Chapter 7 – A Country School Teacher

April 6, 2009 - 1,153 views

I was eighteen years old and scared and very lonely. I didn’t know a person within twenty “country” miles, for I had arrived at Lawford, West Virginia. There was one store and three houses. The school house was a mile up the creek, where I was to teach school. I had room and board at a large house about a half mile from the school.

The family consisted of a middle-aged couple by the name of Wagoner, their ten year old son, Andrew, and her aged mother who was paralyzed from the waist down. They were typical mountain people who could just write their names (the grandmother couldn’t), and they took little stock with “book learnin.” They had a good farm and were more affluent than most of their neighbors. They probably secured their wealth by keeping the teachers year after year, for they charged me $10.00 a month!

Lawford was a full day’s trip by buggy from the nearest railway station. But in September I was able to get a truck to take my trunk and me out there. Later a trip had to be made in a buggy or on horseback because the roads were very bad.

I arrived at my new home on Sunday afternoon and my trunk was deposited in the hall where it had to be unpackedbefore Mr. Wagoner could carry it upstairs to my room. That was quite a scene; for allof these strangers sat around watching me pull out each piece from the trunk. They were very frank to express their dislike for “city duds.” When I had finished the task of unpacking, I was told that there wasn’t much there that would be suitable to wear in that community. I don’t know why, but for some reason they didn’t ask my age. They informed me that the last two teachers had been “run off ” by the scholars. No wonder, though, for the last one had been only nineteen years old! This was one time I was grateful because I looked older than I was. I never told my age as long as I stayed there.

How blue I was! If it hadn’t been so far to the railroad, I would travel been leaving that night. I was sorely tempted as it was.

I had been used to good gas lights at home, and here I had only a little kerosene lamp. We hava gas stove in every room at home and here I was in an upstairs room that had never had any heat in it. The heat problem would not bother for a month or so, though. I was accustomed to having friends about me and going places every day. Here I could scarcely communicate because of the difference in age arid interests. The only place to go was to church one Sunday a month. For some peculiar reason, the Wagoners never even visited in the neigborhood. and that left me very much outside of the society of the community.

In college we had been told to start our school year with great severity. We were urged to prepare two paddles and fasten them together in such a way that they would make a loud noise when they were used. According to the going theory of the day, a number of rules should be imposed, and the first pupil to break one rule was to be paddled before the whole school. The paddle would make a loud noise; the child would scream, supposedly, and the teacher must yell as each lick was hit. Such fear would be upon them all that there would be no more trouble out of any of them. Did it work? I don’t know, for I never had the courage to try it.

Fourty-some students arrived on Monday morning at that little one-room, run down, lopsided school house. The youngest was six and must be taught to read and write. The oldest was nineteen and would be in the eighth grade. My greatest problem, however, was with three teenage boys who were in the sixth grade. Their arithmetic was to give me many restless nights!

The schoolhouse had six windows and one outside door. There were some other openings large enough to “throw a cat through” as the local expression was. When cold weather came, we stuffed them with rags best we could. There were hooks across the back of the room for their hats and coats. A small. table stood by the door with a water bucket and dipper. A table was on a platform in the front for the teacher’s desk. There were two blackboards and two benches across the front as recitation benches. The children sat at desks made for two, but sometimes occupied by three because of the crowded conditions. A large “pot-bellied” coal stove sat in the middle of the room and furnished all the heat they ever had. Those nearest the stove got blistered faces, and those on the outter row got frozen feet if we forgot to rotate about every hour.

In the school lot was a pump from which we carried our drinking water. A coal shed provided the fuel for the stove. The other buildings on the grounds were marked “boys” and “girls” and it was a contnual wonder to me that they didn’t fall over some time when a half dozen giggling girls or bragging boys would crowd in. The last year’s catalogues that could be spared from the homes were put to use here.

One family by the name of Collins sent five children to school. The oldest boy I had was from that family. I will explain later how he helped me. They walked across a hill two and a half miles and seldom missed unless there was some urgent work at home. They invited me for Thanksgiving dinner. That was the first turkey I ever ate, and I thought I had a real treat.

