Recalling memories of one-room schoolhouses

By Father Dennis Meinen
View from the Scooter

I had a funeral for Phyllis Heydon, a Holy Spirit resident whose obituary told how she taught in a one-room schoolhouse in 1945, but for only one year.

I asked a family member about this. Why one year? Was the class unruly? She said, “No. My mother got married that same year, and soon she found out her own ‘Heydon school house’ was going to have its first neophyte student!”

I remember the 1960s when classes were combined by having a couple of grades together. I felt sorry for the higher grades and the impossible subjects they had to learn, unaware that I would have the same courses next year. The best part was hearing my older brother answer a question wrong.

But back to one-room schoolhouses.

What’s so special about country schools? They were (and in rare cases still are) places where children of various ages learned together. The style of learning was unique and so was the teaching. As a former student attests in the article Rural School Consolidation in Mille Lacs County in the Minnesota History magazine, “The teacher … had to have eight reading classes, eight math classes, eight health, eight geography and so on. Well, [it was] impossible, unless you make them ten-minute classes. I would imagine you better pay attention during those 10 minutes.

“Not everyone was up to the challenge. Wanda Gág (interesting name) felt lucky to survive her stint as a teacher in 1912. While preparing lessons, hearing recitations and enduring an inspection by the county superintendent, she wrote a poem entitled My Schoolhouse, as a tribute to her school and students:

“Each morning eighteen pairs of eyes / Look in at the open door. / Each morning eighteen pairs of feet / Track up my spotless floor.”

How can teachers today get across the unique feel of a country school, where a crowd of kids, ranging from kindergartners to eighth-graders, were crammed together under one leaky roof? A visit to an historic schoolhouse can help, or reading books on that subject can allow readers to revisit the one-room school without ever leaving the comforts of the modern world. Readers may be familiar with classics set in one-room schools. Remember watching Little House on the Prairie? Laura Ingalls first attended school in On the Banks of Plum Creek and taught her first batch of scholars in These Happy Golden Years.

What is the lasting value of one-room schools? More than 12,000 of these little structures once dotted Iowa’s landscapes.

If we were to assess the value of a one-room schoolhouse in a spiritual sense, we must first turn to Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25:31-46, the Last Judgment scene. On the day of our judgment, I believe the Lord will ask us several questions. What have you done with your life? What have you done with the gifts I gave you? Have you shown love to others? Regardless of our educational background, the size of our school, or even our report card, we know that God already knows the answers to our questions.

Our Lord’s comment to the righteous people at the Last Judgment, “Welcome, good and faithful servants, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world,” should cause us to reflect on our educational experiences. Were we faithful? Were we God-centered people?

I wonder if any of the bishops, priests, deacons or religious from our diocese ever attended a country school. If you’ve survived a one-room schoolhouse experience, send your comments to me.

Father Dennis Meinen serves as chaplain at Holy Spirit Retirement Home, Sioux City, for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the diocese and Calix and Faithful Friar of the Garrigan 4th Degree Assembly of the Knights of Columbus, Sioux City.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>