Ruth Walker Seat is the daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. L.G. (Grant ) Walker and she was raised in Denver. She started her 50 year teaching career in the Peddler Rural School and finished her career in the Miami, Florida School System. Ruth still lives in Miami.
Several years ago her niece ask her to write about her first year of teaching and the story that follows is the story of that first year.
Those of you who either taught in a rural school or attended a rural school will find the story one you will have a feeling for. If not, you will find it interesting.
Ruth's father and my Grandmother Gladstone (Malinda Walker) were brother and sister.
We pick up the story just before the beginning of her first year of teaching.
Now I felt a real change was imminent. I was to be a woman
living next to the land. In the fall, I would experience the bounty
of harvested crops: in winter, my favorite chair near the warmth
of a cozy fire while howling winds whirled up picturesque patterns
on a frosted window pane; and in spring, the rebirth of the universe
when I would see downy little chickens, wobbly colts, and gamboling
calves get their start in life.
But time was nudging me into action. Before I could do much planning I must do two things: first, get the school register and see how many students I would have and in what grades they would be placed, and second, take a look at the schoolhouse and grounds. My older brother was a great help on such occasions and he consented to drive me in his car.
"I'll take you as soon as this mud dries up," he said. "Who has the school register?"
"Ed Mitchell. He lives about a mile from the school on the left side of the road."
"O.K. Sis. Maybe we can go day-after-tomorrow if it doesn't rain."
Day-after-tomorrow dawned clear so we started, Earl expertly running the narrow ruts cut in the road by other cars.
"Yes," Mr. Mitchell said when we reached his big white house set back in the trees. "I sure have the school register here. We have some fine children at Peddler. I'm glad you're right on the job. We hope to have a good report from the school this year."
"I'm looking forward to teaching here, and naturally want to look at the school and see what the general set-up is."
Handing me the school register and the key he said, "You'll find a coal bucket and a broom at the school. Hope you have a good winter."
I didn't linger for he seemed to be an austere man who didn't encourage idle talk.
My first glimpse of the school was not reassuring. There were no trees or shrubs in front of the box-car type building which clung to a barren clump of clay land. Foot scrapers at each end of a cement-paved entrance told their own story. In my mind's eye I could just see the mud that would collect there.
Upon looking further, however, I saw that native oaks flanked the building on both sides, while in the rear, land sloped steeply back to a barbed wire fence beyond which was a wooded pasture. Since the fence was sagging on rotting posts it was easy to creep through to a real treasure trove.
Goldenrod grew in profusion along with wild purple aster and black-eyed susans. Occasionally fallen trees made enough cleared space for the sun to creep through in shimmering splotches. To complete the picture a small crick (brook to you) ran chatteringly along. If you care to wax romantic, at dusk I can throw in a few lightning bugs, or, for ultra-romantic, fireflys. All this, mind you, was real and not some stage set. I was already planning to poach on the land with my pupils, believing with Thoreau that the best things in life are free.
Much encouraged by this little trip I went back up the slope to the schoolhouse. Entering, I found a narrow hall across the front of the building. There was the familiar bench against the wall for dinner pails, above which stood a row of hooks which, barren of wraps, looked coldly down on me.
Entering the room, I suddenly remembered that a visiting lecturer at normal school had told us a rural teacher was monarch of all he surveyed. I was struck with the possible truth of this statement when I saw a raised platform across the entire front of the room behind which a blackboard stretched. As I looked at the room from this lofty perch I saw the usual row of double desks on each side of a pot-bellied stove. I sat down in a comfortable rounded-backed chair behind a flat roomy desk to think through a plan for recitations.
Our state had initiated a system of alternation in rural schools to save class time. This year I would teach grades 1,2,3,4,6, and 8. The next year 5th and 7th grades would be taught.
Instead of 36 pupils I would have 20; instead of 17 classes each day I must cover 26 and at some time teach writing, music and art in addition. Now I made a tentative schedule to fit all these subjects into a six hour day, and so began the slight-of-hand trick of juggling combination of classes, alternation of grades, synthesis, analysis, and whatever might come up for a wide range of subjects, ditto grades, ditto pupils.
Instead of seating pupils on a bench in front of the room for recitations, I decided to go to the classes where they would be seated by grades.
Presently, the here and now crowded into my consciousness and I stood up to stretch my cramped muscles. The evening glow of the sun came slanting in through the west windows lighting to a blaze some red sumac in the adjoining fields. How glorious!
