Yes, it was scary. But when a young man has spent his entire life under the protection of his mother and father and then finds himself about to strike out into the world on his own, this is to be expected. For me, it was the fall of 1937, when at the age of 5, I was approaching the moment I had spent virtually my whole life anticipating. I was about to start school.
There was no kindergarten in those days for children attending Rural School No. 12 in the farming country outside of Rochester, N.Y. No cookies and milk, no naps cuddled in a blanket on the floor, and no half-day school. And mothers did not take their little boys to school on the first day, for these were the days when men were men and there was no room for sissies.
I sat by the living room window with my new Tiger lunch pail waiting for Harry and Jerry. Jerry was already in the 3rd grade, and Harry was so high up I could not contemplate this level. He was in the 5th grade at least.
Soon, I saw them coming up the path, and I ran to the door. My mother stood gingerly in the background, but it was clear that she was not needed, for this was man stuff. We began the long trek to school. Later in life, I was to learn that it was about two city blocks, but in 1937, the distance was at least several miles.
The school was a one-room country school and it sat in the middle of a large field. If you’ve ever watched Little House on the Prairie, you have seen my school.
We entered the big empty room, and as I stood in awe of this marvelous place, Jerry shouted at me to come to the rear of the room and hide behind the wood-burning stove. As we crouched down behind the stove, the door opened and in walked the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life.
Miss Dillon was tall, as tall as my mother, and she wore a brown coat with a ring of something furry around the collar. As she was hanging up her coat on the hook by the front desk, Jerry and Harry leaped out from behind the stove and shouted, “Surprise!’' Miss Dillon threw up her hands and screamed, “Oh my! You scared me!’'
Miss Dillon, I was to learn, probably knew more than any living human, but there was one thing that continued to puzzle me for years. After being scared out of her wits like this on a daily basis for years, why do you suppose she never caught on to this little joke?
Shortly after our arrival that first day, the rest of the students began to arrive. Miss Dillon told Jerry to show me to my seat. It was right behind Bessie Coon, an older girl who, as it turned out, was the only other student in the 3rd grade. I think there were four Coon kids in the school, ranging from Eddie, who was the entire 8th grade class, all the way down to Bessie. There were no students in the grade immediately above me, as I recall, and there were only two in my class. I was one of the top ones in my class, next to Jimmy Herendeen, of course.
The 5th grade was the biggest class, I think, numbering some five students.
I spent five wonderful years with Miss Dillon before moving to the city. My education at R.S. 12 was so good that for five years after I moved to the city, I was considered smart, and I even got to skip half of the 6th grade. Can you imagine how many grades Jimmy Herendeen would have skipped?
Since leaving the nurturing presence of Miss Dillon (later to become “Mrs. Hansen’’), I have attended a number of public schools and 13 colleges. I spent 12 years as a high school teacher and 19 more as a professor of mathematics in a university. I have met hundreds of teachers and watched dozens more go through their training to become teachers. I have watched while various people tried to instill in these candidates the techniques of good pedagogy, and I have seen some very talented teachers. But I don’t think I have ever seen any who could match Miss Dillon.
I have spent many hours pondering just what traits Miss Dillon had that made her so good, and I’m not sure I know. But I do remember certain incidents from those five years, and somehow I think these illustrate just the kinds of things we would like to implant in our teacher candidates.
A set of eight reading books sat on a table in the rear of the room. I don’t recall the author, but they were green and there was a number one on the spine of the 1st grade reader, a number two on the book for the 2nd grade, and so on. The books used in the 2nd and 3rd grades were pretty much the Dick and Jane stuff, and while these were interesting, we knew the real good stuff was back on the table in the big kids’ books.
Miss Dillon had the following rule. If you had completed all your homework, and if you had not talked out loud all day (whispering was acceptable if it concerned academic business), and if you had a clean handkerchief (I never understood the basis for this rule, but my mother saw to it that I fulfilled this requirement), then, and only then, you were allowed to walk QUIETLY to the rear of the room and get one of the big kids’ books and take it to your seat. While Dick and Jane were OK, the books with the numbers six, seven, and eight on the edges had the real stories about the knights of King Arthur, airplanes, and adventure stuff. It was certainly not easy to meet Miss Dillon’s requirements for getting the more advanced books, but now that I recall, most of us did get to qualify eventually, and what delicious moments these were. Particularly the time when Miss Dillon forgot to tell me to return the number seven book for two days. But it wasn’t often that one got to fool Miss Dillon like this.
While the total number of students in our eight grades was about 25, Miss Dillon would call various groups to the front where they would sit on a park-type bench and recite. This was fun because when it was time for the 6th grade arithmetic recitation, how could we be prevented from listening? So in another way, we got to fool Miss Dillon and get something extra which we were probably not supposed to have.