The days were full. and busy, but the evenings and nights were almost unbearable. In the early fall, I would go with Mrs. Wagoner to the barn lot and sit on a stump while she milked. There was a whipporwill in the meadow that cried each night, and it gave me the most lonely feeling I have ever had. I still cannot enjoy hearing one, for I feel alone, regardless of how many people may be around. There were two warm rooms in the house when winter descended upon us, the sitting room where they had a gas stove, and the kitchen with its huge woodburning stove. We ate in the dining room without heat, so no one tarried long at the table. There was no bathroom, so everyone washed in the kitchen. The stove had a large built-in container for water, so there was usually plenty of hot water at all times. There was no sink, so a bucket was set by the washstand and the water was emptied into it. In milder weather we just went to the door and threw the water into the yard, but in cold weather you just didn’t open the door that often.

We ate good country food: milk; butter; potatoes; apples; pork and dried bearis. We always had biscuits, meat and gravy for breakfast and corn bread the other two meals. I longed for light bread, and one day she let me make a batch. All of them liked it, so she learned to make it and we had some every week. It tasted better than a cold biscuit with apple buttter in a lunch pail at school.

These mountain people were very superstitious. They used to explain their contacts with ghostly appearances, and then I would cover up my head all night. I had heard ghost stories before, but never believed in them. I still didn’t, but the differences in culture and thought would get next to me in the dark and cold of that lonely room. I wondered sometimes if witchcraft might not be a partial reality.

One day we were cutting apples and a “news bee” hovered around my hands. Mrs. Wagoner said he was trying to give me some bad news, and that of a surety, I would get it by mail within a week. Sure enough, I heard of the death of one of my distant relatives. She said, “See, I told you so. You must learn to accept the truth.” They felt that “much learning” had made me incapable of living a simple life!

Life became less tedious for a while because I found a boy friend. I believe he worked there on a nearby farm for a few weeks. We met at the Box Supper at the schoolhouse. I must tell you first about that unusual. social event. It was a money making project for the school. The women of the community prepared some good food, like a picnic lunch, and boxed it. The box was made as attractive as possible with crepe paper so the wen would want to buy it for a good price. The girl whose box brought the highest price was a real celebrity. She was the queen of the community for months to come. The boxes were sold at auction, and then the girl must eat with the one who bought her box. Husbands were expected to buy their wives’ boxes, or there would be talk. I believe we made around $40.00 that year, and it was used to purchase materials for art classes. I got watercolors, crayons, colored chalk, art paper, patterns and so forth, for the children to use. They had never had such a wonderful opportunity before. We took all of Friday afternoons for them to do creative things, and some of them were quite good. We always had decorations on our walls and windows that were appropriate to the season.

My first and biggest discipline problem almost finished me. There were two teenage boys who spent their nights coon hunting. They would come to school late and sleepy. They were the trouble makers who had whipped the teacher the year before and “run her off.” One day they brought their hound dog and chained him up at the front door. He soon tuned up in a loud concert, and I told them to loose him and send him home. Reluctantly they did so, but they brought the chain in and began to pull it back and forth across the desk. I told them to put it away, but to no avail. Then I asked that it be brought to my desk. They refused and suggested that I try to take it.

I have always been quite stubborn and determined to finish what I started. So I went back to get that chain. They stood up with clenched fists and waited. As I passed the stove, I picked up the poker. I never knew whether I would have used it or not, and they didn’t either. The oldest boy, Lonnie Collins, stood and moved over to assist me, and the others of his family followed suit. The two boys soon saw they were alone, and they placed the chain in my outstretched hand. What a relief! They never returned to school another day that year. The pattern of getting rid of the teacher was broken and by the next day I felt my nervous tension gone.

As you can see, I survived that term, but I was not willing to go so far into no-man’s land the next year. I applied nearer home and got a school on Sycamore, in Doddridge County. It was about eighteen miles from home, but could as well have been eighty. When the roads got bad, there was no way to get out except to walk or ride horseback. I walked out once and rode horseback many times.

Many exciting things happened to me at this second teaching appoiritment. I found a place to board at Thomas Swiger’s, which was within sight of the schoolhouse. Swiger was the most common name in the community. The family consisted of the couple and their three children, Dallas, about twenty-one, Ila, my age, and Loy, who went to school. A couple months later they took two grandsons.

The house had two main rooms and a shed kitchen. There was an attic where the boys slept. The downstairs rooms had large open fireplace where gas was burned for heat. A large wood stove had been converted into a gas stove in the kitchen, so they had things modern and more convenient than most of those who lived around them. I believe their gas was free because they had some wells that were in use by the Hope Natural Gas Company.

