Volume 18, Number 102, April/May 2015 Dear Old Golden Rule Days by Norma West Linder
The summer I was seventeen, I had in my purse a signed contract to take charge of a oneroom school in Muskoka Falls in September. On the strength of this, I felt sufficiently mature to go with my husband-to-be along with my older sister and her boyfriend into the Albion Hotel in Gravenhurst, Ontario for a cold beer.
The waiter stared at me. “I’m a teacher,” I announced, waving my contract under his nose.
“You’re also under age. I know your family. Leave! Right now.”
In the summer of 2013, James Deahl and I were driving through Gravenhurst. I was disappointed to see the old Albion closed - up for sale. I’d hoped finally to go into its beverage room and quaff that long delayed ale.
Unlike today, there was a desperate shortage of teachers after World War Two. I needed only a crash course for a few weeks that summer after finishing Grade 13 to become qualified. I couldn’t wait to be on the paying side of the front desk. The annual salary of twelve hundred dollars was fine with me.
That school year I boarded with Walter and Myrtle Sefton. They had two sons, Hughie and Terry, both well-behaved boys. After a short time they took to calling me by my first name at home, but they never forgot to say “Miss West” at school. I have a hunch Mrs. Sefton had secretly always wanted a daughter, because she treated me like one. I smoked in those days - Camels, sent by my fiance John Henry who was making a living teaching drums at Drummers’ Paradise in Toronto and playing the odd gig. Mrs. Sefton soon caught on to my vice, even though 1 was blowing the evidence out the bathroom window. She invited me to have my cigarette in the kitchen downstairs after she and her husband and I enjoyed a hearty bedtime snack. She even took to joining me but never inhaled and thus was never hooked on the bad habit.
One-room schools have gone the way of the dodo, but S.S. Number Five remains intact in my memory - a small red brick building surrounded by maple trees with a softball diamond guarded by a much-reinforced flagpole. A bell in the little belfry on the roof awaited the nine-o’ clock tug on a rope inside as I took from my bag the enormous steel key I’d been given. Up ahead of the pot-bellied stove, thirty silent desks awaited their occupants. The smell of old chalk dust and oiled floors permeated the air.
After all this time, 1 still recall that group of children ranging from kindergarten to Grade 8. Ronnie, who asked to ring the bell that first morning, was right out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. The girls all wore dresses then, and the boys had short hair. One of my most vivid
recollections was the advent of Mervyn. His mother brought him, like Shakespeare’s scholar, unwillingly to school. She couldn’t have caught me at a worse time. One of the older girls had given me, as a special treat for lunch, a large roasted turkey leg. I was busily polishing off the last of it when she arrived. “I would like to see Miss West,” she demanded, nose averted from my greasy countenance, “the teacher.”
Grabbing a tissue, I replied, “I am she,” in my best schoolmarm voice. I hoped to impress her with my correct grammatical useage.
After several moments to absorb the shock, she went on. “My husband has been transferred to the hydro plant here. Mervyn is in Grade Five. This is his transfer from Toronto.” She disengaged her hand from his and left.
While the rest of the students stared at the stocky black-haired stranger in their midst, I found an empty desk for the newcomer. “Sit here, Mervyn,” I said. “Don’t be shy,” I added as he hung back.
He turned out to be anything but shy. For one thing, he used language that would have made a dockworker blush. For another, his inborn gift for leadership led his followers into all kinds of deviltry. My leather strap, symbol of authority in those days, disappeared in short order. Not that I would ever have used it on any of those small hands. The day Mervyn asked if he could have the Jack-olantern after our Halloween party I felt a ray of hope that he might be reforming. He probably wanted to take it home to his little brother.
Four o’clock came and he took it all right. The minute he thought he was out of sight he pitched it at one of the girls. Fortunately only her dignity was injured. I picked orange shreds from her long blond hair and promised her attacker would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of my law.
My law. That’s the way it was in that school. Enough to make any teenager drunk with power. I called the shots. True, we had rare visits from an elderly school inspector, but he left me alone except for a couple of visits.
Children who stayed at school all day were given hot lunch at noon. All I had to do was open cans and heat up soup on the little pot-bellied stove that kept our room cozy. When one of the boys complained in graphic terms about my culinary expertise, my honour was defended outdoors at recess by one of the younger students. My heart wasn’t really in it when I gave him a detention for fighting. I never made turtle soup, but I once found a tiny fossilized turtle when taking ashes out of the stove. Our pet turtle had mysteriously disappeared some months earlier.
Certain happenings of that nature were never solved. I never found the culprit who regularly deposited his cod liver oil capsule on the floor instead of down his throat. The capsules were government supplied and, though I preached eloquently on the benefits they provided and the sin of waste, golden vials continued to show up between the cracks of the floorboards.
One of the boys misbehaved so frequently I was forced to expel him for a week. He adamantly refused to leave. What do I do now? I asked myself. Archie was a fair-sized boy. I couldn’t very well carry him out.
Next morning I came up with an idea. Reading roll-call, I omitted his name. He stared at me, but I ignored him, pretending I didn’t see his outstretched hand when I walked down the aisle collecting Grade Seven note books. It was hard to do, but it was effective. On the third day he stayed after classes to talk to me, and we reached an understanding.
I found out later Archie’s fear of his father had kept him glued to his seat. I felt sad - and mean. But every day brought with it some laughter. When an angelic, curly-headed Grade One boy was reading a poem aloud, one about having a little dickey bird, he got stuck and stopped before the word “bird”. The ensuing laughter that followed had me staring out the window until I’d regained my own composure.
Everyone in the room was quietly working away the morning Mervyn dropped his eraser and leaned too far out to retrieve it. Perhaps he’d been used to immovable desks in the city. In any case, boy and desk went crashing to the floor, accompanied by Mervyn’s ear-splitting shriek of “Timber!”
We managed to hold back our laughter until it was clear that Mervyn was unhurt.
They gave me an unforgettable year, those long-ago students of S.S. Number Five. They gave me crayoned red hearts in February, metallic green hair bows at Christmas, and gift-wrapped household items when I left in June to be married. And they gave me gifts I didn’t understand the nature of until years later. How much of life does one understand at eighteen? I thought of the elderly man maudlin who had tears coursing down his cheeks at our Christmas concert when one of the children sang, “Away in a Manger.” I understood his reaction the first time I saw one of my own children on stage. And now I’m in danger of tears whenever I see any child perform.
A microcosmic world, that out-ofdate, one-room schoolhouse. In that melange of ages, backgrounds, and personalities, young people learned far more than the traditional three Rs. Those in the early grades learned about life from close and constant proximity to older students. The older ones learned to be protective and helpful with the younger ones. We had no bullying problems. Gifted pupils could tune into what was appening in two or three classes ahead of them. I had a mathematical wizard in Grade Eight who made it hard for me to keep one jump ahead of him.
Granted, handling eight grades plus kindergarten was hard work, like trying to catch everything in a threering circus. Still, I’m glad I had the benefit of being educated in a village school, and I’m doubly glad I had the experience of teaching in one, in what now seems to me an age of innocence.