The Big Tree

The other morning I saw all the little ones walking to the bus stops and I smiled. They are all back in school after the Christmas break.

They were laughing and running and jumping and even if Christmas is over, they were still excited to go back to the bus stop where their educational experience begins each year.

I couldn’t help but think about days so long ago.

The one-room school house where I received my elementary education was just 1/2 mile north, one mile west, one mile north, 1/2 mile west of where we lived. It wasn’t huge, but it was quite sufficient for the few families who brought their children every day to District 60.

Some of the classes actually had more than one student — mine did, my brother’s did. And some of the classes consisted of only one person — my sister’s was that way.

We had one teacher, who stealthily moved her way through the various topics, grade by grade, student by student. When the day was over, we had hit everything from math to reading to social studies to penmanship. One day a week (Friday) we’d have art after the last recess and serious spelling contests on Thursdays.

The varying sizes of desks sat on top of a finely varnished wooden floor (which obviously would take a beating, especially during the winter), and a heating stove sat along the north wall. During the winter, we’d bring food to sit on the top of the stove, warming it up in aluminum foil, to eat for lunch.

The west wall was all black board, the south wall was for hanging coats and storing items. The rest of it was windows, all the way around. And from those windows, you could look out into the shelterbelt that completely bordered the entire property. There were beautiful trees that someone had planted many years before — a lot of years before. This was the school where my great-grandfather, August, went to school, and then Grandpa Andy and later my father. So those trees had been there a while.

But none of those trees could compare with the monster that stood in the southwest corner of the property. That tree, literally for generations, was simply known as “The Big Tree.”

And big it was. Never had I ever seen a tree of such gargantuan size, nor have I since. We tried to circle the tree once, holding hands, to see how many kids it would take. I don’t remember how many kids it took to circle it, but I know it was a good percentage of the 13 students enrolled there.

The tree’s massive trunk was more than impressive — it was so large, that if you ran too fast around the tree you would surely trip over the giant roots, suffering grave injuries. We would climb around on that trunk, and the nice thing was that we didn’t have to take turns climbing because there was plenty of room for everyone. There was no danger of going too high — the limbs were so big around that no one could get any elevation, our arms weren’t long enough to hold on.

The branches reached so many feet into the air and covered a great majority of our play area. I remember when several of the dads brought in a high-reaching piece of machinery. Through their hard work and perseverance, they were somehow able to hang a tire swing from one of those high branches.

Oh, the tire swing was popular. There, unfortunately, you had to take turns. But with the sheer strength of that branch from The Big Tree, we could swing high as the heavens and spin as violently as we wanted. We created games around that swing and challenged each other to death-defying feats that usually ended with someone vomiting.

The Big Tree was also a communication piece. There were so many carvings in that giant piece of wood — decades of crushes were displayed, talking about young love that didn’t progress past the seventh grade. But those pre-pubescent relationships were preserved forever, in The Big Tree, for all to see. We’d speculate about whose initials were whose — and if a new heart appeared, your own heart would skip a beat if you saw someone etched your initials in the bark.

There weren’t many kids to kiss behind that tree — with several large families making up the patronage, most of our fellow students were siblings or relatives. But there were several occasions where a couple of non-related neighbor kids would explore the early experience of a smooch – and go undetected because of the sheer expanse of its trunk.

In the summer, the giant cottonwood would spread a blanket of white stuff that could be compared to the results of a blizzard. And in the fall, it would dump bushels upon bushels of giant leaves that provided a perfect hiding place during a rousing competition of “Kick the Can.” The only way one could be found, after burrowing under those crimson leaves, was if someone would actually run over you.

Eventually, District 60 — like all little one-room country schools — closed. I, along with my classmate, Steve, were the last eighth graders to graduate from that little school. We had one last school picnic to mark the occasion, with all the neighbors in attendance. We ate potluck casseroles, played all-age softball, made ice cream cones from the giant metal cans then carried by Schwan’s. And of course, we played on The Big Tree for that one last time.

We flew high on the swing, dared each other to be the one to climb the highest. Even our dads participated, climbing on the tree on which they grew up, while our mothers yelled at us all, predicting someone would fall and break an arm. We laughed about the old hearts that said someone had been in love with our parents a million years ago. And when the day was over, we packed everything up, took the flag down from the pole in the center of the driveway and left.

I remember looking out the car window, at The Big Tree, wondering if it was going to be lonely. After more than 100 years of children crawling on its massive expanse, it would now just stand there alone, changing with the seasons, all by itself.

Years later, the old school yard was closed off by a fence and livestock grazed the area that was no longer mowed. The school building itself was moved to a private farm and used as an outbuilding. But The Big Tree remained — somehow a symbol of rural education that didn’t exist any longer. A monument filled with messages from generations of young people who earned their early education there. A giant pillar of wood that hundreds of kids remembered long into their golden years.

I haven’t been there for a very, very long time. I have no idea if The Big Tree still stands — maybe someone has taken out the trees, by now, for farming. I like to imagine it still exists, because of what it symbolizes and the memories it holds.

Just like my grandpa, his father, my father did — I, too, remember what it stood for and it was about a lot more than being The Big Tree.


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