The Prairie Years

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The children and their teachers are gone, but the weathered bones of one-room schools remain, ghostly reminders of how rural America once learned to read and write.

What is it about an abandoned building that invites the imagination? Since I was a kid, I've been drawn to the door frail on its hinge, to the dark hallway, to the center room, empty but for the comb on the floor, a torn book in the corner. The old schoolhouse has special claim on me, on a lot of us, I'd guess. I've taught for nearly 30 years and still love the feel of a classroom: the words being fashioned, the sharp line of numbers, the promise of the place. So I look at these photographs of the prairie schoolhouse and want to nudge open the door ....

Over the four years that I worked on Possible Lives--a book that offers portraits of good classrooms as part of an argument about the place of public education in a democracy--I traveled through much of the United States and, for one eight-day stretch in 1993, drove across the country to try to gain, in one irregular are, some sense of the sweep and scope of this nation. Schools were much on my mind during this trip, education everywhere in the landscape. Schools, of course, are nested in place--for all their regularity, they reflect local history, language, and cultural practices. Before long, classrooms and terrain began to playoff each other, my imagination unhinging again. A science lesson led to the creek beyond the window; a sonnet broke its line to the honking of horns. The often-maligned intelligence of the country seemed at these moments as rich and layered as its variegated landscape.

I found one-room schoolhouses at more than a few points in the journey. Alongside a small graveyard in eastern Tennessee, off an access road in rural Vermont. Some were still in operation, and I would write about one of them, a neat frame building with a raised front porch near the ghost town of Polaris in western Montana's Beaverhead National Forest. On one trip out of Kansas City and up through western Iowa, a sign on Highway 59, somewhere between Defiance and Denison, announced a little red schoolhouse. Off the highway, then, to find the schoolhouse that one Mrs. Laubscher, a retired teacher, had bought, moved onto her farm, and over the years restored.

There were four rows of desks, some the old double-seaters. The teacher's desk--an arrangement of frayed books on one end, a kerosene lamp on the other--sat on a platform in front of a blackboard displaying the circles and angled loops of a penmanship lesson. To the right of the desk, a small white table held a globe, and beyond it sat a potbellied stove, its pipe rising up and across the wall, over the alphabet chart. There were windows along the two side walls, the daylight bright and hazy through white lace, and between the windows, a bookcase or two and a scattering of student papers and artwork. As you looked back from the teacher's desk to the open door-you entered, as was usually the case, through the rear of the classroom--you saw two rows of lunch pails, pictures of Washington and Lincoln, and silhouettes of the three Magi on camels, ascending toward the ceiling.

At the turn of the century, there were more than 200,000 functioning one-room schoolhouses in the United States; at the close of the century, about 800 are spread throughout the states, with the largest numbers located in Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Population shifts and continued pressure toward consolidation led to the closing of the one-room school. Now, we look back on them with a mix of nostalgia and curiosity, surprised, perhaps, that they still exist.

Depending on era and region, they were built of sod, adobe, or logs, stone or clapboard. By and large, they were harsh, uncomfortable places. School life met the demands of the farm calendar, with some schools open for seven or eight months, some for three or four. A plaque on that schoolhouse in Tennessee noted that some children went for six weeks. The one-room school typically included 1st through 8th grades; ages and attendance varied widely, and class size ranged from half a dozen to 40 or more. For all their variety, and given the minimal centralized regulation--they epitomized local control--they were surprisingly uniform in their organization (young children in front, older in back), pedagogy (heavy on memorization, drill, and recitation), and curriculum: reading, writing (grammar, spelling, penmanship), arithmetic, U.S. history, physiology, geography. These were the subjects once taught in Mrs. Laubscher's schoolhouse, taught as well to the children unseen in these photographs.

I look at John Martin Campbell's portraits, the stone crumbling, the wood pierced by light, and wonder-how can you help but wonder--about the children milling around the doorway, even as the building blend to grass and rock. The teacher walks to the door, about to call the children in for the morning. She's young, works for one-third less pay than a man, has most likely a high school education or less, perhaps barely out of country school herself. If she's not from here, she boards with one of the families of her pupils or lives in a small, minimally appointed teacherage, open to the scrutiny of the community. Her letter may well reflect what many from the time reflect: the loneliness and vulnerability, the frustration over discipline and inadequate supplies, the challenge of so many lessons, all those kids. Still, the work offered one of the few avenues to independence and authority. It was a chance, as one young woman put it, to "try myself alone and find out what I am."

Although there are places where it is still the vital center of a community, the one-room school has receded into a mythic past, readily appropriated for evoking an idealized social order. Historical reality won't bear such rendering. Those schools could be violent and stultifying places, and teaching in them was tough duty. Yet it is also true--and we are not good at tolerating the ambiguity--that this wildly unregulated and surely uneven array of schools contributed profoundly to the literacy and numeracy of the nation.

As we approach the end of the century, it might be useful to hold in our minds these contradictions, to let Campbell's photographs call forth a complex vocabulary: of loss and spare beauty, of constraint and possibility, of local need and the common good. These schools are worthy of such conjuring.

Vol. 16, Issue 25, Page 36-40

Published in Print: March 19, 1997, as The Prairie Years
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