During one of these upper grade arithmetic recitations, a remarkable thing was mentioned. While I had a certain facility for doing division, even with divisors as high as nine, I had never heard of dividing by a double-digit number. But I could see the unlimited possibilities available to one who had possession of this advanced skill. This topic was not included in our book, so such knowledge had to be gleaned from extracurricular sources.
In this case, the source was Jackie Collins. I’m not sure what grade Jackie was in, but he was one of the big kids. I walked over to his desk, very quietly of course, and asked if he would show me how to divide by double-digit numbers. He pushed his glasses back on his nose, stabbed at the air with his pencil, and then proceeded to do a double-digit division problem. I’m not certain if I came away knowing how to do this as a result of his explanation or not, but I vividly recall being sufficiently impressed with the process to think, “If I could know as much as Jackie, I would be satisfied forever.’'
It was truly amazing how much we learned by taking advantage of Miss Dillon and doing things we weren’t supposed to do.
Recess was the main event of any given day. I never knew how long recess was supposed to last, but I do know that before we even got warmed up it was time to go back in. Nobody ever explained why we had to get back in fast, but we all ran. It’s funny how you just know some things even when there isn’t a rule covering the situation.
I suppose one of the reasons we came in from recess so fast was that Miss Dillon would usually have a book ready to read to us for a few minutes after we came in. Every elementary teacher probably is aware of the “cooling down’’ process after recess, but we just thought about it as that delightful time when Miss Dillon would read to us. We knew that it would only last for about 10 minutes; it always seemed to end when some child had made a noise or been disruptive. Indeed, a student whose indiscretion in matters like these might cause the reading to end was apt to be severely reprimanded by the others. Eventually, we would learn to take advantage of Miss Dillon by being extremely quiet near the end of the reading time so that she would forget and read some extra story to us. We really had her eating out of our hands.
One delightful privilege that would occasionally be bestowed upon a student was that of getting to wash the blackboard. While one could scarcely plan on reaching this height, occasionally a child might be selected for this enviable task. Once we learned the system, however, we were able to take advantage of Miss Dillon in matters such as this also. We soon learned that she tended to select a child who had gained a reputation for doing thorough work when handling blackboard chores. So you can bet we made every effort to hang up the rag after wringing it out thoroughly and to replace carefully the clean erasers at exactly the proper spots on the chalk tray.
It is true that we did develop some wonderful habits--neatness, organization, and cooperation--but it was well worth it to be able to fool Miss Dillon into extending these privileges to us. Come to think of it, I don’t think this school ever had a janitor, but the place was always beautifully neat and orderly.
In looking back, I must admit that we got away with quite a bit with Miss Dillon. Many times when she thought I was working in my own math book, I had secretly sneaked problems out of the 6th grade book and worked on them. After jumping out from behind the stove for three years, I eventually noticed that Miss Dillon would sometimes leave one of the books from which she read to us on the table in the back of the room. I would frequently take to reading through some of these before the rest of the kids got there in the morning. I guess Miss Dillon never figured out what I was doing because she never stopped me.
And I remember one other time when she made a big mistake. I had just moved up from the sand pile group at recess to the softball group. (The little kids played in the huge sand pile out by the road, and the big kids played softball. You knew if you were a big kid or a little kid; no one had to tell you.) I struck out the first two times I was at bat. But on my third time, I hit the ball past Bobby at third base. Even though I could see that the ball was foul, Miss Dillon called it fair, and I got my first time on base with the big kids. Bobby started to argue, but Miss Dillon gave him a freezingly stern glower, which promptly ended the protest. I always wanted to tell her that she had made a mistake on that call, but it did mean a lot to me to get that hit, and besides, she might have been embarrassed had I called this error to her attention.
I left R.S. 12 in 1941 and didn’t get back until 1963. At this time, I made a special side trip to visit the old school. It was no longer in use, but I did manage to get inside somehow. The room was much smaller than it had been. Those huge seats from which my feet used to dangle are rather small now. I think the stove shrunk, too, because while it used to hide three of us, now I can’t understand how a single kid could hide behind it without being seen. And one could never jump out and scare anyone under these conditions.
Then, I found Miss Dillon’s, or rather Mrs. Hansen’s, address and looked her up. When she answered the door, my heart jumped. She looked exactly the same. I said: “Surely you remember me; I haven’t changed that much in 22 years.’' She hesitated only momentarily and then brightened up and replied, “Billy Leonard!’'
Sometimes it was easy to fool Miss Dillon. Other times it was not.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Fooling Miss Dillon