Last week’s first installment of "Acorn School" told how I came to attend a one-room schoolhouse in rural southwestern Michigan. This week I want to describe what it was like to attend such a school. In some ways not all that different from other schools, but certainly a throwback to bygone days. It opened this city boy’s eyes to a different way of life.
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Although it was over 50 years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. A typical day at Acorn School would begin with the arrival of our teacher (unfortunately I can no longer recall her name) who, like so many teachers assigned to these small schools, was a young woman fresh out of a teachers college. Each day she would prepare the classroom for the arrival her charges; windows would be opened (in winter she would light the wood stove in the corner), and she would raise the flag on the pole outside the front door. At 9:00am she rang the school bell marking the beginning of the day’s lessons. Those of us who arrived early enough would be put to work helping our teacher get ready.
I and my fellow students were seated on benches or at individual desks. Our teacher took daily attendance and we began each day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and usually also a short prayer (a new experience for me). Since there was only one teacher assigned to Acorn School, students ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade would be called to the front of the room in groups and there they would have the teacher’s undivided attention while the students from other grades were expected to work quietly and diligently at their benches and desks until it was their time to go to the front of the room and account for themselves.
The morning’s lessons would pause for a brief recess – just enough time to go outside, weather permitting, to stretch our legs and get a breath of fresh air. Back inside lessons would continue until it was time to break for lunch. The afternoon was spent much like the morning with more lessons and another short recess after which the younger students were dismissed for the day so that the teacher could concentrate her attention on the older ones. Once these students were dismissed, the teacher was expected to sweep the floors and straighten up the classroom, although sometime students could be prevailed upon to stay and help.
Instead of beginning my formal education at a large urban elementary school where I would have shared a classroom with Lithuanian, Polish, and Serbian immigrant children from my neighborhood at home, many of whom spoke little English, I had the chance to spend time on my grandparents' Michigan farmstead and attend classes at Acorn School with one teacher and a few other fellow students, all children from neighboring farms who probably thought that all schools were just like Acorn School. I would soon know differently.
Our teacher was counted upon to provide the means necessary to educate, and from time to time, discipline her students; to teach them the ways of the world. The younger students, including myself, were seated closest to the teacher's desk. I can still remember the blonde-haired farm boy who sat next to me – Billy Barkovic – who also became my best friend. He lived in the farm just up the road from my grandparents and, ironically enough, still spoke Serbo-Croatian at home. My other best friend was Jimmy Rowen. I have no idea what ever became of them, but back then we were inseparable. The oldest student in school, and the only one in the eight grade, was a tall, lanky girl who sat all by herself at a desk in the back of the room. Since the teacher spent much of her time with the younger students, the older ones were expected to work on their own with a minimum of supervision. I could not wait until I was older and away from the constant stare of our teacher, although I am quite certain these stares were often due to the extracurricular activities of Billy, Jimmy and myself during class.
Acorn School had few modern conveniences one comes to associate with a city school. Between the teacher's desk and the school's only door was a large, rather forbidding pot-belly wood stove which provided heat during the long and often bitterly cold Michigan winters. Those of us sitting close to the stove managed to stay comfortably warm during the day although I imagine the older kids in the back of the room were not quite so lucky and often had to put on a sweater or jacket while we were shedding our.
Each morning during the winter the first children to reach the school, after trudging through the snow and ice, were expected to carry a piece of firewood inside to feed the fire the teacher had started when she arrived that morning. Students would also take care of other routine chores before school started – cleaning the blackboard and pounding the erasers clean on the front stoop, spreading a fine yellow dusting across the snow.
As young and impressionable students, we labored with the three "Rs" and spelling, all taught through a long and somewhat tedious process of memorization and recitation (I still can name all of the state capitals and the U.S. presidents although I was not quite as talented when it came to multiplication tables). The only relief from this routine was the all too brief recesses in the morning and afternoon, when we would play in the small school yard or in the fields of the neighboring Curtis farm, and the half hour given to lunch when a truck from the local dairy in Paw Paw would stop in front of the school and for a nickel would dispense cups of fresh milk used to wash down the sandwiches we brought from home that morning. Once a week a mobile library would stop and each child would be permitted to check-out one book with the promise to return it the following week. The only other break from the monotony of our lessons was an occasional trip to the outhouse, but only after we were able to convince the teacher that death was imminent. When freed, one could spend a few minutes in solitude, away from the chanting of multiplication tables and the teacher's watchful gaze. During the winter, however, one was less inclined to such diversions, regardless of need, as the cold winter winds often shook the school to its very foundation. But it was more than these cruel winter winds that threatened these small schoolhouses and the rural culture they supported.
Today there is nothing left of Acorn School save the crumbling stone and mortar foundation and the stoop where we use to bang dusty erasers and sit to drink cups of cold milk with our sandwiches. The school yard where we once played is now overgrown with brambles and mature trees and one would never know that a building once stood on this site. Acorn School is gone, but it will never be forgotten.
NEXT WEEK: You Really Can Go Home Again
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