Tuesday, June 30, 2015

LIBERTY, LEARNING...AND THE ONE-ROOM SCHOOLHOUSE

By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Liberty (lib-er-ty) n - the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behavior, or political views.

I realize it is the end of June, but since the Fourth of July is just four days away, I wanted to touch on ‘liberty’, its definition, and what it should mean to all of us. Very often in life we take for granted the gifts given to us by our ancestors. We look with hindsight at the mistakes they made and forget the struggles they endured to establish the United States of America. It's easy to forget these people lived in a time as different from ours, as future generations will look upon the way we live. They experienced things on a daily basis we cannot comprehend, and they forged a nation that (at least to me) is the greatest nation on Earth. [Photo Credit: Liberty Bell, Philadelphia, PA – Richard Cummins, Corbis]

Still, more and more people rake Founding Fathers over the coals, and look at their lives with arrogance and contemporary disdain. Rather than be grateful for the wisdom and light they brought into the world, and the good they accomplished, they focus on the mistakes made. And yes, there were many mistakes during that time period that not only scarred the tapestry of this nation but seem to now be having a growing ripple effect in the 21st century. Modern day sensibilities cannot be applied to history. Rather, let us strive to remember they were learning and growing, just like we need to do today regarding certain issues and events.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to diminish in any way the negative, often horrible things that happened. Nor do I think society must become complacent. Quite the contrary; I think it vital people remember.

Our nation fought a War for Independence, so that its citizens would have freedom and democracy. A hundred years later, a Civil War was waged to conquer injustice against one’s fellow man, and ensure that freedom for all would be fully realized. [Pictured: Painting of ‘Home Sweet Home’ by Homer Winslow, 1863]

It was a War for change; change from slavery to freedom, and overhauling an economic ideology (that had been passed down from previous generations).

One side fought for continuing their way of life, threatened by any change being forced upon their beliefs, fearful of how such a change might affect them personally and financially. The other side fought for stopping a way of life that was cruel and denied people freedom and the lawful right to be treated with equality. This side fought for compassion and acceptance, for the nation to move forward united toward a better life for everyone.

Battles were waged, thousands upon thousands died. Cities and towns were destroyed. Land was stained with the blood of brother fighting against brother. In the end, the nation moved forward, slowly, surely, along with a hope that the loss of life was not in vain. That the country had learned to be better as a united people. That the wounds that tore the nation apart would mend and heal. Amazing strides have been taken, yet there is still more to do. Change is not easy to accept. Unfortunately, rather than deal with the present and work toward peaceful progression, some people now want to blame reminders of the past for any act of ignorance or hatred in the present.

So, do we build over Gettysburg Battlefield now? Pretend it never happened now?

Rather, isn’t it imperative to learn from the past and move forward? Remembering the past, especially for future generations, means learning about history—good and bad. In order to ensure continued growth of a country and its people, and gain perspective on the individual rights of all its citizens, as we learn from the past, so must children be educated so they can carry on the high ideals of their country. From history, individuals learn from the hard-fought principles of justice and equality, purchased with blood and sacrifice.

To ban a book, movie, or any other work of art, because it addresses a time in history that offends some, is intentionally censoring truth as well as the individual’s right to speech in the format they choose. If slavery or the Holocaust extermination of Jews during World War II are not taught in school, how do we remember those that suffered and died? What happens to truth?

There will be people (and trust me, there already are), who do not believe the Holocaust even happened.

For example, Sophie Nelisse, the talented child actress from Canada who portrayed Liesel in the powerful film, The Book Thief, admitted on a press tour that the Holocaust was not taught in her school. She had never heard about it before the book and making the film. And she voiced that she felt it was very important that young people learn about what happened. [Pictured above: The book burning scene from The Book Thief, 2013, directed by: Brian Percival; distributed by: 20th Century Fox]

When I write a historical novel, incorporating the history of the period is important to bring that time period to life – warts and all. When I read a book like Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, it brings awareness to not just how people lived, but documents the cruelty and injustice prevalent at that time. Films like To Kill A Mockingbird and Schindler’s List (both of which are based on a book) are important for the truth and light they cast on history. It would be irresponsible for a writer to NOT include that important aspect of history.