Ila and I shared one room and one bed. Later, when the grandchildren came, we shared the bed with the two year old. The bed had no springs, just slats, and a straw tick which was filled with new straw each fall. Every day when you made up the bed, you stirred the straw to fluff it. Some people had a feather tick over the straw tick, but we were not that fortunate.

Every day’s menu was the same. For breakfast we had biscuits, butter, molasses, fried potatoes, pickled beans, canned peaches and maybe once a week an egg. At noon and at night we had corn bread instead of biscuits and the remainder of it was the same. There were times, however, that we would have some pork, kraut, and dried beans. I don’t think I ever sat down at that table when there wasn’t a dish of pickled beans.

The Swigers had some peach trees way back on the hill and they couldn’t afford to make many trips back there with the wagon. So when they went, they picked all the peaches, which were quite green. They didn’t waste things, so they canned them at once, and without sugar. I have never been too fond of canned peaches to this day.

Pickled beans were plentiful. They picked bushels of nice beans and all the neighbors came in to help string them. The next day they were cooled and placed in a large barrel, we called them rain barrels, for everyone kept one or more at the eaves of the house to catch rain water for washing clothes. In two weeks or so, they were sour enough for table use and became the mainstay for the winter. They did not think beans or corn should be canned. How grateful I am for canned and frozen vegetables!

I believe thirty-some students appeared that first day of school. We had a new schoolhouse and it had good lighting (sunlight) and, wonder of wonder, two cloak rooms and a gas stove for heat. The community was justly proud of their modern school. Five of the students were grown young men. I made the terrible mistake the first day of asking if any of them could use a scythe and cut the weeds on the school. yard. They didn’t say much then, but their looks spoke louder than words. The idea of asking a farm boy if he could cut weeds! I remember some of their names: Harry Holbert; Brent Ashcraft; and Archie Swiger. (I have been Mrs. Archie Swiger for forty-three years) The others I can’t recall their full names. One was Orville and the other was a Smith.

I am not sure that I taught them much, but we kept busy. We added art and music to the regular subjects. We had practice in public speaking by having a community program once a month. The small children said memorized pieces and the older ones debated with students from other schools. The school was the heart of all community activity, and the teacher could have a very strong influence over them.

If we went anywhere at night, all the young people went in a group. There were several who had finished school so that we would be a group of around eight or ten when we attended a program at another school or went to a revival. Anywhere we went, we had a big hill to climb and fences to get over or through. We thought nothing of walking three or four miles, and then back home again. Once in a while some of the girls would not be permitted to go, and then Ila and I would have to stay home, for it would not look good for just two girls to go with several boys. Usually, if Ila’s brother was along, we were permitted to go.

Another social event of the area was the visit of the teacher to most of the homes for a weekend visit. There was likely to be a gathering of all the young people at that home on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. We would pop corn. roast chestnuts, dig apples out of the winter storage hole, and just have a good time.

I enjoyed this school year, but I didn’t want to go back another year because of the problem of a place to stay. I couldn’t go back to the same place again because Ila and I had a “falling out” and I didn’t stay there the last two weeks of that term. I have no idea what our problem was. The home where I spent those two weeks was not a satisfactory place, for the man drank and she didn’t want anyone to know it; so she wouldn’t take me. (Of course I had known it ever since I arrived there, but one didn’t let on about such things.)

My third year of teaching was back in the same county where I taught the first year, only it was not so far out. I had a nice place to stay near the school which was in the little village of Berea where I had lived as a small child. Dad was teaching in the same county about four miles up Otterslide. I knew everyone in that area, so it was not so lonesome. Some of my relatives lived there. Aunt Callie and her family, and many cousins once or twice removed.

The year was more or less uneventful until March, when I took quite ill. A doctor was called after several days. He had to come five miles, so you didn’t call him for every ache or pain. He said I had appendicitis and must be operated on at once. It was five miles to a paved road and six more miles to the railroad and then forty miles to the hospital. The country roads were impassable for an automobile, yet the doctor said I could not ride in a wagon. You should have seen that procession. They put me in the back: seat of a Ford and hitched a team of horses to pull it to the paved road.

I survived the ordeal and the operation, but didn’t get back tofinish the term of school. An old retired teacher in the community did that for me.

During these years of teaching, I attended summer school and got my permanent teacher’s certificate and a Standard Normal from Salem College.