The one-room experience

The Neligh News and Leader ran a story about a project in which an old one-room school house was to be moved from south of Clearwater to Neligh where it will be restored as a part of the county’s museum.

I was thrilled.

“Was this your school?” asked my sister-in-law.

It wasn’t. This was the building from District 70. I went to District 60 and that building, as far as I know, was moved from the original site many years ago.

But I was still thrilled.

Anytime a one-room school house is restored, it is an opportunity for children today and into the future to see how their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents went to school in rural Nebraska.

And it is an opportunity for us “farm school kids” to remember our first educational experience.

District 60 was located just a few miles from our house. Each morning, parents would pull into the little acreage and go around the circular drive to drop off kids.

The families had last names like Mueller, Knievel, Schrunk, Stearns, Hemenway, Henn, Ahlers, Zegers, Maben . . .

We kids ranged in age from Kindergarten to eighth grade . . . so the desks in that one big room would range in size from the very smallest with top drawers to the giant ones with side compartments in the back.

Each year, there was only one teacher. Most of my elementary years, Mrs. Elliott was the school marm who kept us in line and made us spend endless hours practicing our penmanship on the gray paper with dotted lines.

While there was only one teacher, I often thought that we all at some point became a teacher as well. Often, the teacher would utilize the skills of older kids to help instruct the younger kids. It was a unique dynamic that I think expanded our young minds in an innovative although accidental way.

Each class would have only one, two or three students and we’d take turns, by subject and by age, to turn in our assignments and have an instructive talking to.

We had verbal spelling bees in which age groups would compete and after lunch we’d take turns presenting book reports . . . sometimes the teacher would read to us aloud.

Our “library” was a shelf of old books that had weathered pages turned by previous generations, and the bathrooms were so cold in winter you never wanted to touch your bare skin to the toilet in fear you might freeze to it.

There was a narrow coat room by the entrance where we’d place our lunch boxes. The shelves would be lined with those metal containers decorated with images of the Brady Bunch, the Million Dollar Man, the Bionic Woman, the Partridge Family, The Fonz and the Hardy Boys. Inside the boxes were our lunches, carefully packed by either our mothers or the oldest sibling.

The great part about winter was eating lunch because the stove that heated the entire one room school was also a great place to make grilled cheese. We simply took buttered bread with cheese in the middle, wrapped it in aluminum foil and then at 11 a.m. or so, the teacher would allow the older kids to gather up the sandwiches and place them on the stove. The trick was putting them in a certain place on the stove’s surface, so the cheese would melt and the bread wouldn’t burn. I remember my stomach growling while the time slowly ticked away, trying to do my math despite the strangely homey smell of bread drying out and Velveeta leaking out to char. After a few well-choreographed flips, lunch hour would begin and we’d excitedly open the aluminum foil to see what was left. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was bad. But it was always an adventure.

There was no refrigeration in the school, yet that dark, apparently well insulated closet kept our minced ham and mayonnaise sandwiches cold enough in the hot months. That, or we just had old fashioned immune systems and never noticed the symptoms of food poisoning.

There were chores, even at school, as we had to take turns cleaning the bathrooms with Comet every other Thursday, put up and take down the flag each day, “bang the erasers” (to get the chalk dust out) each Friday afternoon, sweep off the front steps on Mondays during noon recess, and walk out to the mailbox on Tuesdays to see if any district-related paperwork had arrived.

Our recesses were filled with glorious games of kick the can, hiding in the shelterbelt that surrounded three sides of the property, sitting in the tire swing that hung from the massive “Big Tree,” and spinning on the gloriously rusty and hazardous merry-go-round.

We would have foot races down the gravel road . . . but with specific rules. Five kids would run and two kids would watch in each direction for tractors, trucks and anything else that could run us over.

There was the amazing Christmas program that included the installation of the heavy and delightfully musty theater curtains. Once the curtains were hung and we had a stage, we became superstars who would recite poems, sing songs accompanied by the faded upright piano and perform skits. The program, always well attended by the folks and grandparents, concluded with a visit from Santa and bags of apples, caramels and popcorn.

At the end of each school year, everyone from the neighborhood would come back . . . for the school picnic. The books were put away and delicious potluck dishes were placed on the desks. We’d eat an eclectic feast that always resulted in heavy gas, nausea and bloating that could only be alleviated by the afternoon softball game in which everyone played. The amazing day would close out with ice cream from these big brown containers that I only saw on those specific occasions.

Gloria Christiansen, the fantastic lady who is spearheading the school project in Neligh, said in the article that one-room school houses are a big part of the cultural history of the state.

Gloria is 100 percent correct.

I believe that these schools were the fabric of rural Nebraska culture, back in the day. That school system perpetrated the feeling of community although none of us really lived that close to each other.

The schools were cultural hand-me-downs from our ancestors . . . places where you could learn evolving information while still seeing your grandpa’s name carved into your desk.

It was a place where it was acceptable to stay home from school during silage season, as long as your homework was delivered and returned by a little sister.

It was a place where science lessons included unfortunate hands-on knowledge that snakes liked living in out-houses and fortunate hands-on knowledge that salt and snow were imperative when making homemade ice cream.

It was a place where we learned about the world.

It was a place where we learned about ourselves.

And it was a place where we learned from each other.


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