It was not long until I saw Earl's car coming up the hill to take me home. I was ready for the first day of school.
On the way home we stopped at my new rural home only a short distance from the school. Uncle Bud, as everyone called him, was tilted back on a chair against the porch wall, and we found Aunt Sarah inside baking a fresh apple pie.
"Where's the rest of the family, Aunt Sarah," I asked.
"Henderson went off someplace and Tea went to town with Wilma and Mary."
"Do you remember, Aunt Sarah, that I used to run off and see you when you lived in town? You always gave me sugar cookies. I've never forgotten it."
"I can't realize you're all grown up now and will be teaching my grandchildren."
Now for $35 a month, I was to have free access to the cookie jar in addition to board and room. It was good to see old friends and I arranged to move in the next Saturday.
Consequently, I was soon established in my rural home. To my delight there was a foot-pumped organ in the comfortable living room. The kitchen was enormous. Here we later spent winter evenings by a huge kitchen range which was complete with water-heater and warming compartment to keep the food hot. Home work was done on a big table cleared for that purpose.
I shared a half-storied room upstairs with Wilma and Mary, one eight and the other ten. Heat for the bedroom came from a brick chimney which brought warmth from the living room stove downstairs.
It was Monday morning before I knew it, and the first day of school. Wilma, Mary, and Henderson left for school as I did, each of us carrying a well-filled dinner pail. Again, goldenrod, my lucky flower, rose radiantly from banks of undergrowth on both sides of the clay road hard packed and dusty now. Walnut, oak and elm trees made shady patterns on the road, while subdued woods-creature sounds coming from earth and sky created a contented symphony.
Going down a short hill and up another brought us to the schoolhouse. It was eight o'clock when we got there. Thirteen students of assorted sizes were playing an abbreviated ball game. My companions joined the game while I went inside and got ready for the day's work.
When I finished my work I went outside and Wilma left the game to talk to me.
"That's the ..," she said as we saw two boys, three girls and a white billy goat come over the hill from the east.
"They're not as clean as they could be," she continued, "but Ma says it's not their fault. The big girl, Irene, is nice and neat."
As the .. reached the schoolyard, we went out to meet them. With the exception of Irene, the billy goat was the cleanest of the lot. Alvin, whose blond hair was tousled and uncombed, led the goat with a rope.
At nine o'clock I directed Alvin to tie his goat to a tree. Then I rang the big brass handbell for the beginning of school. These pupils were orderly and consequently were soon seated by grades and assignments made to all except the first graders.
The four first graders occupied the two front seats. Alvin, the goat lover, and his sister Anna accounted for two of them. A sunny little girl named Bonnie and a fat boy named Carl completed the group.
I asked them to tell me about a dog they liked.
"I like my dog named Frisk," said Carl.
"Cats don't like dogs," followed another. Sunny little Bonnie chimed in with, "I like shortcake. I like pie. I like boys that wink an eye."
Appreciation for this offering could be heard all over the room. But I must get back to the dog since dog was the word for the day. I wrote the word dog on the board so they could see it and re peat it.
"I like my goat, too,: broke in Alvin after some drill on the word. He evidently thought the dog had received more than his share of the glory so I wrote "goat" on the blackboard.
Grades 2,3 and 4 followed and all read something from their new books, receiving some word drill on words they didn't know.
At recess, while the rest of the pupils played ball, I talked to Alvin about his goat.
"Why don't you ask Irene to wash your hair and brush it good? See if it will shine like your goat's hair?" I asked.
"I comb him twice a day with a curry comb. Maybe a good brush would fix mine." He seemed pleased with the idea.
After recess I taught classes 6 and 8, finding out the system of omitting grades worked out quite well. To be sure the fundamentals were taught, the State Department of Education, at the conclusion of the eight grades, made a comprehensive set of questions covering the entire range of work in all grades. Consequently, I followed the course of study carefully.
Time passed rapidly after lunch. Before I knew it four o'clock loomed on the big clock. After dismissal I heard the good-natured banter of the boys and girls as they scattered in four directions.
Now I turned to my job as janitor. At that time doing janitor work in a rural school was quite an operation. First, I scattered oily sweeping compound on the floor to keep down the dust. I had to turn the broom edgewise at times to reach into the splintery, uneven, grooves of the floor.