Hence, how can a person grow if they are prevented from learning the truth? What happens if books (fiction, non-fiction) or now school textbooks do not address the bad, the injustice, or anything considered not “politically correct” today? What happens if classic books are banned from summer reading lists? If teachers are handicapped from teaching the true history of their country, often reflected in literature, if that material is censored? What becomes of humanity if the struggles and battles fought, and what was learned from them, are never addressed?

Don’t we all fight struggles and battles in life? Every generation has obstacles it must overcome to move forward—hopefully. Humanity must evolve. Every generation learns from the past and improves—hopefully. But people cannot grow if they wear blinders, or put them on children. We cannot ban something because we don't like or believe what it says. And we, as a nation, cannot learn and grow about the rights of all people, regardless of their color, religion, gender, or sexual orientation if we are divisive, and close our minds and our hearts.

So, today, I felt compelled to write about the importance of history and education. Much as I love the ‘Liberty Bell’, I am looking at a much smaller bell right now. The bell [pictured] has been in my family for over 150 years, and belonged to an ancestor who was a schoolteacher in a one-room schoolhouse on the plains of Texas. Her name was Emma; she never married. She devoted her life to teaching children, and each day she would ring this bell to call her students to class. The sound of that bell to those children meant, ‘liberty’ -- a way to learn, grow, and improve their lives.

Eventually, the bell came into the possession of my widowed great-grandmother. She lived in what was then rural Dallas, in a tiny house situated between two of her daughters’ houses. One of those daughters was my grandmother. My great-grandmother would ring this bell if she needed help. She was quite elderly at the time, and they had no telephones in their homes. For my great-grandmother, that bell meant ‘liberty’ -- a means to have her voice heard.

The bell was given to my grandmother, who gave it to my mother. My mother gave it to me. So, I sit here – looking at this small bell – thinking about Emma, the spinster schoolteacher in my family tree, and her love of education and children. I think about how brave she was to endure loneliness and hardship on the almost barren frontier, dedicating her life to sharing her knowledge with children who would not have had an opportunity to attend school if she wasn’t there.

I think about my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, and all the mothers who teach their children about heritage, their personal history, and what they learned in life. How hard we try to teach our children about faith, goodness, right from wrong; to fight for what is right, to respect all people; to be polite, have manners, show kindness, and be compassionate.

For children whose families first settled on the frontier, there wasn’t even a town. There sure wasn’t a school to attend. Very often these children worked alongside their parents on the family’s farm. If they were able to learn how to read and write, it was because one of their parents had that ability. More often than not, they didn’t. Names were signed with a simple, ‘x’.

As more and more families moved west and towns were established, education and the establishment of a real school became very important. The schoolhouse, built by townspeople, symbolized an investment in the future—the future of their children, their community, and their country.

In an effort to document their history and the importance of these historic schools, there are many one-room (and two-room) schoolhouses being preserved across the country.

The Log Cabin Village located in Fort Worth, Texas has a preserved one-room schoolhouse from the 1870s. The Marine School, originally located on Commerce Street on the north side of Fort Worth, is constructed of vertically placed boards and batten.The interior of The Marine School is similar to the photograph you see pictured here, except its blackboard was not slate on an easel.

As with most schools of the 1800s, the blackboard was painted on the walls. Having a slate blackboard (or chalkboard) came with time. Paper and pencil were costly, so most schools provided students with an individual slate and chalk for work at school. Sometimes a student would have to share their slate with another student.

