consented.

After the fourth grade, I caught a school bus two miles away and attended town school. I suggested the miniature book project to the teacher there, so it continued.

Country school kids who transferred to town school often did well, not because we were any smarter but because we knew all the lessons for the upper grades already, having sat through them multiple times in our previous one-room environment. Not to mention that some of the pupils in the one-room school's upper grades were clever themselves and may have surpassed the knowledge of the teacher.

The country school and small town education did not stand up for long, though. I got no head start in the more advanced math I would later need, no foreign languages that I would need even more. Ironically, a foreign language I should have studied was available in my own family; my grandparents spoke Swedish. My grandmother, in her last years, even reverted to Swedish entirely and subscribed to a Swedish newspaper. I am now in charge of two ancestors' graves in Tingsryd, Sweden, and must rely on the caretakers' and cousins' knowledge of English (although the Google translator comes in handy for reading old documents in Swedish). My younger sister could have used the family Swedish as well; she studied the language briefly at the University of Chicago and served as our interpreter on a trip to Sweden in 1973.

None of this diminishes the fun we had at the country school and the learning that took place; nor does it diminish the warm memories of cold, cold winter mornings when we slid our desks up to the central floor grate to catch the first waftings of the old coal furnace.