When the weather got cold the janitor work was harder. A fire had to be built and maintained throughout the day. Then I prepared the stove in the evening so a fire could be started easily the next morning. With a long iron poker which fit a grove in the grate of the stove, I shook down the accumulated ashes. With a pair of tongs, I lifted clinkers from the grate. These clinkers were hard rock-like residues from our soft coal. To dispose of all this refuse, I scattered it on a clay bank at the edge of the schoolyard. After carrying a bucket of coal and corncobs from an outside from an outside shed and placing them on the grate, I was prepared to light the fire quickly the next morning with a little kerosene and a lighted match. One of the bigger boys later carried the coal for me before dismissal.
Fridays have a special flavor for teachers. For this first Friday at Peddler I had planned a surprise trip to the wooded grove behind the school ground after the last recess. I kad detailed plans for school activities. Armed with science and geography books, colored pencils and water colors, we all walked down to the gaping fence. Henderson held the loose wire high while twenty children carefully ducked their heads and were in paradise. Bluejays called to one another, cardinals, thrush, wild canary and oriole flew from branch to branch. Bumblebees and beetle, goldenrod and aster, worms and woodchuck, were all at home in the matted grass, rotting leaves and broken branches bordering the little crick. Bright colored smooth pebbles near the water's edge showed the wear of many years.
"Look for real insects, birds, plants, or anything that catches your interest. Find something about them in the science books or be able to tell the class facts you already know. Find examples of islands, peninsulas, or examples of erosion," I directed. "Paint or color what you like. No games."
All the pupils scattered immediately and I could see them pointing to birds, examining flowers, digging in the earth for worms and exchanging books. Some children walked along the banks of the brook and I hoped they were finding some answers there. In thirty minutes all were assembled and told and showed what they had learned.
About 3:45 I saw the tall gaunt owner of the land striding toward us through the trees. I suddenly realized there was an owner, and to make matters worse, I also realized he was president of the school board.
"Good afternoon, Miss Walker," he began formally.
"How are you, Mr. Mitchell?"
I decided innocence and the new educational practices would be my best defense as I looked at his stern face marked with displeasure.
"I wonder what you are doing here during school hours," he resumed, just as I had feared.
I motioned to the many books that were by this time lying unopened on the ground.
"We were having a nature study and geography lesson," I stammered. "The grove is so beautiful. There are so many things that can be learned here."
"It don't look like much study is goin' on,: he said sourly, looking about at the children wandering through the woods.
"We really had quite a good lesson:, I said and explained what we had done but I found he had such set ideas it was impossible to make him understand.
At last, as a parting shot, he said, "I think the children should be doin' lessons in schooltime. I'll have a meetin' of the board and take it up with them."
Here were all of my hopes dashed to the ground. The best things in life are not free. They cost.
We all picked up our belongs and went back to the schoolhouse. The youngsters seemingly felt as dejected as I did but it was dismissal time and they were soon on their way home.
My brother came for me every Friday afternoon. I could see his car on the top of the hill now. Soon I would be home to a haven of sympathy and understanding.
To deepen my gloom the rain came down in torrents Saturday and Sunday morning. Since the four miles of clay roads to school were impassable by car, my cousin Walter loaned me an aging horse named Nell, and on Sunday afternoon I rode through the sticky clay to Uncle Bud's. Every time Nell put her foot down she sank almost halfway to her belly in mire. Every time she pulled up a foot there was a curious sound of the slurp, slurp of the mud. Four miles of this was deafening.
On Monday when we climbed the hill to school, walking was difficult. On reaching the school ground, we found the front section covered with mud for hardly a spear of grass grew on it. Sticky clay mud clung to our shoes.
All that day I guarded the door to the sure foot scrapers were used, but by the end of the day the splintery floor retained much of the mud. This was one of the joys of rural life, I told myself.
Just at dismissal time, Mr. Kruger drove up in his wagon to take his three children home. He was one of the directors, so I feared he had come to tell me there could be no more encroachment of the Mitchell's property.
He told his children to wait for him in the wagon, he said, "I' sorry you had such an unhappy time of it Friday," he began. "My children told me how much they enjoyed the outdoor lessons. I'm sure they learned a lot, too."
"The president of the school board evidently didn't feel as you do."
"Well, you see, he hasn't any children," he explained.
"I just wonder if it would always be out of bounds to cross the fence. In that case I'll keep the children on this side."
"No, that won't be necessary. We won't object to a couple of times a month. We have to humor the president, you know," and at that, his blue eyes twinkling, he walked back to the wagon and drove off.