With regard to the interior decor of the schoolhouse, unless the town provided supplies (which was unlikely), or the teacher owned materials, i.e., maps, books (literature, history, botany, or a dictionary), portrait of George Washington, etc., that she brought with her, the classroom was not at all colorful or well supplied, but rather Spartan. The school usually had a cloakroom, as well as a wood-burning stove. Coal stoves were also used in certain areas.

Small in size, the school had one main room where children of various ages were instructed together. The grade level went from 1st grade to 8th grade, with the younger children seated closer to the teacher at the front of the room.

You may notice that I am posting several photographs of oil paintings by Homer Winslow. Apart from Winslow being one of my all-time favorite artists, his paintings document everyday life in the 1800s. Several paintings were about education.

If you are curious about the marks on the “Blackboard” painting from 1877 [pictured], they were to teach drawing to school children during the 1870s. Another interesting note is that when he signed the painting, Winslow made it look as if written in chalk.

The photograph [pictured below] is of a one-room schoolhouse from 1921. Note the simple wooden construction of the walls, and the handmade benches for the children. The older boys in the back row are reading from a book in their lap, while the younger children in the front are listening to the teacher. There is also a stove in the center of the room to provide heat. Since these simply constructed schoolhouses were not insulated at all, imagine how cold and drafty the building would get during inclement weather.

Today, there are sixty (60) one-room (and two-room) schoolhouses in Montana, still operational. The historical legacy and importance of these schools has become just as important at preserving any other historical landmark. And rightly so.

In fact, in 2013, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added Montana’s rural schoolhouses to a list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, an action that speaks volumes about the significance of these structures.

By and large, most schoolhouses resembled a simple frame construction. Depending upon the climate, and what building materials were available, they might resemble a log-cabin. The more common schoolhouses were constructed of milled wood, usually painted white. Where trees were few, the school was constructed from other materials. For example, in the Southwest, a one-room schoolhouse might be made of stone or adobe. Early schools on the plains of the Midwest were made from sod. If the town had funds for it, the school might have a school bell housed inside a cupola, or a bell mounted to the building outside the door so that the teacher could sound it every morning. More often than not, the teacher had a hand-held bell, like the one my long ago relation, Emma, owned.

Living quarters for the teacher was usually attached to the schoolhouse, or close nearby. In some townships, unmarried teachers were provided room and board with a local family. Providing the teacher with a place to live was important.

Very much like the country doctor making visits to the sick in his horse and buggy, these early rural teachers were valued, respected, indispensable members of the community. Long before the school day began at 9 am, particularly during bad weather, the teacher would light the stove so that when the children arrived—perhaps having walked a mile or more to school—the room would be warm and inviting. Some children rode a horse to school, and a paddock was nearby to secure it. If many children lived far from school, families might take turns bringing them to school by wagon. Would you call that wagon-pooling???

The students had a 15-minute morning and afternoon recess, and an hour for lunch. It was not uncommon for the teacher to prepare a soup or some hot lunch on the stove to share with her students.

Each school day ended at 4:00 p.m. Many teachers were hired from advertisements in newspapers back east, and the expense for their transportation to the township was paid by the school board or community. Often children who had received an education at their local one-room schoolhouse later taught there as adults. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about attending school and become a teacher in her books. [Pictured: Painting of ‘Snap the Whip’ by Homer Winslow, 1873]

There is much to be learned from the past, and from the lessons we've learned individually and collectively. Whether that lesson happened in a one-room schoolhouse, on a bloody battlefield, researching your family tree, making your way in the world, fighting for an important cause or hope of acceptance, watching a powerful film, or reading a book—the important thing is to keep learning.

Holding tight to our history is important. So is learning from history and moving forward to protect freedom, justice, and equality. Preserving history and learning from history are critical aspects of having Liberty. They go hand-in-hand. Perhaps we should all have a little bell to remind us that every generation has struggled, and that the freedom and opportunities we all cherish apply to everyone. A bell that resonates inside our hearts and minds when we become judgmental, to help us remember we are all connected as human beings.

