Updated: Nov 5, 2022
Much as I dislike the heat and humidity of summer, fall always makes me melancholy; I don’t think I’ll ever stop being disappointed that I can’t go back to school. This was especially true when I was young. Living on a farm in mid-Michigan, near Eaton rapids, as an only child, life could get pretty lonely in the summer. Going back to my little country school in the fall seemed to me more like a beginning than spring did, and it came with built-in playmates. I was a very good student, sometimes obnoxiously so. I actually enjoyed reading and learning, which made me a favorite of the teacher (think teacher's pet). and may have clouded my perceptions. I talked with one of my former classmates not too long ago. I remember our teacher, Mrs. Harshey (grades 2-6), as a nice woman, strict but kind and fair; my friend remembers only the strict part!
My school, the Favorite School, was an old one-room schoolhouse; my dad went there. During my time, there were approximately 30 students in grades kindergarten through 6th grade, only 4 in my grade. Heat was provided by a space heater and air conditioning came from open windows, so kids had to dress for the season. We all walked or rode our bikes to school from the surrounding countryside; none of us lived more than half a mile from the school.
The school day began with the Pledge of Allegiance, which we all stood to recite with our hands on our hearts. After that, Mrs. Harshey would call different classes (e.g., Third Grade Reading) to a table in front for 15-20 minute lessons throughout the day. Those of us still in our seats could work on our lessons (because of this, we never had any homework), read, or color. There was no hot lunch or lunchroom; at lunchtime we went to a cupboard in the back to get our lunches packed for us by our mothers in metal lunch boxes. I remember that for a while we had milk delivered. My dad, in fact, built a box which hung on the wall outside where the milkman placed the milk to stay cool until lunch time. I was almost always on a diet, and I remember envying the kids who had spaghetti-os and packaged fruit pies in their lunches. Even I, though, occasionally got a hot dog suspended on a string in a thermos full of hot water. So we did have hot lunches after all – from our thermoses!
For some reason, eating lunch fast was a measure of worth, and I often raced with a male classmate to be the first to finish. He was probably doing it so he could get outside for lunch recess; I just did it to win. I was never that fond of recess; I was an outsider because I was always chubby along with being the teacher’s pet. I remember actually putting up with being tackled with much more force than the other girls just so I could be part of the game. We also played games like Red Rover, Fox and Goose, Cowboys and Indians, and Mother May I. There was a playground with a swing set, a merry go round, and a slide. Just behind the school, one of the parents owned a farm with a small hill. During the winter we would bring our sleds and slide down that hill during recess. On very cold or rainy days, we stayed inside. I remember doll houses and paper dolls from those days.
After lunch recess, Mrs. Harshey would read to us. My favorite books were the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who died right around the time we were listening to her books. I read those books to my kids and my grandkids (right along with Harry Potter!). The afternoon was similar to the morning, with the different classes being called to the front for time with the teacher.
We sometimes did fun things like spelling bees and contests; at least I thought they were fun. I remember being eliminated pretty early in one of the spelling bees; all the grades took part, and we were lined up in a circle around the whole room. When you misspelled a word, you had to go back to your seat. I had better success with a competition to learn all the states and their capitals. When the time came, we took a blank sheet of paper and wrote the states in alphabetical order, with their capitals next to them. I won – my paper had just one mistake: I spelled Annapolis, Maryland wrong.
Mrs. Harshey was responsible for our whole education, including music and art. Art projects were sometimes draped all over the room, waiting for the paint to dry. Mrs. Harshey played the piano so we could sing songs like “The Spanish Cavalier” from an old song book . She was also a drama coach: Each year we put on a Christmas Program. It involved short plays and lots of singing. All the parents came and even some of the neighbors. Santa Claus arrived at the end, bringing each of us a paper bag containing peanuts in the shell, lifesavers, and other small candies. It was one of the highlights of the year.
There was a push for consolidation in the late 1950's, and the Favorite School closed the year I finished 6th grade in 1958. I think consolidation was a huge mistake. There are many advantages to going to a small school, most notably more personal attention and thus more accountability. Of course, this sentiment comes from a teacher’s pet – as I've said, others don’t have quite the same rosy memories of country school I have!