Time passed. I had collected my first $80 pay check. However, my life was not measured by pay checks. The short trip to school was now a new experience because the frost was turning the leaves to brilliant colors. My rural home was also changing. A big wood-saw worked full time to provide sweet-smelling wood for the winter fires; large yellow pumpkins stood on the big back porch; corn was turning brown in a nearby field and would soon be ready to shuck. The idea of shucking corn had a romantic appeal to me, while mention of it only gave Uncle Bud and Henderson a backache.
We had our first snowfall the first part of December. Uncle Bud spent days mending harness and doing other inside chores he had set aside for the winter months. Now Henderson kept the big wooden box near the range full of sweet-smelling wood. Dressed in a big sheep-lined coat, four-buckle overshoes, heavy mittens, and a cap with protective earflaps, he waded through the drifts to the woodpile. When he had stacked a load of the big sticks on one arm, he returned to the porch and corded them in a neat rectangular pattern against the wall, stomping his feet again and again to loosen the snow on his overshoes.
Christmas was only three weeks off when I decided to hold a community box-social at school. The money we made would be used to buy more books for our meager library. For a week we were closed in with quiet snow. Baseball was a thing of the past. With the exception of a well setup snowman and the popular game of fox and geese, nothing but classes interfered with our program planning.
The schoolroom looked like Santa Claus' workshop. Paste pots, bright construction paper and colored chalk were scattered about the room.
"I can't quit now or the Christmas tree ornament will be ruined," some child said when it was time to do some school work.
"The rest of us can't quit either. Besides, it takes too much time to spread this stuff out. Why put it back so soon? Watch out for the paste pot, Carl." It was too late, however, for the paste pot had fallen upside down on the floor.
Practicing for the program was equally confusing. Excited boys and girls trampled on one another's feet and shoved each other about during their exits and entrances. Practice did not make perfect. Lines were forgotten; cues were forgotten; chaos reigned.
Time was passing and costumes for character parts had not all been found. Where could one find a large ostrich plume for the prince's hat or a purple robe for the king? After phoning fifteen people I found a white plume, complete with curled ends and billowing gracefulness. The Masonic Lodge loaned us a kingly robe.
Our holiday began on Friday, December 15, and the program was to be given that night. A week before that date we had all of the decorations up Santa climbing down the chimney in vivid colors on the blackboard, colored pictures of poinsettias fastened to the window curtains and a small Christmas tree covered with ornaments and dripping icicles on the teachers desk.
What more could we want? A decent method of lighting the stage, of course. The walls had long ago been fitted with cast-iron wall brackets holding kerosene lamps, three to a side. We must have a better light for the stage. I finally borrowed a large gas lamp and asked one of the Denver boys to install it.
Final preparations were all made. Tonight was the big night! At just 6:30 a new snow began to fall. As I sat alone in the schoolhouse nibbling at a sandwich, I heard sleigh bells faint and fat away. I looked around the room to be sure everything had been done. The room was filled with a new spirit as the outlines of Santa and the Christmas tree projected themselves into the dim light of the six kerosene lamps. As the sleigh bells became louder I looked out of the window. Scattered snowflakes were floating thinly down, but I could still see the snowy fields and stark barren trees of a winter landscape.
The sleigh bells were clanging now as up the hill came a big old-fashioned bobsled pulled by two handsome bay horses. As the sled turned the corner at the school, shouts and laughter were mingled with jingles. It was the Denver gang with the gas lamp. As the driver tied the team to a tree, mufflered friends got off of the sled.
"The old gang didn't forget you, honey," said one of my friends. "Just look at all the loot we're bringing. You can buy a lot of books with the money it should bring."
Each girl carried a much be-ribboned box packed with lunch. My sister handed me one she had fixed at home a red creation with the lid entirely covered with a red paper poinsettia. I gave her an appreciative kiss.
It was eight o'clock now and the room was packed. Mr. Kruger lifted his little white-robed daughter onto the desk beside the Christmas tree and the laughter and buzz of talking stopped as the child said, "Let us pray." Heads were bowed and she repeated a simple prayer that all could echo. "Father, we thank you for Christmas and each other. Amen."
Lucile Roberts and Mike Taney teamed up to give Twas the Night Before Christmas, Mike furnishing the sound effects. By the time Lucile said "What was the matter?" Mike came in with a blustering beating of the pans for "There arose such a clatter." At this point a frightened infant began to cry and Mike's sound effects became louder and louder not to be outdone by an infant.