As history has shown us, if the message is important enough to be heard throughout the land, the bell of justice, wisdom, and compassion might even crack. So might the struggle within us all. Even so, it may help to be reminded of the inscription from the Bible (Leviticus 25:10) on the Liberty Bell which says: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All The Land Unto All The Inhabitants Thereof”.

[Photo Credit: Liberty Bell, Philadelphia PA - Racheal Grazias, Shutterstock.com]

My personal hope for this Fourth of July and every day is that all of us--as individuals and as a collective humanity--focus on the positive, honor the wonderful foundation of freedom and democracy given to us, yet also learn from past mistakes. Show compassion and respect toward one another--especially for our differences as human beings. I pray we can be united as a people and a country, and treat each other with respect. dignity, and acceptance.

Thanks for visiting today, and I hope you enjoyed the post. Out of respect for the other members of this blog, please be aware the comments made in this post reflect my personal opinion...which, I hope, others will share. ~ AKB

22 comments:

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  2. Single room schoolhouse 1881, Reconstruction at McKay Avenue
    Edmonton Public Schools Alberta Canada
    http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=5139

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    1. Wow. Thank you for sharing the link, Eugene. Fascinating history of this beautiful one-room schoolhouse in Edmonton. And how great that history is being preserved.

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  3. Ashley--this is an excellent post. You have written a masterpiece I wish many could read. When our government begins to bend to the will of a few by removing certain vestiges from our past, our country is in big trouble. I shouldn't think anyone would want a society that resembled Nazi Germany. Once the citizens condone removing certain objects or ideas because they might be offensive to some, the population begins on a slippery slope that has no end.
    The information about the one-room school schools is wonderful. Thanks for sharing the story of the bell--that is a real treasure.
    At least one of my ancestors was a Confederate soldier--my sisters and I have the paperwork and a photo of him--he is a very young man, and I doubt very seriously he knew why he fought the Union Army. I'm not ashamed of him..I have compassion for him that he was innocently caught up in a war not of his making--but he did his duty.
    Thank you.

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    1. Thank you very much, Celia. I also had many ancestors who fought in both armies during the Civill War, including a great grandfather in the CSA who was a physician there to heal the wounded, any wounded. He died doing that, putting himself in the line of fire. We learn from history, and the ancestors who made it possible for us to be here. We have lesrned so much since then, and I hope we continue to do so...together.

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  4. Time corrupts historical truth. In an age where political correctness silences many, it also twists history into whatever seems palatable to the masses.
    I wonder sometimes if one room schools weren't a better way to get an education than the way things are now. Success for teachers and students is dictated by EOG scores and all teaching is dictated by those tests. Maybe just having a few students in a class who respectfully pay attention to teachers who are allowed to create exciting ways to teach would be a better way to learn. My grandfather McNeal bought a one room school house and made it into a home in a tiny town in PA. I remember it as a peaceful place. His father fought in the Civil War in the Union Cavalry. Wow, that makes it seem like just yesterday. I wouldn't make a judgment on those who fought in the Confederacy. There were huge issues at stake for them other than slavery such as States Rights and the industrial north taking advantage of the mostly agricultural south by taxing manufactured goods sold to the south.
    You wrote a standout post, Ashley.

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    1. Thank you, Sarah J. I think the problem with schools today (as you pointed out), is why so many children are home-schooled now. Or, parents make sacrifices to send them to a private school where classes are smaller and more individual attention is given to each child and how he/she progresses, and understands the material.

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    2. Sarah J, I would also love to see photos of the one-room schoolhouse your grandfather converted into a home. Sounds lovely.

