Fayann Stone was the founder and first president of Pioneer Sholes School Society.  Now semi-retired, she teaches part time at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville.

 

ALWAYS, AMBER

 

A Very Special One Room School Teacher

 

This is a story of my experiences in a one-room school,

Lakeside School, near Oshkosh, Wisconsin

during the late 1930's and forties

  

Fayann H. Stone

2099 Fountain Bluff Lane

Platteville, WI 53818

608-348-9393

stonef@uwplatt.edu

for the

ONE ROOM SCHOOL CONFERENCE

Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois

June 22, 2001

She was a spellbinder, and I was bound. It was Amber Morgan, my teacher at Lakeside, a one-room school, who did this to me. She influenced my attitude toward life, my career, and even some of my hobbies. Because of her, I, too, became a one-room schoolteacher in McAuley School for thirty years, and I even founded Sholes One-Room School Museum. Because of her, I am also a musician and a calligrapher. She not only taught me to become a life-long learner, she showed me, through her example, ways to imbue that ideal in my students, as well as my own children and grandchildren.

As her pupil, sitting in a row of hardwood varnished desks with smooth-worn fold up seats, I had plenty of opportunity to observe this lady. From nine-to-four every weekday, September through May, year after year, I shared my days in that country school with the most important person in it; my Teacher, as she gently wove the future patterns of my life.

She was a large woman, and her presence permeated the room. She always seemed to know what was going on around the corner in our tiny library, in the cloakrooms, even out on the playground. I know now, from experience, it was keen listening rather than visual oversight, but we were convinced she had eyes in the back of her head!

Her whole appearance was certainly unique. Her brown hair was perfectly marcelled every week into the same stiff little finger waves. The older boys joked behind her back about her 'wig'. Her body and the clothes that covered it were definitely 'matronly'. We knew she was married. Her husband worked their family farm, and they had no children.

I always thought she had huge foot, but perhaps it was just the shoes. She wore heavy, square-heel, black-and-shiny laced up oxfords. Those solid brogans could sound ominous approaching my desk when I'd been whispering across the aisle to a friend, or my lessons weren't completed. And how they could clomp an unmistakable beat to teach us the rhythm while we learned to dance or to march together!

Her legs were covered with think cotton stockings, often with rumpled revelations of long underwear underneath, just as we wore. It was the only way to stay warm during the long Wisconsin winters, sitting up in front for recitations as she did, furthest from the pot-bellied stove.

Large and heavy-set, her bosom was ample with, to me, a shocking cleavage, often accidentally accented by a gold pin, set with a cameo, or an amethyst brooch, embellishments that riveted my attention unduly. By contrast, the women in my family were small-breasted, almost bony, so her generous figure seemed awesome.

She was too nice and too tidy to be repulsive, but certain things about her were highly unusual. For example, she rasped when she moved about the classroom, indicating underpinnings of things like garters and girdles and other firm foundations. These were things my female relatives only struggled into for very special occasions. It never occurred to me that she had gotten 'dressed up' to come to school to teach us!

Her outer garment was always a silky dress of a floral or print design on a dark background. Modestly draped sleeves came nearly to her plumpish elbows in summer, to her wrists in winter. Slacks, of course, were unthinkable, even for us girls. In cold weather, we sometimes slipped them on under our skirts at recess time, but they were never worn in the classroom. Amber Morgan, with her heavy frame, dark flowered dresses and black oxfords, definitely had a 'grandmotherly' look. I was surprised to learn years later, that she was actually about my mother's age.

But Amber Morgan's face made and other little oddities insignificant. No, it was not her beauty' it was her smile; her radiant, magnanimous, contagious smile. It spread across her fact like a benediction upon us all. And she smiled a lot. She even laughed a lot. Then her warm amber-brown eyes sparkled in their depths with the pure pleasure of being with us and learning together. I often wondered if her eyes begot her name.

Looking back, I realize she probably only owned a few dresses, chosen for serviceability, just like the heavy shoes. Certainly services were demanded of the country schoolteacher. Being the only adult among thirty or more children all day long taxed her in many and unpredictable ways.

There was no telephone, so she had to handle all emergencies herself. I remember once a child fainted, and she calmly knew just what to do. We often went ice skating on a nearby pond during noon hour, and it was not uncommon for someone to fall in, getting a wet foot, or worse. She figured out a way to get the soaked child modestly behind the stove, hanging his things around him to dry. But it didn't excuse participation in class time. She'd just ask questions in a louder voice!

