One Room With A View

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Highland School, Douglas County, Washington, built ca. 1900.

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 blends 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 letters 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."

Pathfinder School, Cheyenne County, Nebraska, built ca. 1920.

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.

In the country, the repository of art and science was the school, and the schoolteacher shielded and carried the torch of learning and of beauty. . . . It was far from an easy job, and it had duties and obligations beyond belief. The teacher had no private life. She was watched jealously for any weakness of character. She could not board with one family for more than one term, for that would cause jealousy—a family gained social ascendancy by boarding the teacher. If a marriageable son belonged to the family where she boarded, a proposal was automatic. . . . Teachers rarely lasted very long in the country schools.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 1952.

I went to a one-room schoolhouse, and the other students, particularly the boys, were very rough, really cruel kids. A lot of things frightened me, but I had to face it day after day. At one point there were eight grades, and some of the boys were big—like six feet tall—farm boys, very crude. We heard tales of things that had been done to other girls, acts of incest. . . . I was molested when I was about 9 or 10. I was not raped, but it would be considered sexual molestation today. And I couldn't go to my mother and say I was sexually harassed at school. I was threatened and ordered not to tell. However, I'll never forget it.

Joyce Carol Oates, Playboy interview, 1993.

The board walls were not battened. Streaks of sunshine streamed through the cracks upon a row of six homemade seats and desks that marched down the middle of the room. Beyond them on the studding of the opposite wall, a square of boards had been nailed and painted black, to make a blackboard. In front of the seats stood a big heating stove. Its round sides and top were cherry-red from the heat of the fire, and standing around it were the scholars that Laura must teach. They all looked at Laura. There were five of them, and two boys and one girl were taller than she was.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, These Happy Golden Years, 1943.

It seemed, as I recall it, a lonely little house of scholarship, with its playground worn so bare that even the months of sun and idleness failed to bring forth any grass. But that humble little school had a dignity of a fixed and far-off purpose. It was the nest of the West's greatness. It was the outpost of civilization. It was the advance guard of the pioneer, driving the wilderness farther into the West. It was life preparing wistfully for the future.

Texas native James Rooney, writing in 1922 about his first school, quoted in Journey From Ignorant Ridge, 1976.

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