The Way It Was
Despite the chilly seats and ‘boot soup,’ life in a one-room schoolhouse was not so bad after all
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.
DUDS AND NIBS
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.
SOUP ‘N’ BOOTS
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