Since we had no well, much less running water, she sent two students to the neighboring farm for a bucket of water each morning. The older boys who had this job got little slack time from their studies, however. She knew to the minute how long it should take. In the front hall, they filled the crock, which had a bubbler at the base for drinking. No common pail and dipper for us! But if we ran out of water in the afternoon, we just went thirsty til we got home. We learned to ration ourselves on warm days. Of course, we had no electricity or indoor plumbing either. She made it clear that if possible, we were expected to take care of natural urges at recess. She originated "Plan Ahead".

It was part of her duties to manage the care of all the school materials and the premises as well. There was no custodian to clean up after a sick child or an accident. She did it, or more often, we did it ourselves. All the preparations beforehand, and any cleaning up after school, were done by her or by one of us. Through her pleasant courtesy and frequent praise, she made us realize that she really needed and appreciated our help.

Therefore, we all had chores to do, and we daren't forget or shirk them because our peers and our teacher depended on us. We had a "Busy Bees Club" that met during our lunch hour every two weeks when duties were changed, so we shared both the good and the bad. If you didn't do your work well, though, you heard about it at these meetings. Sometimes you didn't get a turn at one of the more fun chores to do, as a punishment from your peers. Our clever teacher used this meeting time to teach us "Roberts Rules of Order", protocol for conducting a business meeting. Talk about teaching to a need!

So we volunteered to be responsible for sweeping, emptying wastebaskets, erasing boards and clapping erasers, keeping toilet paper in the outhouses, filling inkwells, in short all the small maintenance jobs our teacher didn't have time to do. This formal meeting time was also our opportunity to discuss playground behaviors, lunchtime decorum, plan holiday parties, or to bring up anything else that might be on our minds. Our teacher often deflected and delayed 'differences of opinion' between pupils, suggesting they "should bring this up at the next Club meeting" for discussion. All participated, from first grade to eighth. It was our introduction to cooperative democracy.

Since there was no one else to back her up, the buck really stopped right there. But she made us want to behave and cooperate for the good of all. She reminded us often that students before us had cared for our school and the materials in it, and that we had a responsibility to those who would come after us. I've talked to many others who attended one-room schools, and they feel, as I did, that we were taught to discipline ourselves, be grateful for what we had, and be careful to preserve it for those to come. This sense of 'ownership' that encouraged responsibility was the mainstay of a small rural community school. You might call it "Longitudinal Learning". You were committed for the long haul of eight years. You all knew it. That certainly in a stable environment encouraged mutual respect and created motivation to 'learn to get along together'.

She made learning both fun and a challenge. Rarely did she answer your questions directly. Instead, she'd ask where you could find out for yourself. Or perhaps she'd make a statement and then ask you to prove or disprove it. She seemed to be trying to let you in on here secret, to discover a new way, seek a smart solution, explore different ideas. Although she maintained strict discipline, she managed to find ways to let you fly on your own. While she was busy with other classes, we were encouraged to make scrapbooks depicting the subject of our studies, or write additional composition on our research, perhaps do a page for extra credit. And, she made you think this was all your idea and she could hardly wait to see what you came up with! Although I'm sure I made errors, and got corrected, or sometimes criticized for poor effort, what I remember is frequent praise and encouragement.

A real opportunity for student success in this one-room situation was the physical fact that you sat within earshot of classes above and below yours. If you didn't learn something the first time, you always had a discreet chance to listen in a second, third, or fourth time! Conversely, when your seatwork was done, you could always challenge yourself with the more advanced work going on before your eyes.

First thing every morning, after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, we sang songs together. She taught us how to read notes, stay on pitch and harmonize. Her glossy pink fingernails on long slender fingers rolled out effortlessly flowing chords, inspiring us all to sing. Those sturdy shoes kept us all in time! How I longed to create music like that!

Then, the daily routine of the classroom began, like a steady metronome, predictable as the Regulator clock on the wall between portraits of Lincoln and Washington. We worked quietly at our desks, while each class in turn went up in front with the teacher, to recite and be instructed. The rest of us concentrated on learning our lessons, either because she wanted us to, or because we didn't know what might happen at home if we didn't. Our parents respected Mrs. Morgan, and we knew it. But mostly, she made us want to. She encouraged and praised hard work. She nodded affirmation of every attempt, with that smile. Oh, she scolded any shirking, and would keep you in from recess if she thought you weren't trying hard enough. Recess was the only social time there was for isolated farm kids, so it was a real incentive. Yet even this wasn't done in a harsh punishing way, but as "a chance to talk alone together over what was the problem." She really believed and acted on "the spoonful of sugar."