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  5. This is a special blog, Ashley. I remember my father talking about going to a one-room school with all ages of children and he got his first pair of shoes to attend that school. I so agree the importance of saving the past to remind us to learn from their mistakes and tragedies. What a heritage you have received from your ancestors. I am lucky to have some treasures as well. I treat them with the same respect that I feel for my ancestors who led the way to where we've come today. It's why I love writing historical romances. :)

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    1. Thanks, Paisley. I think most writers, especially those who write historical fiction and non-fiction, have a soul-deep connection to the past, what they learned from it, and how it inspires them. The same can be true of artists, musicians, filmmakers, teachers, architects, doctors, and scientists. We all have a lifeline to it, or we would not be here. And it really is up to us to make sure future generations are inspired, too.

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  6. I'll dig into my dad's old photos and see what I can find on that house. I know I have never seen any from the inside that show any of the house's details. My grandfather kept it painted red. All those old pictures are only in black and white.

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  7. Keep me posted, if you find something, Sarah J. You make an interesting point about the red schoolhouse. I thought all wooden one-room schoolhouses were painted red, but the common color was white. Perhaps because it was easier to paint over, although I bet red was more durable.

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  8. Courageous, beautiful post, Ashley! Yes, we owe our ancestors a great deal, something we should never forget. And we do indeed need to learn from past mistakes and respect our individual differences. I admire you for putting into words what many of us think. Bless you!

    I also enjoyed the section on one-room schools. They were a vital part of pioneer life. Love the story of your bell!

    Happy 4th of July to you all. I will celebrate my son's birthday. He came eight days early just so he could be our little firecracker!

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    1. Thank you, Lyn. I am touched you enjoyed the post, and the story of my little bell from Emma. Happy Fourth of July to you and your family, too, and Happy Birthday to your son. :)

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  9. Lovely post, Ashley, and beautifully expressed. Thanks also for the information about the one-room schoolhouse. It's nice to come away from a blog post with a bit more knowledge than I had when I started reading the blog post :-)

    Nancy

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    1. Thank you very much, Nancy. Appreciate you taking the time to comment. :)

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  10. Ashley, a very important and thought-provoking post. Loved the personal touches about your family, too. But what was most important, in summary, was your message about liberty and what it really means. You are completely correct, in my humble opinion, if the past and all its ugliness is suppressed and forgotten and not taught to future generations, in the spirit of so-called "political correctness," we all lose. History, warts and all, should be presented as thoroughly as possible and taught to our children and their children, and so on. Only through illuminating the past can we learn from our past mistakes and move forward. Life is always evolving and hopefully, we become a better people for knowing the past and not repeating the bad parts of it. Knowledge should never be suppressed, for any reason, as it's only through knowledge we can be an informed populace and make intelligent and good decisions for the future. Kudos to you for this wonderful post on the cusp of celebrating our country's birth.

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    1. Thank you so much, Hebby. I am so happy that you enjoyed the post, and that you took the time to comment. I truly appreciate that! Have a wonderful Fourth of July!

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  11. A wonderful post. Both of my grandmothers taught in a one-room school house and told tales of riding a horse to the school house and being boarded in the homes of their students. One of them commented that at one time, she had only a few English-speaking students, that the rest were all immigrants without a clue as to what she was talking about until they learned English from the other children. I give credit to these grandmothers for my love of history and a deep understanding of our well-earned freedoms.

    Thanks for the wonderful blog and happy 4th!.

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    1. Happy Fourth of July to you, too, Sharla Rae. How fascinating that your grandmothers both taught in a one-room schoolhouse, and that they shared their experience with you. The history and life experiences passed down to us from our family, and our country, are priceless and (I believe) can help so much as we navigate our way in the present and into the future. :)

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  12. I agree, whether we like what happened in history or not, it is the truth we need to see and hopefully learn from the mistakes and misguided. I'm all about showing the injustices in my historical books and letting the reader see how life was and how we have hopefully evolved. Great blog!

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    1. Thanks, Paty. Long before I became a writer of historical fiction, I loved to read history books, historical non-fiction, and historical fiction that helped me to understand the past (good and bad). And I am forever grateful to the writers who took the time to research and include history in their books. We must carry on that torch, right? Happy Fourth of July!

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