Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Friday, September 2, 2022

My Stint in a One-Room School

It’s hard to imagine that less than 200 years ago, education was only for the rich. During the 1840s, Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist preacher and editor, was appointed superintendent of schools for Upper Canada. He introduced a public school system that was to be free, universal, and supported by taxation in order to be open to all. He insisted that education should have a religious foundation and include studies in grammar, geography, science, arithmetic, music, drawing, history, civics, nature study, physical training, and hygiene.

The idea was met with controversy. Not everyone valued education. Those without school-aged children balked at the idea of having to share the cost. Others saw education as a waste, especially for girls. (I, for one, am beyond grateful that clearer heads prevailed!)

Townships were divided into school districts, each led by elected trustees and having its own building and teacher. Attendance would be compulsory for children aged six through fourteen. Typically, a farmer would donate or sell a corner of his field for the school. A log shanty might be constructed, depending on resources. Some schools were built of brick and stone. In some remote areas of northern Ontario, they used train cars. By 1917, so many schools were going up as the west became populated that Eaton’s catalog offered a school kit in three different sizes. It included lumber, nails, hardware, insulation, and paint. The largest kit sold for $829.00.

Each district was charged with naming itself, and residents proved themselves creative. Near Ogden, now a suburb of Calgary, most citizens were employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway and wished to name their school after their employer. When they learned it would be illegal to use the CPR name, they chose to call their district “Cepeear,” pronounced exactly the same way.

Although many Canadians over sixty once attended a one-room school, few today can imagine how a teacher could handle eight grades at once or how any learning was accomplished. My own parents are both products of these schools, and all four of my older siblings attended one as well. By the time I grew old enough, we lived in town. 

Falmouth School, where my mom & siblings attended

I did, however, enjoy a four-day career as a one-room school student. With a February birthday, I would be approaching age seven by the time I was eligible to begin Grade One. My parents arranged for me to start a year early at a country school. Since several of the other students were my cousins, I did fine. When another parent complained, however, the trustees ended it. Rules were rules and I needed to wait another year before starting in the town school. That experience gave me a taste of country school. I remember best and appreciate most how the older children watched out for us little ones and everybody played together. With so few students, I suppose they had little choice, but I never witnessed this level of camaraderie again.

In “Syrup Pails and Gopher Tails: Memories of the One-Room School,” John C. Charyk shared his colorful experiences as both a student and a teacher. Students shared tasks such as hauling drinking water. In the early years, this might mean carrying full pails from a river a quarter of a mile away or hauling in ice blocks from the icehouse where they were packed in straw. For those who rode horses to school, stabling the horse and meeting its needs were also a part of their school day.

Teachers, some as young as eighteen, might have received only one year of training before being tasked with such an enormous responsibility. Each needed to serve not only as teacher of all subjects for all grades, but also as principal, school nurse, playground supervisor, Christmas concert organizer, office staff, and athletic coach. They often had to keep the stove going in winter, shovel snow, and more.

The one-room school proved that people can do hard things. Despite the many distractions, most students did receive an education. Some, like John Charyk, went on to become brilliant authors who recorded for future generations what life was like in a one-room school. 


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