Everyday, several times a day, Mrs. Morgan would fill all the blackboards with lesson assignments, questions, and problems for the different grades to do at their seats. Her writing was almost too perfect to erase later. Her penmanship took some of the frills out of the 'Spencerian' style, yet added grace to the plain Palmer method. How I yearned to have her faultless, beautiful writing 'hand'. In my free time, I faithfully practiced penmanship into my copybook, surreptitiously copying her decorative capitals. My wooded pen, with its steel point, seemed to scratch and blot so often on the cheap lined paper. I filled up blotters and used up handkerchiefs, laboring on one letter over and over, trying to duplicate the writing I admired everyday on the blackboard. My present creative pleasure doing Illuminated Calligraphy was born at that old wooden desk, with its blackcapped refillable inkwell, from which I dipped my letters.

Mrs. Morgan filled our little isolated school with other beauty, too, introducing us to the world of classical music and art, through "The Wisconsin School of the Air". These were radio classes, broadcast from the University at Madison, offering culture in the Humanities to all the isolated rural schoolchildren in the state. We rarely forgot the "Let's Draw" program on Tuesday. We not only learned the rudiments of color and perspective, but also studied and tried to reproduce, with our limited crayons, the old masters of Millet, Rembrandt, or Renoir. The class sparked my lifelong love affair with art, and my enjoyment to this day, 60 years later, of creating with watercolors.

On Wednesdays, Professor Gordon's "Music School of the Air" inspired us to greater heights with 'Finiculi, Finicula', 'Stout Hearted Men', or 'The Open Road'. It was fun to sing along with a real chorus. We sure sounded good together! Those broadcasts were a window to the world, opened, Pandora-like, by the magic of radio, enlarging our views beyond the classroom forever.

This master teacher had one gift that endeared her to me above all; her vast knowledge of poetry. Classes up in the front of the room might drone on predictably for hours, even days, when something would remind her of an appropriate poem, and suddenly, she'd start reciting; "Little Orphan Annie", or "Hiawatha", or parts of "Snowbound" or "Evangeline". All activity in the room ceased, studies stopped, pencils hovered mid sentence. On and on she'd declaim, from memory, with such rich expression and deep emotion, Longfellow himself would have wept upon hearing her masterful interpretation.

For us, the room melted away as we canoed with the Indians in Gitche Gumee, sympathized with the poor little hired girl who told scary stories, or cried over a lost lover, dying in a far away hospital. Her voice literally filled that little classroom, and all of us in it, with such deep poetic emotions, we were pulled by out eager ears into the realms of classic Romanticism.

Yes, Amber, as I've come to think of her because I know her as a friend and mentor when I became an adult and a teacher in training. Amber was truly a spellbinder, and I am still bound. I have spent a lifetime, and a whole career, trying to do what she did; make sense out of phonics and give the gift of reading and writing. I love that look on a child's face when he realizes those funny marks in a book have meaning. He's cracked the code!

I, too, have tried to illuminate my student's world with beauty through frequent nature walks, seeking and naming the birds and animals, hunting wild asparagus and elderberries to learn of nature's bounty. We always picked the wild grapes in September, then had several math lessons while making a large recipe of jelly for our parents at Christmas. WE took in special art shows at the Art Institute in Chicago, too, and visited other of the great museums there. Because my pupils had little exposure to classical music, we had a noon-hour listening program every day while we ate in silence. Their reward was a ten minute longer lunch recess, and a trip to a local orchestra children's recital. Mine was lunch in peace, and the littlest ones had enough time to eat. Right after noon break, we always had a fifteen-minute rest-your-head-on-your-desk, while I read a book, sort of a chapter-a-day, or like Amber, a dramatic poem. Some former students recall this as their most inspirational part of the day.

A favorite part of our Social Studies program was to cook and eat foods of the countries we studied. Food, I found, really reflects the unique environment of every culture, and is a concrete learning tool. Once we had a "Breakfast around the World" for parents, and all were astounded at the variety of foods other children ate for breakfast! Of course, I included a nutritional plug for a good breakfast every day, too.

In these ways, and many, many more, I have tried to pass on a desire to become bigger than we are, better than we know, go farther than we dream. All because this was Amber Morgan's gift to me in that little one room schoolhouse.

 

By Fay Stone

May 2001