The Way It Was

De­spite the chilly seats and ‘boot soup,’ life in a one-room school­house was not so bad af­ter all

Our Canada - - Features | Departments - By Jim Soul, Erin, Ont.

Ed­u­ca­tion as I knew it some 70 years ago was much dif­fer­ent from what it is to­day. No warm, com­fort­able buses stopped at the gate, ready to whisk us away to a mod­ern learn­ing cen­tre. No cen­trally heated and cooled multi-roomed com­plex awaited our im­mi­nent ar­rival or catered to our every ed­u­ca­tional need. No vast ar­ray of teach­ers armed with teach­ing aids at­tempted to keep our in­quis­i­tive lit­tle minds oc­cu­pied. We made do with what we had, and we cre­ated our own learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences— for bet­ter or for worse.

While we didn’t trudge five miles up­hill through waist-deep snow barefoot, we re­ally did walk a fair way to the lo­cal stone school­house. Built on a hill, it was just out­side the ham­let of Osaca, Ont. It was a drafty, dank, one-room build­ing, serv­ing stu­dents of all ages and grades. Just in­side the main back door sat a huge, black, wood­eat­ing mon­ster that was our ver­sion of cen­tral heat­ing. A long line of stovepipes be­low the ceil­ing that ended in the front bracket chim­ney at­tempted to keep the frost at bay for those forced to sit near the front of the room. Sur­round­ing the stove was a three-sided gal­va­nized heat shield de­signed to keep awk­ward young bod­ies from get­ting fried, but it re­ally just served as our own built-in clothes dryer. Dur­ing win­ter months, a row of mat­ted mit­tens, soggy socks and fetid footwear adorned its sur­face. Re­spon­si­bil­ity for feed­ing the fiery beast fell to the se­nior boys, but try as we might, the front seat­ing area al­most al­ways felt like a sub­urb of Siberia.

While the school build­ing did have the re­cently in­stalled lux­ury of good over­head elec­tric lights, there was no in­door plumb­ing. Drink- ing wa­ter was ob­tained from a blueenameled, com­mu­nal drink­ing cup dipped into a large pail that sat on the win­dowsill. Germs were some­thing only city folk wor­ried about. The wash­room fa­cil­i­ties were lo­cated out­doors in two lit­tle shacks at the far cor­ner of the play­ground. The seats were known for their lack of com­fort and a cold up­draft was al­ways wait­ing to bite oc­cu­pants where it hurt the most. If the call of na­ture be­came too in­sis­tent dur­ing class, you learned to hur­riedly trek back and forth through the drift­ing snow. Great re­lief was ex­pe­ri­enced when you fi­nally ar­rived back to the warmth of the class­room.


In those days, cloth­ing was more about func­tion than form. We wore any­thing that would keep us warm; fash­ion wasn’t yet one of our pri­or­i­ties. Lay­er­ing, even then, was a use­ful and prac­ticed con­cept. First came a fuzzy pair of woollen long johns— but­toned trap door in back—over which we added a shirt, sweater and a pair of bibbed over­alls. Our feet were en­cased by at least two lay­ers of hand-knit wool socks pulled up over our pant legs and stuffed into over­sized, hand-me-down rub­ber boots. I’m not sure what the girls used for their first layer, but I know they al­ways wore long, full skirts. For warmth, trousers were some­times worn un­der­neath, and then came a blouse and lots of sweaters. Their footwear was sim­i­lar to ours—socks and rub­ber boots. Al­most every­body kept another pair of slip­pers or old shoes to wear in­side.

Since there were eight grades to be taught and only one teacher, that usu­ally al­lowed us a bit of free time between lessons. This was spent by help­ing the younger grades prac­tice their math and hear­ing them read from books that were all about the ad­ven­tures of Dick, Jane, baby Sally and Spot the dog.

