Thursday, September 24, 2015

School Days at Sugar Plains

This is an extract of Chapter 1 from my Gumpy's self-published book of stories called "That's Life...and then some" (2000). The chapter is "School Days at Sugar Plains, 1925-1928", and was dedicated to his Aunt Emily Couger and Olive Spivey. With our youngest currently in first grade, it is an interesting read for me to see the differences between the school experience of my Gumpy in comparison with our son today.
First Grade class at Sugar Plains, Thorntown, Indiana. Abt 1925.

"I tell this story, because the days of the one room brick school house are past, but it was in just such a school that I started. Sugar Plains school was a little red brick building about five miles west of Thorntown, Indiana on the old Pike that is now called road 47. The school set among a large sugar maple woods not more than a hundred yards from the Sugar Plains Friends Church and cemetery. It was a perfect place for a school and a natural setting for a playground. My mother had gone to the same school in her youth and I would guess the school to be around a hundred years old. The old school has now been converted into a permanent residence.

Our playground had a teetertotter and a swing that hung from a large maple tree. The water supply was a hand pump and the toilet was an outside privy, one for the boys and one for the girls, and there was a big bell to signal the school kids that class was about to start. The school had two teachers, my Aunt Emily was the main teacher and Olive Spivey was the apprentice teacher. My Aunt Emily had graduated from high school and had taken a six week course to prepare her to teach school. Of course, several summers after that for a few years she was required to take additional schooling in order to continue teaching. These teachers were dedicated and sincere, and in all probability had better teaching skills than many modern day teachers with four year degrees.

In fact, my Aunt Emily made a career of teaching, and later in her life she was honored as the teacher of the year for Indiana, and many former students came for her testimonial dinner and reunion. Some had become distinguished citizens and leaders in the community and industry. One former student was Eugene Beesley, the former President of Eli Lilly Company, a most prestigious pharmaceutical company. Olive Spivey continued her career as a teacher and was also often honored.

I always felt that schools of this kind had many advantages over our modern day schools. They certainly did not have the discipline problems of today's schools, and maybe that's because of the close family like relationship that was fostered in the old one room school. In those days school was fun and something you looked forward to, while at the same time it was no nonsense and well disciplined.

A typical school day started with all eight grades meeting in one room, possibly 25 or 30 students. The class stood up and pledged allegiance to the flag. All the students lowered their heads and said a silent prayer. After that we sang a song or two while the teacher played the piano. Next we had spelling. While the first grade was asked to spell cat or dog, the more advanced students were asked to spell more complicated words like Mississippi or Tennessee. The same held true for arithmetic. While I was learning to add 2+2 the more advanced were working on fractions and long division. All this being done in the same room at the same time, where you progressed at your own pace to more difficult learning levels. It was hard to tell when you passed from one grade to the other. Like I said, school was fun, our teacher frequently planned hikes along Wolf Creek where the teaching process never stopped. We were taught how to identify different trees, birds and flowers. The boys were exploring under the rocks looking for frogs, crawdads and snapping turtles to tease the girls with. Aunt Emily always had a new game to play. Sometimes it was fox and geese or it could have been Annieover.

As the school year progressed from fall to winter and then to early spring, I always looked forward to February and March when the sap started to run in the sugar maple trees. The huge maple trees were tapped and sometimes two or three buckets were hung on each tree to catch the sap. Later in the day a horse pulled a large sled with wooden barrels to collect the sap and take it back to the sugar camp to be boiled down. It took 40 or 50 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. Sometimes they cooked it down to hard maple candy and this was a special treat that all the kids looked forward to. I ask you, how many modern schools can provide such a learning experience? In fact, most kids today would tell you that maple syrup was a factory product, or maybe just came from the grocery store.

Back in the schoolroom we had a big potbelly wood stove that sat in the middle of the room. It was a special privilege to be selected as the boy to keep the fire going. It was a job that the older boys had to earn by being an outstanding student.

Some of the older girls were proud to be chosen as the cloak room helpers too. They kept order among students and helped the younger kids with putting on coats, mittens and overshoes. Sometimes this was a mad scramble and it was easy to get mixed up and put on two left overshoes, while another kid wondered why he suddenly had nothing, but two right boots. Eventually it was all straightened out and we all went out to play in the new snow. There is no way to compare this with a modern day gym class where all the students are in uniform, lined up like soldiers, jumping up and down, moving their arms in all directions.

Everyone as well as the teacher brought a lunch bucket from home, but on special occasions the teacher would bring a huge pot of soup from home home and set it on top of the stove where it would simmer and be ready to serve at noon and every one would have a cup of hot soup with their lunch. Sometimes I think my Aunt Emily was the originator of the school hot lunch program, and hers was not subsidized by the Federal government.

Discipline was very seldom a problem, but when it was necessary the victim had to stand in the corner in front of the class. If more severe punishment was required they were sent to the cloak room to wait for a spanking after school. Usually the long wait was sufficient and the humiliation took care of the matter. The teacher sent home a note to the parents and the parents cooperated with the school and took care of the problem in the privacy of their home.

Our transportation to and from school was a Ford Model T school hack, they did not call it a school bus in those days since it was small and only carried 10 to 15 students or less. Sometimes it could just barely make it through the snow and mud. The kids that were within a mile or so would walk and in some cases would hitch a ride with a neighbor, or some generous person that was going that way. For a while my brother and I would ride to school with Carl Crawford, a neighbor boy, who was in high school and drove an old car. He would drop us off at school and continue on to Thorntown High School.

When the weather was bad we would walk down the road a short distance and wait at the Reverend Hester's house to be picked up after school. One day while waiting for our ride I was in the Reverend's study just diddling around with some papers on his desk. I proceeded to write my name in all of the available space on the paper. How was I to know that this was his sermon he had prepared for the next Sunday? Several years later I learned of his surprise when he looked at his notes as he was about to give his sermon and all he could see was "Keith Jones Keith Jones Keith Jones" scribbled all over his sermon.

School was from 8 o'clock in the morning till 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Our evenings were taken up with farm chores and plenty of homework to last till bedtime or until the kerosene lamps burned out. Looking back on this experience I am glad to have had the opportunity to attend a school like this and I especially proud to have had dedicated teachers like my Aunt Emily and Olive Spivey."

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