The Greek comedy followed. In came the royal-purple king and the gold-necklaced queen with crown awry. The princess swept in with crown of Christmas tree tinsel and lace curtained train. Following her, in dashed the prince with plume aquiver. After some stage footwork and much pleading, the king consented to the marriage of his daughter to the handsome prince. The crowd laughed in the right places on this one and I took a long breath. The program was almost over now.
Janette Kruger again stood on the teacher's desk and read, "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night." She continued the story from Luke in a clear, strong voice. At the close of the scripture, the voices of this group of friends and neighbors sang Silent Night, Holy Night as the lamps spluttered in the wall brackets and the soft snow outside continued to fall. At the close of the song an auctioneer stepped to the platform and dbroke the spell of Christmas with his loud attention-getting voice.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "We're going to bid on the boxes of good food here. They're right pretty, too."
Again and again, the refrain echoed, "And a dollar and a dollar." And so the auctioneer continued to get the most possible cash out of the box lunches by cajoling and wheedling. When all of the boxes had been sold there was a shift to find partners. The buzzing of many voices and low laughter filled the room. What was the subject of conversation? Invitations to holiday parties, receipts for mince meat, quotations on the price of hogs and a proposal of marriage.
Group by group, the crowd finally left. Santa Claus and the Christmas tree glowed again in the soft light. The wall-bracket lamps were extinguished and I closed the door on the ghosts of Christmas.
Soft snow covered everything and stars blazed in a dark sky. I did not have time to muse on the scene for the Denver gang was loading for the trip back. As I snuggled down in the warmth of the blankets and straw on the sled, the big bay team moved down the hill. I was going HOME FOR CHRISTMAS.
An eight-month term of school is half over after the Christmas holidays. Then time is inclined to drag. To make time pass more rapidly, I started planning my future activities.
During the holidays my father had announced exciting news. Our family was going to move to a college town, Liberty, Missouri, where William Jewell College is located.
My liking for rural life had not diminished. Life here was very satisfying. However, if I intended to make a career of teaching I could not forever stay on the border of my dream, parked in the protective shadow of Uncle Bud and Aunt Sarah. My enthusiasm for winter was waning. Continued snows after Christmas do not carry the same magic as earlier ones. February can be a long month.
Spring did come at last, and the dream of gamboling calves and wobbly colts became a reality. The trip to school was a revelation of sprouting green plants and singing birds. These things compensated for the rash of spring fever. But the spelling, reading, arithmetic, et cetera, did progress 'a la state course of study and final exams were passed by everyone.
During these final days of school I had learned that the grande finale' of a school year was an all-day picnic. The children wanted it very exclusive, just us kids. This picnic was referred to as Last Day of School.
The day before the Last Day of School was clean-up day. Only a token number of classes were scheduled. The afternoon was spent in cleaning the premises. At this time long lost articles were brought to light from over-gorged desks tidbits of licorice, marbles, bit of string, tails of kites.
"That ain't your top," said one of the Krugers to his brother.
"It is too. Your's was green."
Much swapping of property took place with each shrewd trader believing he had gotten the best of the bargain.
At last the place was cleared. Last Day of School was tomorrow. The day came clear and beautiful. Parents brought their children to school that morning to tell the teacher good-bye and Godspeed. Each brought a large picnic basket filled with delicious home-cooked food. After making arrangements to come back for the children at four o'clock, they left to do other errands.
At nine o'clock everyone was ready to play ball. Ball it was for the forenoon, the longest ball game on record so far as I was concerned.
"I'm hungry. Let's eat," little fat Carl said. Everyone was hungry and it took a very short time to carry the food into our free park.
Spring in our park was the best of all times. In fall we had loved it with its goldenrod, asters and varicolored leaves. In winter, the black, barren trees showed symetry and grace against gray scudding clouds, while black patches of earth showed through a field of white snow. But in spring every single leaf and flower was a new discovery. Tender, light green lace tipped the tree branches. Long stemmed purple violets, sweet william dog-toothed lilies, anemonies and umbrella like May-apple blossoms grew everywhere.
After looking about a bit to enjoy the scene, we spread out a clean canvas cloth and placed the food on it. Such food! Everything was here; tender fried chicken, beef, pork, deviled eggs, potato salad and pickled beets, pies and cakes. Soon the quiet of children consuming food fell on the group.
When everyone had finished his dinner, the table cleared and each child did what he liked. Some picked wild flowers, others had brought art materials and drew and painted, while others went barefoot and waded in the creek.
It had been a perfect day.
Maybe, after all, the best things in life are free.