Back to School Memories

Check out one blogger's fond memories of schoolyard antics and education back in the 1940s.

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My 7th grade school picture (1944-1945). Mrs. Duncan was the teacher and I’m standing just in front of her left shoulder.

I reckon by now all the kids are back in school. As a kid I always dreaded September and the first day of school — I’d have much rather been home helping Dad get the wheat planted. Of course, after a week or so it wasn’t so bad.

Our western Pennsylvania township had several one room schools, at one of which I started first grade in the fall of 1939. The teacher was young and pretty and I liked her very much. Mom had taught me to read and write before I started school so the teacher moved me into 2nd grade that first year — no wonder I liked her — I got through all eight grades in seven years.

At recess we played different games. One was called “Andy Over,” in which the kids chose up sides with one team being on either side of the schoolhouse, out of sight of each other. One side threw a rubber ball over the peak of the roof and the other team attempted to catch it. If they failed, they threw it back over the roof. This back and forth continued until someone caught the ball, whereupon the lucky team ran around the building and attempted to tag a member of the opposing team with the ball. A tagged individual then switched sides and, if the game went on long enough, the winning team ended up with all the players.

We also played “Red Rover,” where each team formed a line facing the other and holding hands. The team leader would call out, “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Billy, or Sue, or Sammy, come over.” The chosen individual would then run at the other line and try to break through the clasped hands. What happened then, I don’t recall. We played a lot of soft ball, along with tag, crack-the-whip, and sometimes marbles as well.

Another big source of recess time entertainment was the creek which ran alongside the school property not fifty feet from the building. We played in, and jumped over the creek in nice weather, and caught sucker fish which were then plentiful. Winter was the best time for playing on the creek, however. We spent every minute sliding on, and often falling through the ice.

The school building had a raised platform at the front upon which was the teacher’s desk, the American flag, the obligatory portrait of George Washington and, I believe, a bookcase. Every morning began with the teacher reading a few Bible verses, after which she led us in the pledge of allegiance to the flag, and then we sang a song or two — one I especially remember was “You Are My Sunshine.” In front of her desk was a long wooden bench to which the various classes came to recite their lessons. A pot-bellied stove stood in the center of the room, and on either side were several rows of desks. Behind us was the only entrance through a small vestibule in the bottom of the bell tower. There was a bell in the tower, but the rope was broken and I never heard it ring. On either side of this vestibule was a row of hooks for hanging coats, and a blue and white crockery urn with a spigot and a tin cup that everyone drank from. Behind the building was a well with a hand pump that was located dangerously close to a long narrow building that housed a girl’s and a boy’s outhouse on either end, with a space for coal storage in the middle.

The young and pretty teacher left at the end of my first year to get married and we had a succession of middle-aged, married teachers of varying quality. In those days in order to teach, one needed a certificate that was awarded, after passing certain tests, by the county superintendent of schools. No college degrees were required — my older cousin began teaching in one of our one-room schools right out of high school. Even though the teachers may not always have been great — one, Mrs. Duncan who was there three different years, was a good teacher — I absorbed enough education to graduate from high school.

During the 1940s, several farm papers published a series of little, rhyming homilies by a man named J. Edward Tufft who styled himself “The Cheerful Plowman.”  Here’s one titled, “A Good Teacher.”

“The teacher in our district school is not scholastic, stiff and cool, she’s no highbrow and distant girl with head up where the cloudlets whirl. She’s not a formal, mental snob with set-rule interest in her job. That girl’s someone with spacious heart and human from the very start. She wishes to instruct the youth with facts and figures, that’s the truth. She follows rules of discipline, has no confusion, fuss or din. She makes the kidlets do their tasks and every other thing she asks.

“She’s pedagogical enough and will not stand for fuss and bluff. She’s all of that it’s plain to see, it’s all of that she ought to be, but as I tried to say before, she’s all of that and much, much more! She is a girl who takes a pride in every kidlet by her side; she is a girl who loves to teach with long and broad and lofty reach. She is a girl who surely feels that knowledge makes its best appeal when facts and figures in the head are not just formal, cold and dead, but tries from the very start to make them come right from the heart. That teacher sees that every child, no matter how uncouth and wild, is given her very level best — no child is rated as a pest.

“That girl loves each little tad, no matter how supremely bad the little jigger aims to be — at least that’s how it seems to me. She’s not just drawing pay, and letting slow kids fall by the way; she’s taking little boys and girls, tow-headed kids and those in curls, and doing just the best she can to make them grow, as I have said, in HEART as rapidly as in HEAD! — J. Edw. Tufft.”

Not the best poetry, perhaps, but you get the idea.

Sam Moore

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