Wednesday, March 10, 2021

School Days by E. Ayers

 Seems education is on most peoples' minds. So many places the buses sit empty, the kids are home, and parents are coping with educating their children at home. But it's not a new thing. 

It was a few years ago when a friend's brother decided he'd had enough of teaching school in the city. At the end of the school year, he quit his job, got rid of his apartment, went to his parents home, and looked online for a new job. One school district in the northern part of middle America had an opening. It was a very small school. He applied, and the next day he got a phone call. They invited him to come and sent him airline tickets. 

The principal met him at the airport in a pickup truck. They drove for hours and instead of being put up in hotel or motel, he got to stay in the principal's parents' home in an apt over the detached garage that they referred to as the barn. (There were no hotels or motels near there.) The refrigerator was stocked and he was told to come to the house for meals. There are no traffic lights in the small town. There were two school buses for the county. The school held all grades. The children who lived in town walked to school. About a third of the students never attended school except via computer. In bad weather, the kids outside of town all attended online. Teaching students with a camera focused on him was a new thing. He took the job and never looked back. He loves it there. He teaches science and math to students from Fourth to Twelfth grades. 

His description of that small town became the basis of the contemporary Creed's Crossing books, A Snowy Christmas in Wyoming, A Cowboy's Kiss  in Wyoming, A Love Song in Wyoming, and A Calling in Wyoming. 

But what about schools in 1800s? Schools varied. Education didn't become a big thing until 1900s. Although right after the American Revolution, the USA was the most highly educated country in the world.  The standards in education wasn't anything like today. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were basic. Teachers weren't very educated. And every locality could choose what and who they wanted to teach their children.  Often the job went to the local minister or to someone who was willing to teach especially in rural areas. The big cities on the east coast developed a more formal school system but rural areas were on their own. 

Colleges began to spring up in the 1800s especially for women. Normal schools were created just for women. They could train girls to be teachers. Two years of training meant you were qualified to teach. Rare did schools go beyond the 8th grade. And many schools in rural areas never went beyond the sixth grade. My father was born in 1903 and he only had a few years of school and then he had to work on the farm. His grandmother sat him down and taught him to read. It was a Bible. At four years of age, he could read it. 

I have no idea how he managed, but I could bring home a complex Physics problem and he'd solve it. I couldn't figure what he was doing, and he wasn't using a slide rule. But if my answer didn't match his, I knew mine was wrong. 

My father grew up in a multi-generational home. He had aunts and uncles who were younger than he was. They walked to school. His school had two classrooms. Yes, they walked uphill in the snow. It's not joke when you live in a hilly area. The kids walked together and the older children were responsible for the younger ones.  They carried their slates. These were small wooded framed slabs of  slate, and they used chalk to write on them. Paper was expensive. 

If you'd like read about area where my father went to school, it's hidden in A Husband for Matilda (The Brides of Homestead Canyon).  He actually went to the school one locality from that school. My father was more rural. But that school was typical of the times in a fair-sized town in the east.

Parents were responsible for teaching their children. Public school was limited to cities and towns. Localities were responsible for their schools and used taxes to support them. But in the rural areas it was the parents who had to teach their children. Farms and ranches that had workers often formed their own school to educate the children living near or on the property. In an already busy household, school was only a few hours of instruction. Classes flowed around the schedule of the ranch or farm. Harvest time meant the kids helped. Moving cattle, the kids helped.  If it was canning time, the kids helped. I'm working on a new matchmaker series and it starts with a young woman who is going to meet a minister who happens to be the school teacher for a large ranch.

Parents in the 1800s were responsible for their children's education or lack there of. Many children never learned to read or do more than count enough to function in the world.  It's called functional literacy. When my girls were young I knew a man who was a functional literate.  He often would say I can't read your handwriting. But one day I caught him struggling to read something. Omigosh! He had no education beyond third grade. The puzzle pieces came together. I'm positive he was dyslectic. But he was wicked smart! 

My husband when he was young worked with a man who couldn't read. If the man needed to know the gap for a spark plug, he'd have to ask someone to look it up. But he never forgot what that number was. That man could work rings around his younger counterparts.

There are many people today in the USA who do not have a good education. My mom used to say if you can read, you can do anything and learn anything. I'm not sure I totally agree, but I mostly agree. My mom taught me to read when she realized I was struggling to read. I could sight read certain words, but she taught me to read phonetically. After that, my reading took off. 

I feel sorry for parents today who are stuck trying to teach today's math to children. Twenty years ago, my granddaughter brought home math problems and I couldn't figure out what they were trying to teach her. (I was the math major!) But150 years ago, schooling was limited. I could write a whole book on the educational system, how it evolved, and who was educated. Church schools and other private schools were the foundation of schooling in the USA but public schools became the norm. Education has changed over the years but so has society. Today, with a pandemic, it's bringing schooling back into the limelight. Many schools have changed what they teach in order to teach online. But maybe all this hype is helping parents to evaluate what is important to them and to their children. Personally, I think homeschooling has its problems. When my daughter graduated from nursing school, she had several several fellow students who had been homeschooled. I picked out every one of those students. School teaches things beyond the classroom. It teaches children to get along with everyone no matter what their background, and it exposes children to various cultures. That's something that is difficult to teach in private. But I've listened to things that are now part of the "new" public school curriculum, and I'm thinking no way! I'd homeschool before I'd expose my children to that. But nothing is new. Homeschooling was the norm in rural America.

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