This past week, a friend and I were discussing how much schools have changed since we started elementary school. She was in rural South Dakota and went to a one-room school. I started school in Tyler, Texas at a school called Dixie.
My grandfather told me he loved going to a one-room school. Students heard the lessons from the other grades over and over again. By the time they graduated, they knew all the material very well. He felt one-room schools produced the smartest students.
Dixie didn’t have kindergarten so I started school in first grade. Each school day began with learning how to say the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a Bible reading. We learned the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer in class. I only remember white kids in my class, but during PE, there was a Mexican girl who could run like the wind. I wanted to run as fast as she did, so when I asked her if I could run along with her, she said yes but keep up. She left me in the dust.
We moved that year to Paducah where I started going to Alamo elementary school with a front façade shaped like the Alamo. Things were more segregated there. There were separate classes for white kids and kids of color. In the bathrooms, there were white kid stalls and other color kid stalls. Same with water fountains, on the playground, and in the cafeteria.
In third grade, everyone in school had to get a chest x-ray to check for tuberculosis, I assume. I swallowed a nickel when I was younger, and I was sure they’d see that nickel inside me and I’d have to have an operation to get it out. I was terrified! But they didn’t find anything. I understood why when I finally learned about the digestive system.
Desegregation hit when I was in fourth grade, and there were students of all colors in the same class. On the first day of class, all the white kids sat in the front rows and the kids of color sat in the back. The teacher, Mrs. Kilcrease was one of the kindest and most influential teachers I ever had. She didn’t like that arrangement but couldn’t persuade any of the back-row kids to move up. She made a rule that each week the front row would move to the back and everyone would move up a row. That way everyone got to sit in the front row. She must have caught a lot of flak from parents about that because it didn’t last more than a couple of weeks. Not to be outdone, she put the white kids on one side of the room and the kids of color on the other. The front row still had to move to the back once a week and so on but there must have been fewer complaints. We did that the rest of the year.
That was the year that the whole school got vaccinations for something. I remember lining up and going through the nurse’s office and getting a shot. The rest of the day was spent coloring and being read too. My arm was sore but I didn’t get sick or feverish like some of the other kids. The whole school got shots again the next year, but again, I have no idea what for.
I remember getting the polio vaccination in the form of a sugar cube. I loved that one! We walked through the courthouse one Sunday afternoon and picked up a little white cup with a sugar cube in it. I wish all vaccinations were administered that way.
In fifth grade, our class was a mishmash of colors all mixed together in the classroom. Our tiny teacher had such a soft voice, she had to use a microphone to teach. At the end of the day, if we’d all been good in class, we got to tell jokes using her microphone. What a thrill that was! That was the year we were told that speaking Spanish was not allowed on school grounds and anyone caught doing so would be expelled. English was the language of America and anyone not speaking it was unAmerican. My parents told me not to report anyone. It wasn’t any of my business what they were speaking and to stay out of it. Sounded good to me. I didn’t want to cause trouble for anyone.
That year, we moved to Colorado where everything was very different. We went to Riverview elementary school that was on a mesa above Durango, Colorado. This kid who’d battled severe bronchitis during cotton ginning season for the past two years went from an altitude of 1860 feet to 6700 feet. The thinner air was noticeable. One day, we were required to run around the track, and I had a very hard time of it. I was wheezing and gasping but the PE coach came up to me screaming about how lazy I was and out of shape. If I didn’t hurry up, he’d make me stay and run it again. He had foam around the edges of his mouth. I’ll never forget him yelling at me like that. I tripped and fell and he said I’d better have a charlie horse or I was in big trouble. I had no idea what that was, but I had it for sure. He left me alone after that. On our way back to the classroom, a kid in class said I was a liar, I didn’t have a charlie horse, I wasn’t limping. That was the low point of my time in fifth grade. I hated it there.
Happily, we only went to that school part of the year. We moved again where I started another elementary school. Being the new kid was never easy or fun, and it wasn’t there either. I loved when the end-of-the-day bell rang, and I could get out of there. When my best friend moved there, it made school more tolerable.
My experiences, both good and bad, are in some ways different and some ways same as schools today. There’s still drama and trauma, cool kids and nerds in every school, and it’s not always a pleasant experience. As a parent, I didn’t the best to help my kids through it. But I never had to deal with the threat of a school shooting, and it saddens me that today’s students do. That’s the worst part about modern schooling.
The idea of providing a free education to all kids is a great one; how to do it is the problem. The debate over how and what to teach has been going on a long time and doesn’t appear to have an end or resolution. Until everyone agrees, parents shouldn’t leave the job of teaching totally to the school system. Let the school system augment what’s learned at home. It’s the parents’ responsibility to see their child learns and sees value in learning. The benefits of education far outweigh those of remaining ignorant.
Hear, my children, the instruction of a father, and give attention to know understanding; For I give you good doctrine: do not forsake my law. When I was my father’s son, tender and the only one in the sight of my mother, He also taught me, and said to me: “Let your heart retain my words; keep my commands, and live. Get wisdom! Get understanding! Do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth…Wisdom is the principal thing: therefore get wisdom, and in all your getting, get understanding.” Proverbs 4:1-7