The Aurora Borealis appeared in spectacular fashion last Sunday night while I was home alone and was uncomfortable going out to dark places late at night by myself. The photos people took of the multicolored spectacle were amazing. I didn’t worry too much about missing them because it was supposed to be just as beautiful on Monday night. I planned to go see them then.
My widowed neighbor agreed to go find a dark spot with me. I’ve seen the northern lights once a long time ago. They were white and formed drapes, then morphed into white streaks, then back into drapes. They truly danced as they changed and moved into different forms. I was awestruck and since then, I’ve wanted to see them again. She’d seen them when she was a girl out on her grandpa’s farm. She hadn’t seen them since and wanted badly to see them again.
We drove east, then north along a small road to where there were few lights around. Ten o’clock was supposed to be the magic hour and we were there long before then in case they put on a pre-show. To our dismay, back toward the west, clouds were sliding in. We crossed our fingers that we’d get our show before the clouds drew the curtain on the performance.
While we waited, my friend told me about the days when she was the principal for twelve one-room schools in western South Dakota not all that long ago. It took her three days and 800 miles to see her whole staff. These school were very rural, very country, very family supported, and very community oriented. A certain amount of autonomy comes with distance and remoteness, and they sometimes got away with things that more urban schools couldn’t.
There were no school buses out there. Kids were brought by parents, drove their own vehicles, or rode horses. She said she’d often seen grazing horses hobbled around the schoolhouses. Ten-year-old kids sometimes drove themselves and their siblings to school in old pickup trucks. The students got there however they could by whatever means of transportation they had available that day.
She said the best part of those one-room schools was the older students helping the younger ones. They weren’t really asked to do it; it was what they wanted to do. All the students worked to together to make sure they learned what they needed to know. Occasional field trips to farms to study biology, tractor repairs, wildlife migrations, dissections of dead animals, and other things added to their education.
I asked her if those little schools had indoor plumbing. Most of the abandoned ones I’ve seen always had that little room out back. She said yes, they had a bathroom but also had outhouses. One year, an older student carved his ranch’s brand into the door of the stall in the bathroom. As punishment, he couldn’t use the indoor one for one month, but had to make the trek out back to the outhouse. He also had to sand off the stall door until the brand didn’t show and repaint it. The other students took notice, and no one bothered the indoor bathroom again. Nothing like the threat of an outhouse to make students behave.
Every school wanted her to come for their Christmas programs, graduations, and other special events which kept her hopping every holiday season. Most of the programs had Christmas carols and songs the children sang, and sometimes plays or skits the students wrote. One school had a nativity scene with real animals (donkeys, sheep, horses, cows, but no camels). She told them that wasn’t really allowed but since everyone there attended the same church, no one but her questioned it.
The work ethic of farm kids puts city kids to shame, she said. They knew chores came before play. They did what was asked of them without argument. With the support of the local families, the teachers knew they could teach and deal with most any problem that came up.
A number of times, my grandfather credited his one-room school for his intelligence. He said for eight years, he heard the lessons over and over again. By the time he left that school, all that knowledge was firmly planted in his mind and helped him go on to the next level. He was the only man I’ve ever known whose mind worked faster than and as accurately as a calculator. He often chided me for not being able to add long columns of numbers in my head. That’s one gift he didn’t pass on to me.
School consolidation because of a lack of funding has closed most of the one-room schools. The farm kids have to ride buses for hours to get to and from schools in bigger towns like Faith and Newell (populations of 368 and 594 respectively). I’ve heard of several families who bought houses in town where the mom and the kids spent the school year, only going back out to the ranch on the weekends, holidays, and summers. Farm families value education and will do what it takes for their kids to get one. And they won’t object if you make their child use the outhouse because they left their brand on the bathroom door.
My friend and I spent a little time under the stars and found the Big Dipper, the North Star, and Casiopeia. Orion was too low in the sky to see, and the Milky Way wasn’t visible. The clouds in the west quickly spread and covered our night sky, blocking our view of the northern lights, even if they made an appearance. We made our way back into town, disappointed that we’d missed them, but the visit we had was a great one. It was worth the drive.