Thursday, October 2, 2014

Rock Ridge School

Welcome to Rock Ridge.

Public elementary schools are  a staple of every small town in America, and have been since the 1600's. Compulsory education (for boys -- girls were at a huge disadvantage back then) replaced in-home education by the early 1700s in an attempt to standardize the basic elements of the "three R's" -readin', 'riting, and 'rythmatics- as they were to be taught (some things never change -- we're still fighting that battle).

So, what was it like in a small-town school before the invention of electric lighting and teacher's unions?

The school year was scheduled around the local economy and when harvest and planting times came, the older students stayed home to help their families rather than sit on a bench learning their numbers and letters. Most schools consisted of one room, with all students of all ages being taught at the same time. The older students were expected to assist the younger ones (usually a relative anyway) in their studies, and there was only one teacher to cover all of the subjects. No provisions were made for meals; the students were expected to bring their own.

Photo credit: my original work

The photo above is of a one-room school house that was moved to the site of a local museum. If you look closely you'll notice that the only source of heat is a wood/coal burning stove in the front of the classroom. Light is provided by the tall windows on the south side of the building. There is a music stand at the front of the classroom so students who learned to play an instrument could perform for the class. The "library" is next to the teacher's desk, where she can keep control of the books. The chalkboard stretches the length of the wall behind the teacher's desk and there is a flip-board easel for using prepared lessons.The desks have a storage compartment under the writing surface and a hole for an ink well in the upper right-hand corner. Left-handed people were generally forced to learn how to write right-handed due to cultural baggage that associated the left hand with evil things.

Photo credit: my original work
School buses were horse-drawn in larger towns, but where I grew up (rural Iowa) the schools were placed so that no child had to travel more than a few miles to get to school every day. I used to put up hay in the school house that I would have gone to if I had been born 20 years earlier -- some of the old buildings are still out there. For many years the old school houses were not taxed because they were public buildings and were not entered into the tax rolls when they were built. Unless a farmer asked to have the extra building added (not very likely since it would increase his yearly property taxes), they just got ignored.

Paper was a luxury, expensive and not to be wasted, so most of the daily work was done on small chalkboards made of slate and sticks of compressed chalk. The "library" was usually the teacher's private collection of books that she might loan out to a student who wanted to research a  subject. Books were rare and valuable, since they had to be shipped in from far away places like New York or Boston. Textbooks became more common after 1850, with the "McGuffy's Readers" being used as a staple for education for almost two centuries (and still available today).

Since books can be (there's a lot of dreck in print) portable collections of knowledge, and knowledge is power, a well stocked library would be a huge benefit to a small town. Andrew Carnegie realized that a hundred years ago, and spent a lot of his personal fortune building public libraries in small towns. He may have been a robber-baron and "filthy capitalist", but the man did the world a huge favor by making books more available to people who couldn't afford to buy them.

Teachers lived and worked under different rules back then. Most teachers were women, since teaching was one of the few professions that a woman could enter. You need to remember that women of that era couldn't vote, and in many places couldn't even own property. While not quite chattel, they were working under a different set of rules than we'll find in any civilized country today. They usually boarded (lived) with a family in the area or had a room in a boarding house (think of it as a long-term hotel or temporary condominium). They didn't get paid much-- certainly not enough to raise a family on by any means. If a teacher got married, it usually ended her teaching career.
The list in the picture is a bit hard to read, but it is from 1901 and tells teachers that they can't marry, date, wear bright colors, dye their hair, or be out of the house after dark. Traveling with men who are not family, "loitering" in downtown ice cream parlors, and tobacco were also on the forbidden list, but she was required to keep the schoolhouse clean and have it warm and ready for the students by 8:00 AM.

(Any comments about "the good old days" will be forwarded to the women on our staff here, and I should warn that they are armed and know how to shoot quite well.)

If a community is to grow, there needs to be some form of education for the young. Home schooling is an option for families, but once you start building or rebuilding a town it may be better to look into hiring someone to teach the fundamentals. Basic reading skills should be required for the sake of safety if nothing else -- warning signs aren't all pictographs.

Basic math skills are also a fundamental. I know many people don't realize how much math is used in their day-to-day lives, but for many trades the ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide is a necessity. Art and music are part of being human and they need to be passed on to future generations to keep them human.

Teaching is a useful trade. I have a few teachers in my extended family and they don't do it for the money. The ones I know actually care about their students and see their job as a way to improve the lives of others. Being a teacher requires patience in large quantities and the ability to work with children and parents;  not everyone is cut out to be a teacher.

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