If time per­mit­ted, we were en­cour­aged to prac­tice our pen­man­ship. I sus­pect it was a fu­tile at­tempt to keep our ea­ger lit­tle minds em­ployed while the teacher was oc­cu­pied else­where. Since ball­point pens were not yet in­vented, the tools of the trade con­sisted of an ink

bot­tle, nib and straight pen. Af­ter doo­dling and draw­ing be­came dull, a new use for the straight pen was dis­cov­ered: it made an ex­cel­lent pro­jec­tile. If lobbed with just the cor­rect tra­jec­tory, the pen would fly and silently stick straight up in the wooden floor. If the an­gles were cal­cu­lated in­cor­rectly, how­ever, the mis­sile would clat­ter nois­ily onto the planks. The game then ended abruptly, some­times for sev­eral days, if the teacher was not in a good mood.


Dur­ing win­ter months, the gov­ern­ment, in its wis­dom, sup­plied us with cod liver oil cap­sules, sup­pos­edly to in­crease our vi­ta­min D lev­els. With a prac­ticed flick of a fin­ger, when the teacher wasn’t look­ing, those vile con­coc­tions could be re­duced to harm­less, smelly, smol­der­ing smudges on the hot stove.

In keep­ing with the spirit of the times, the com­mu­nity also or­ga­nized a sys­tem of hot school lunches to help aug­ment our af­ter­noon learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. Since there were ten fam­i­lies rep­re­sented in this school sec­tion, it was agreed that each fam­ily would sup­ply some­thing hot one day in a two-week ro­ta­tion. The rules were sim­ple: each of us would bring a bowl and spoon from home and the se­nior girls would dole out the heated in­gre­di­ents from a huge pot sim­mer­ing on the stove. We were sup­posed to con­sume it, along with the cap­suled cod and our sand­wich from home. Af­ter lunch, we’d wash our uten­sils, place them in the cupboard and fi­nally es­cape out­side for the re­main­der of the noon hour.

For me, this posed a prob­lem; I don’t re­ally like soup at the best of times, but my free­dom out­side was pre­cious. While prob­a­bly nu­tri­tious, the qual­ity of those of­fer­ings var­ied greatly. Mother’s con­tri­bu­tion to the hot lunch pro­gram was more of a hearty stew than a soup. At my re­quest, it con­tained ex­tra meat, car­rots and onions, but no toma­toes. Although some­what bi­ased, I con­sid­ered Mother’s cre­ative cui­sine, if one had to eat soup, as quite palat­able. Other con­tri­bu­tions were pass­able, some semied­i­ble and a few barely so, but there was one fam­ily’s con­coc­tion that de­fied de­scrip­tion. It was a greasy gruel in which floated a cou­ple of bloated, dead toma­toes, a few scrag­gly bits of limp onion parts and some chunks of what I think used to be stale bread. This, I de­ter­mined, I was not go­ing to eat!

The prob­lem for me, though, was that it had to be con­sumed be­fore I was al­lowed out­side. What to do? How was I go­ing to fol­low the rules, show an empty bowl and es­cape to free­dom if I didn’t choke it down? There had to be a so­lu­tion! Then in­spi­ra­tion struck. Af­ter much blow­ing and stir­ring to cool the gruel, I se­cretly slipped the slimy con­tents down the open top of my rub­ber boots when no­body was look­ing. Du­ti­fully, I showed my empty bowl, rinsed it, grabbed my coat, hat and, foot slosh­ing in grue­some gruel, hur­ried out­side.

My first stop was at the hand pump on the well. There I pulled off my boots and socks, pumped them full of wa­ter and tried to rinse away the ev­i­dence. The op­er­a­tion was a suc­cess! I’d es­caped hav­ing to eat any dead toma­toes, gained my free­dom and my footwear would be dry by the time I needed it for the home­ward trek.

This lit­tle episode was re­peated faith­fully every other Wed­nes­day all win­ter with no ap­par­ent reper­cus­sions. Mother did men­tion, how­ever, that she of­ten won­dered why my feet fre­quently seemed to smell a lit­tle swampy.

Now, as I look back from the per­spec­tive of more than seven decades, I must ad­mit that I ac­tu­ally en­joyed the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of my early ed­u­ca­tion. In a one­room ru­ral school, I was started on the proper path to higher “learnin’” and given the ba­sic tools for suc­cess. The rest was left up to me. Now, af­ter work­ing 35 years in ed­u­ca­tion, and earn­ing three univer­sity de­grees along the way, I hope I haven’t let any­body down. n

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