(Originally published at http://www.welladjustedorsotheysay.wordpress.com May, 2011)
I realize that Teacher Appreciation Week was last week, however, my Auntie Buttercup just sent me this gem written by my Grandma Jan after her first year of teaching at age 21 in 1932. Unfortunately, I never got to meet her as she died from colon cancer before I was born.
Grandma Jan’s paper painted such a picture in my mind and I know it will for you too. So, to all those who teach – a heartfelt thank you for the part you play in the lives of children each day. I hope you will enjoy reading this as much as I did!
A thought: How interesting it would be to actually find someone out there who might still remember Miss Dawson today…hmmm…I think they would be in their mid to late eighties now? Now that would be something.
1512 South 11th Street
Why Do We Do It?
Scarcely had the commencement music faded from my ears and the tears of the departing graduate been shaken from my eyes, before I found myself plunged, unsuspecting and guileless, into the whirlpool of a small, wind-swept, Oklahoma prairie village, where I was to be one of the new school “marms” for the coming year. It was considerable of a jolt to unawakened eyes, accustomed to the calm serenity of a college background and activities, to view for the first time the mud-soaked, rutted streets, the countless pigs rooting about doorsteps, the small town, brick-fronted main street, the highway sign proclaiming proudly to a tourist world, “Prairie Town, Population 587″, the cow pastures used as school playgrounds,– the inevitable, small town outlook stamped upon every red bluff, brick and pig.
Stowing my bag away in my neat little room in a white bungalow on the highway and making arrangements to eat with two other teachers at “Auntie” Brown’s, two cow pastures up the steep path leading to the water tower, I “girded my loins”, so to speak, and made ready to tackle this school teaching game.
It was hot that fall, as only an Oklahoma September heat can be. The cotton trucks and low-swung wagons, creaking past the school buildings on their way to the cotton gins, stirred up the dust in clouds which settled on our desks and clothes and persons. Negro and white vagrant cotton pickers, sacks slung over shoulders, wended their sweating ways down the hard highway. The buildings were stifling. The classrooms, closely-packed, smelled sweaty and badly in need of air. Through the long, hot, sleepless nights, I could hear the “giant-strides” clanking on the playground near by, reminding me of the day to come as I lay, tired and aching in every bone from the day before.
The sounds of cars and heavy trucks humming swiftly through the town touched off my gypsy wanderlust, and it was a temptation, those hot autumn days, just to “thumb up” sometimes crossing the paving and hie (“Hie” is an expression meaning “get thee to” — sort of Shakespearean) me away to new and greener pastures.
But when the first cool breeze of October came creeping down the Washita and rustled the cottonwoods along its banks, my days began to click off with a regularity that was amazing, and I found myself settling into the routine of my “job” with all the finesse and familiarity of an old hand.
It was a busy existence. when the long, blue school trucks lurched in early in the morning, unloading shouting, care-free farm children, lunch baskets and books in hand, upon the playgrounds, and the eight-thirty bell began tolling its summons, I would hurry out the back door, pick my way gingerly through the tall weeds by the roadside, scuttle across the highway, glancing wistfully at some new, shiny car speeding down it, leap the water in the ditch on the other side, grin at the yells from the see-saws of “Hello, SCHOOL teach-er!” as I crossed the playground, and emerge, breathless from the climb of three flights of stairs, in the office on the top floor of the ramshackle grade building to “sign in”.
Lingering there with some of the other teachers on like mission, we would discuss how pretty Miss Evans’ collar looked this morning, or how funny Mr. Frederick looked yesterday chasing those boys out of the gym, or pick up the latest bit of gossip from one of the truck drivers, until the sleek, oily approach of the principal would scatter us to our various posts and duties like tumbleweed before an approaching storm.
At nine o’clock, after checking off the last tardy from the seventh grade roll, I began the day in earnest. In their various turns, I taught the sixth, seventh and eighth grades reading; I taught them English, realizing that in spite of my arduous training, to their young minds it would still be, “The school bus ain’t came in yet”; I taught them art, training scrubby fingers to become the future Rembrandts of Oklahoma; I trained them in programs and plays for assembly hours; I trudged across the cow pastures, (neatly dodging the old sow and her family of five little pigs), to the high school, where I introduced Longfellow, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, and various men of letters to a grinning American literature class; and at three-fifteen came the mecca of each day,– my public speaking class. It was here that I unleashed the talents in which I had been trained. It was here that I taught shy, awkward boys and girls to stand up straight and face their fellowmen with poise and dignity. It was here, aided by twenty-six interested students, the cares and troubles of the day rolled lightly from my shoulders and I gained fresh hope and courage for the coming problems.
Save for a slight recess at noon, when, with the other teachers, I hurried up the path to eat “Auntie” Brown’s boiled meat and greasy salad, which that good old soul, in a faded wrapper and flapping, men’s bedroom slippers, her grizzly gray hair sticking out on each side of her face coquettishly, served to us, thus ran my day from eight-thirty until four.
But the day did not end there. The teachers were expected to attend all church revivals, the town’s main form of amusement, all box suppers, all “rassling” matches and basketball games, the high school’s athletic outlets, and always be on hand to help with a Sunday school party or any other form of frivolity in which they indulged.
Of course, we had our fun. There were our countless domino games on rainy afternoons; there was the joy of going to the post office for mail, the walks to the river bridge to hold “spitting” contests from the rickety railing, the rides in the hearse with the village undertaker, the climbs to the water tower to “see what we could see”; there were the long afternoons another teacher and I lay on our beds and spun yarns which made Baron Munchhausen hide his head in shame; there were the baseball games with the neighbor’s children in the cow pasture, the wiener roasts, the picnics,– it was fun.
And for this, I received each month as payment a warrant, marked carefully “Funds Not Available”, for seventy-five dollars. I am still holding two of those warrants. In the spring, when the school doors closed for the last time, we had not received any pay for the past three months, and I scarcely had enough to buy a bus ticket to my home city, eleven miles away.
For this, I was educated. For this, I spent long hours in grammar and high schools and followed an elaborate, specialized course in college. For this, I spun dreams and molded my steps toward a career during adolescent years.
And yet, somehow, as I turned my back for the last time on the pigs, the red bluffs, the water tower, the wide main street, the cow pastures, the ramshackle school buildings, there was no feeling of regret in my heart.
For I had, as payment, the memory of the expression on cotton pickers’ ragged little children’s faces hearing for the first time the wonder and glamour of an Arabian Night’s Tale, or changing with Cinderella from rags into riches, or following an enchanting Pooh Bear through his rambles in the 100 Acre Wood. I had the incredulous delight of intellectually starved youngsters doing for the first time a puppet show of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I had the cherished picture of telling to little Davie in the sixth grade the story of a man of whom he had never heard, Jesus Christ.
I had the respect and friendship of high school students,– students, many of whom rose at four in the morning to milk cows and do farm chores before coming to school,– for teaching them what little I knew of stagecraft and acting. They received the thrills of professional Thespians as, in make-up and costumes, they did, in spite of the expensive royalty, a really “good” play. I shall never forget the look of pride on their sun-tanned faces as they placed in the state contest with a one-act play and how carefully they polished the plaque they received as reward.
There were mothers’ and fathers’ words of simple, honest praise ringing in my ears,– enough to make a teacher’s heart light as the prize cake at the last church social.
We may be penniless, we may darn our stockings until they resemble patchwork quilts, we may make over last year’s clothes, we may work our tongues out for no material gain, we may be fools, — but in touching simple lives, reaching back into plain, colorless backgrounds, in shaping destinies, in serving as we do, we have our reward. That’s why, I guess, we do it.