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Willa Cather

American Writer

1873-1947


A PERSONAL SKETCH OF THE PRAIRIE SCHOOL HOUSE

Narrated by Celeste Lawson

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The prairie schoolhouse was there before the buffalo had gone. In its first form it was made from the prairie, built of tough layers of the original sod that had never been pierced by a plow-share. The pioneers did not wait until they were making a living to begin to think about schools. In Kansas and Nebraska almost every community had a "frame" schoolhouse, while the settlers themselves were still living in sod houses and dugouts. Before there were any churches the building that was a schoolhouse all week became a church on Sunday and the congregation sat on the low seats behind the inkwells. The schoolhouses were used for political meetings and voting places, for funerals and Sunday school entertainments. They were the centers of community life from the time there was any community life at all.

Teaching was not a profession then; it was a kind of missionary work, a solemn duty, like caring for the sick. In every district there was sure to be at least one farmer's wife who had taught before her marriage, and she was called upon to take charge of the school for the short winter and spring terms. If she had young children she bundled them into the lumber wagon and took them to school with her every day. The teachers were not always women; sometimes a homesteader taught during the winter months when there was not much to be done on his land. I remember one farmer schoolmaster who used to get up early in the morning, drive about the neighborhood collecting his pupils in his wagon and haul them to the schoolhouse. If the weather was bad he took them home again at night. He was then a mature-looking man, with a bushy beard, and he had children of his own. He used to tell his "scholars" that the thing he had most wanted was a college education, and that he had not yet given up hope of getting it. As his family grew he stopped teaching and devoted himself to his land. