It Started With an R – and Then There were Three!

It started one morning while I was waking up slowly, groggily. Ruminations about my blog rumbled around in my brain, (i.e. no writing recently, even though the left sidebar claims there’s “writing, picture-making, ruminating” going on here). Ruminating, mostly. Murmurs of R— ruminating, writing, ruminating, writing— kept rippling along my stream of (semi-) consciousness, until this sloshed in:

“Reading and ‘riting and ‘rithmetic,
taught to the tune of the hick’ry stick.”

Well, there’s nothing worse than having old ditties rolling around endlessly in your head while you’re not quite awake. I got up, annoyed I couldn’t remember where this rhyme came from. Coffee on, and
Wikipedia to the rescue! Of course — the song School Days.

Public domain & Creative Commons, Wikipedia

School Days – song sheet cover, 1907.

Hmmm, it was from 1907, well before my time, yet this rhyme segment was still often quoted/sung in our ‘60s rural culture!

Wikipedia even gives a cylinder recording of the song, Edison Gold Moulded, 1907. Related articles about “the three Rs” reveal where that expression actually came from. But I won’t spoil it for you— check it out later.

The song cylinder churning like a time machine suddenly spun me back to the well-seasoned yellow-brick one-room schoolhouse I attended from grade four to grade seven, just before they closed all these country schools more than half a century ago.

My parents had bought a small farm, and took us city kids into a new world full of big sky, clover fields to run across, cedar woods, river flats, a shallow river to stick your feet in on a hot day, a huge garden to help plant, water, weed, harvest, and a little country school to attend after a two-mile walk.

The first day of school! Filing in behind new friends up several cement steps onto a bare porch and through the single front door, I found myself in a horizontal hallway with two doors to the classroom. In the middle of this hallway, a rope dangled down from a hole in the ceiling. Soon, I too got a turn to pull hard on that rope to ring the heavy bell mounted in the belfry, announcing the start of school, and later, the end of recess.

The olden-days classroom soon became familiar. Its wooden desks and fold-up seats were connected by sturdy, decorative wrought iron supports screwed into the dark hardwood floor, in eight rows, similar to these pictured:

Old Wooden School Desks

Old Wooden School Desks

Each row usually accommodated one grade, depending on the demographic of the local country kids in a given year. Over the years, you progressed from grade one in the far left row to grade eight on the far right, before you left to attend high school or work on a farm.

On warm sunny days, the three tall, round-arched windows on each side wall could be opened, and the sweet fragrance of fresh hay and clover wafted in. Birds chirped outside, bees buzzed, and sometimes an old tractor rumbled down the road— pleasant distractions from reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. The soft but urgent scratching of chalk on the large blackboards lining the front wall quickly brought you back to the task at hand.

There was a piano, a bookcase with well-worn books, and a large empty space at the back where a coal stove used to be, before modern oil heating was installed. Local parents were just finishing a small addition at the back of the school, accommodating coat hooks and two little rooms with modern plumbing! The old version of “plumbing” was removed from the ends of the front hallway, and that space aired out and turned into cupboards for school supplies.

What about the “tune of the hick’ry stick”? Thankfully, there were no hick’ry sticks anymore. However, the possibility of “getting the strap” squelched most temptations to misbehave or whisper in class. You got around the talking by silently, secretly, passing little scrawled notes to one another… Oh, if only we had been able to text back then!

After my grade seven, the school was closed, and the building sold as a residence. The local newspaper featured a picture of the bell on the ground, a few of us kids beside it. It had never looked that big!

Hmm, I see I’m practising the three Rs of the ‘60s (er, this time I mean age, not the decade!). People are on holidays, not thinking about school, but I’m just ruminating, reminiscing, and finally ‘riting…

Does this bring back memories for anyone else out there? Please share them in the comments!


Enjoy the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_Days_(1907_song)

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9 thoughts on “It Started With an R – and Then There were Three!

  1. It sounds idyllic! I wonder about the poor teacher who had to teach all those grade levels. How did that work? I once taught a summer class for all ages and it was a nightmare.

    Well, I’m 33, but just in that age group that missed out on texting in high school. I don’t believe anyone had cell phones back then. In fact, in college I studied abroad in France for a semester and was surprised to find everyone texting each other. I still didn’t have a cell phone, but they explained to me that it was a lot cheaper in France to do that than to make a call and that was the only reason they did it. They found it annoying, but economical. Boy things have changed.

    In HS, I passed notes to a buddy of mine who had the same class, only later in the day. I’d write a letter, stuff it in a certain drawer, and he’d find it when he arrived. No one caught on to our shenanigans. In any case, we used code names and words just in case.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Tina! I really like your story about the secret letter with codes and secret drawer – sounds exciting, and um. maybe romantic…?? Something that could appear in one of your fiction stories?
      I don’t think one could teach all those grade levels in the same way these days! When you came into school in the morning, and again after recess and lunch, the front blackboards had instructions for each grade for reading and “seat work” (written exercise). Once class began, everyone got working on their assignment. The teacher taught the new lesson to one grade, then moved on the the next. You learned more easily with review built in as you heard everyone’s lessons year after year. Since there was no talking allowed (unless called upon or given permission), there were seldom disruptions. (So you really could hear the bees buzzing and the chalk scratching!) Of course, there were horror stories of schools being out of control and teachers going crazy. I guess our teacher and school (and we kids) must have been exemplary – and/or my memory somewhat selective! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so precious. Actually, the founder of our Classical homeschool program discovered after much research that the one-room schoolhouse produced more literate and disciplined students (in everything from fine motor to mental) than schools today. She based her work on the principles and practices from those days – big on rote, repetition, imitation. It’s a beautiful model. We love it.

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  3. Pingback: After R comes W: What Came Out of the Woodwork! | Chez Hildegard

    • Thanks very much, Carol. I’m glad you liked it! We were indeed very blessed with some amazing teachers who knew how to imbue the daily teaching of knowledge with enthusiasm and love for the children and the subject matter, with wisdom, and model of character and self-discipline. Not to mention that teachers generally had wonderful support and cooperation of parents. I think it’s these things that make education a worthwhile venture. Even the 1-room country school system could fail if these qualities were not there. When we look at elementary schools today (and deplore much of what we see) I think it’s important to ensure teachers are well trained in all these aspects, then mightily supported by the community so they don’t burn out. There are indeed many such amazing teachers out there today as well. When we see one, we should at least thank him or her! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • These are such important observations about the necessary ingredients for high quality education. Teachers these days face many challenges, and as you point out, there are many who overcome obstacles to enrich the lives of children. We should thank them (and give them support and decent salaries)!

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        • Thanks for your comments, Carol! Yes, and I wanted to add: I don’t want to idealize the past (it certainly wasn’t perfect!), but there were often universal qualities upheld then that should be encouraged in any time or place. I acknowledge that in today’s world there are many societal challenges that didn’t exist in my time and place, and there are some very bad administrative decisions being made in school systems today that make teaching more difficult than necessary. Well, I guess it boils down to that as individuals, we need to do the best we can in our own spheres to make our world better and more beautiful. Time now to go outside and gulp in some nature! 🙂

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