Lessons by the Yard

In response to my article about rural schools, many readers thanked me for the walk down memory lane as they recalled their own years in such buildings. Readers who never had the opportunity to learn in a one-room school expressed sadness and regret that they had missed what we had experienced — the challenge, the standards, the freedom to blossom. Some could not imagine life in a one-room schoolhouse. I cannot imagine spending my early schooling years in any other place.

There were no schools within walking distance of my home, so I did ride a bus. Our driver would pick me up first, as our home was at the very western edge of the district. He then stopped here and there for more children until he arrived at….his brother’s house. That was our first real stop, and a rather lengthy one. The brother’s children would join the rest of us on the bus while their uncle went in to have coffee with his mother, brother, and extended family. On the bus we were warm and full of cheer, as we chatted and caught up on all the news. Eventually our driver would return and we would continue along the route, covering many miles, picking up many children. That coffee stop occurred every day for the three and a half years that I attended that school. Life just wasn’t as hectic and rushed back then.

On my very first day of school, I was told to choose a bus seat that would then be mine for the entire school year. I was utterly amazed that, at the mere age of five, I would be given such control over my own life. I had never been on a school bus, but I had watched them go by and I knew exactly the seat that I coveted. I skipped down the aisle to claim one of those back ones by the back door. By the end of the first week I had realized my error, but I had made my decision knowing that I would have to stick with it “all year” and I knew better than to ask for a different seat. I thus spent 36 weeks being thrown about the seat, bounced, jostled, and bruised; as the bus traversed old gravel roads filled with ruts, washouts, grass growing in rough clumps down the center. I lost count of how many times my head hit the ceiling. I ended each day with fingers purple from holding on for dear life. I never again chose the last seat, but I learned to be more thorough when considering options prior to making a long-term decision. Not all lessons occur within the confines of a classroom.

Finally we arrived at the schoolyard and could play outside until Mrs. Beaudry came to pull the long rope that rang the bell hanging high above her head. The schoolyard was absolutely grand in those days, a full square block surrounded by a sturdy fence. We were allowed to run and yell and play all sorts of games. I never remember seeing an adult supervising us or attempting to protect us from harm. There were quite a few pieces of playground equipment of galvanized steel…gleaming hot under bare legs in the warm weather; cold enough to hold your tongue in the winter. I learned many important lessons out in that schoolyard, as well.

My very first lesson was at the swing set. They were marvelous swings with the longest of ropes. One could lean forward, then back, while pumping the legs and soon be flying so high that you could see over the top of that upper cross bar. The object of swinging so high and so wide was to get enough momentum to….at the highest point of the arc…leap from the swing and see how far from it you could land while avoiding being hit in the head by the returning wooden swing seat. New to the group, and ready to risk all to fit in, I jumped into the swing, went ever so high, then leaped out as directed. Plop! I landed on my back in the biggest patch of sand burrs that one could imagine. The older kids were laughing so hard. Finally they regained their composure enough to explain the wisdom of NEVER jumping from a swing on the first few days of school since the area would be covered with sand burrs that had grown thick over the summer. Uh…Right! As the older kids moved on to play far from the swings, I rested, stomach down on the sidewalk, while my new bus buddies gingerly attempted to remove most of the sand burrs before the bell called us to begin the day. Lesson? Look before you leap, but most of all…pause to wonder why none of the big kids are shoving little kids aside in order to have first use of the swings.

I learned other lessons in that yard. I learned that Mrs. Beaudry hated for kids to amass huge collections of broken glass. I learned that she strongly disapproved of kids making ‘cream pies’ by opening hundreds of milkweeds then piling the fluffy seeds in old tin plates, ready for the wind to scatter far and wide thus making a mess of the schoolyard. I learned that time passes more slowly if you just hang on the fence waiting for your older friend to return from the local store with your order of black licorice. (That friend’s granddaughter is one of my best and favorite students — maybe because of the delivery service I enjoyed as a child.) I learned that if you are foolish enough to get suckered into standing under the slide while someone slides down while bashing heels on the metal — that you deserve the headache that you receive.

Eventually the bell would ring and we would hurry to line up at the door. When everyone was silent, we entered the school with respect and anticipation. We put our coats and lunch pails in the cloakroom then reported to our seats. The school day began and all talking ceased. The grade levels were many, but the distractions were few. Mrs. Beaudry would say, “First grade — Reading….arise….come forward…..sit.” Reliably, the first graders would stand up, quietly move to the front of the room, stand before one of the little chairs that faced the blackboard, then sit when directed to do so. The lesson would be brief but well planned; the seatwork clearly explained. “Arise…return to your desks….sit. Second grade — Reading…arise….”

