Memories of Yesteryear: The country school — ‘center’ of community
by By Alexander W. Delk
Sep 16, 2012 | 1055 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Editor’s note: Alexander W. Delk, 90, is a retired school teacher/administrator, who served 57 years in education. He is retired from the Illinois public schools and for the past 21 years has taught public speaking at Cleveland State Community College. He is a frequent speaker for local groups, Gideon’s International, the United Club and at his churches. He may be reached at 472-2664.

The country school brings back memories for most older people. Many older Americans attended a small school out in a rural area.

The country school was a fixture in most small communities until the days of consolidation came. In many ways, the school was sort of the “center” of the community — many activities revolved around it.

Many rural communities had the old one-room school. It usually went from first through eighth grades, all in one room and usually taught by one teacher. One wonders how one teacher could handle eight grades, but they managed to do so — and often admirably well.

Of course, one-room schools were rather small in the number of students, 25 or 30 being somewhat of a maximum. But this would include youngsters from age 6 or 7 all the way up to older teenagers. The teacher would teach one group or grade while the others were supposed to be studying.

Teachers for the one-room school were often ill-prepared. In many rural areas the teacher of the school had only finished high school, with no formal training beyond that. It may have been a young lady or a young man or could have been an older person.

The philosophy of the parents in those days was simple. Children were sent to school to learn — and, in spite of the limitations of the school — learn they did. Emphasis was put on the basics. The old philosophy of the so-called three R’s — “reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic” — was prevalent in most schools of the time.

Strong emphasis was put on penmanship, as evidenced by the beautiful handwriting of many of the day. No printing or sloppy mess was allowed.

Now, in the one-room school the word of the teacher was highly respected.

Usually the teacher was sort of “on a pedestal” in the community, of good moral character, usually active in one of the churches of the community, and above reproach. Many community school boards (usually farmers of the community) demanded the qualities above of the teacher or they would not be hired.

In general, parents backed the teacher in most every way. It was largely unheard of for someone to question the authority of the teacher even in disciplinary matters. The teacher was usually considered to be right in their actions.

The teacher also served as the disciplinary authority of the school. Misbehavior was not tolerated if the teacher stood his or her ground in such matters. Most of the discipline meted out was via the old-fashioned paddle. Students who were paddled were not taken out of the room. Instead, they were paddled in front of the entire school, setting an example of what would happen to others who dared to misbehave.

Some communities had a somewhat larger school, perhaps two or three rooms. I personally attended such a school in my elementary years. There were three, then later four, teachers in the school. Our seventh- and eighth-grade teacher was also the school principal. She was somewhat of an icon in the community, having held sway over the school for many years. No one dared question her authority.

It was common for students to be retained in a grade until they learned the subject matter for that grade and were then promoted. No “social promotion,” as is common today. Thus, it was not at all uncommon for students to be 16 or 17 years old and not out of the eighth grade. These older students were subject to the same type of discipline as the younger ones and it was generally accepted by both students and parents.

The philosophy of the school then was simple. Students were sent to learn — and learn they did. Let us look at some of the basics subjects of the time.

Strong emphasis was put on writing skills. Not only was good penmanship stressed, but English grammar was taught with emphasis. Sentence construction, parts of speech, correct grammar, and such were important. Diagraming of sentences was taught, thus showing the students the various parts of a sentence — subject and predicate and all their attendant parts.

Mathematics was also emphasized. No such things as we have today existed. Calculators were not around and students were expected to learn the basics without them. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division were to be mastered by the fourth grade. Then came fractions and percentages. Not only were students expected to do mathematics on paper but also some degree of what was called “mental arithmetic” was expected of them.

American history and geography were considered very important. My own love of both stems from my grade school years. It has long been a contention of mine that one cannot appreciate our country unless one knows its history. And, learn it we did. Too, we were expected to know all the states, their capitals, and their major cities. World history and world geography were probably left for somewhat later on in school.

The schools of yesteryear did not have a formal program of physical education. Recess time allowed for some outside activities. Ball games were played on the school grounds. Younger children played such old time games as “Red rover come over” and the like. Some school grounds had one or two slides and maybe some simple gymnastics equipment. Formal games, such as football, baseball and basketball were not available to students until high school.

Transportation to and from school was simple — walking. No school buses were available until high school. Parents generally did not want to waste gasoline by taking the children to and from school. So, walk we did. How far? At least two miles each way and perhaps more. Roads were safer and predators few and far between, so it was considered safe enough for children to walk. Sometimes we walked in groups, sometimes alone. Schools of the time generally operated from September to May with a brief Christmas break. In most of the South weather was not a reason for school closure, though in the North it was from time to time necessary to close.

Promotion from grade school to high school was a rather big event. Most grade schools had a sort of “commencement” or promotion ceremony. People from all over the community came for the program. It was at this occasion that I made my first “public speech” as valedictorian of the eighth grade. Not that it was any great honor, inasmuch as there were only eight of us in the class.

After grade school came high school. Usually students from several community schools were bused to the high school, frequently located in a nearby village. This was my first experience in riding a school bus. It was very undependable means of transportation, with frequent breakdowns. It traveled several areas before reaching the high school — at least 10 or 15 miles each morning and each afternoon.

Community high schools were often rather small, many times less than a hundred students in the entire school. Courses offered were somewhat limited with special emphasis on the basics — English, mathematics, science, history, and other basic subjects. It was in high school that I learned to type, a skill that has been most useful throughout the years.

High school discipline was usually strict. In some cases corporal punishment was still used. Parents were notified if a student persisted in misbehaving. Suspension and expulsion were possible penalties. Again, most parents backed the school in disciplinary matters.

At the end of the four years of high school there would be a public commencement at which time students would receive their diplomas. This ceremony would be well-attended with parents, other family members, and the community in general in attendance. There would likely be a speaker as a part of the program, also some possible musical numbers. Various awards would also likely be given.

Up until recent years there would be a baccalaureate service for graduating class. This was a religious service honoring the graduates. It would be held at the school or in one of the community churches. Graduates would be expected to attend. Caps and gowns would be worn at this ceremony as well as at the commencement itself. The baccalaureate speaker would usually be a prominent minister in the community

So much from the community school and the village school. Both served well in preparing the youth of the community for later life. Many rural students not only finished high school but also went on to the college of their choice or to the various state universities.