During one of those first days I learned a lesson that directly affected me, while simultaneously registering with every child in the room. The situation developed when I asked another child just the briefest, tiniest, whispered question. Mrs. Beaudry heard me! She stopped teaching; walked to an old, castoff book; tore out a page. All eyes were on me as she walked down the aisle to my desk. She handed me that torn page, covered with the smallest print imaginable, and said in a calm but very stern voice, “Use your pencil to fill every letter that contains a circle — b’s, d’s, c’s, a’s….” I spent hours filling in round spaces and to this day I hate detail work. However I usually remember not to talk when someone is teaching or speaking to a group.

Our school days passed with that rhythm of rising, moving forward, sitting; from morning until the best behaved child would be allowed to choose a record to put on the record player at the closing of the day. Some days the teacher would read. Most importantly, every day ended with each child having accomplished much and thus leaving with many new things to ponder. I specifically recall my first reading lesson during which the teacher told us to look at the word spelled “i-t”. She informed us, “That is ‘it’.” I remember being very impressed and thinking, “Ah, so that is what an ‘it’ looks like.” I guess I’d been clear regarding ‘he’ and ‘she’, but must have felt some confusion over the more abstract ‘it.’

The best parts of the day for me were the times (the greater part of every day, in my case, actually) when I had completed my work early and had nothing to do. As you will recall, we dared not talk in class unless we perversely longed for hours spent coloring circles. I used my time to observe the continuing instruction at the front of the room. I watched the classes that were younger, and so had a nice review of any schoolwork that might have confused me, initially. I observed the classes that were above me, accepting the challenge and working their problems in my head in order to learn from those. Life was great. Scholarship was exhilarating.

I was in third grade, but I was doing the sixth grade math, and reading above that. I would never have achieved those levels had I spent my years stuck in a room with same-grade / same-age peers. It was only that one-room schoolhouse organizational plan, where I was allowed to eavesdrop upon other instruction, that provided me with the opportunity to move ahead at my own pace; to review as per my own needs. In addition, older children would help younger children, giving those older ones the opportunity to reinforce their own skills and retention by the act of teaching them to someone else; giving the younger students opportunities for one-on-one assistance. The one-room schoolhouse functioned as a well-oiled machine. It did its job well, with minimal waste of time and energy, and turned out dependable, consistent results. It also, with its family-like atmosphere, encouraged the development of character, personality, goals, motivation, uniqueness.

Then, in the middle of third grade, my family moved nearly 200 miles away from my beloved school so that my deaf brother could receive appropriate instruction to meet his needs.

While searching for housing in Ypsilanti, we rented in Novi. I was enrolled in third grade and arrived for my first day, expecting to find even more challenging and interesting aspects to schooling, considering the size of the building and the number of classrooms. Well…was I ever disgusted! Instead of noting, or caring, that I was reading far above grade level, and because those 3rd graders were still using the paperback Dick & Jane/Run Spot Run books that I had breezed through in kindergarten, I was held back; forced to be part of immature, unskilled reading groups. From that day on, until I had Miss Wagstaff and Mr. Eckenrod for Humanities class during my senior year at Ypsilanti High School, the materials, subject matter, and level of difficulty offered in nearly every class was so utterly boring that schooling never again regained my respect. This lesson was a very sad one for I knew that if only I could go back to that red brick schoolhouse, my mind and spirits would again soar.

At the age of nine, I understood more truths about schooling and educational programming than today’s so-called experts would be willing to discover, or to accept and swallow, as one would a bitter pill. I learned that I was safer and better off educationally in that rural school with students of every age, even if older ones did trick us into landing in the sand burrs. I learned that my mind and spirit were in danger in a city school with children imprisoned with same-age groups while adults tricked us into believing that third graders reading kindergarten books was OK. The lesson I learned was that things simple, sensible, well planned, are of far more lasting value than the monstrosities brought to us courtesy of Consolidations-R-Them.

One final lesson — the one that taught us to: stay on task; ignore distractions; do our very best; finish what we start. I recall this lesson clearly, almost audibly. The mere mention of the experience brings back those heart-stopping moments. There was an impulsive, distractible, often naughty boy in our school and he always had to sit on the right-hand side of Mrs. Beaudry’s desk. Compared to many of today’s children, the boy really was quite well behaved for usually he was quiet enough that we would forget about him, but the teacher knew what he was, or wasn’t, doing. The room would be silent except for the scratch of pencils, when suddenly the air would be shattered by a loud “THWACK!” The teacher’s yardstick slammed across the corner of her desk — to remind the boy to get back on task. Often a piece would break off and fly across the room so that by the end of each year, that yardstick would measure only about 12 inches. A new one would always be in its place come Fall. By observation, only, we learned these lessons for Mrs. Beaudry never struck a child. The unexpected crack made as that yard of wood hit its mark, served its purpose well, and newly motivated children became even more determined to do their best.

It was, in all ways, the best of times.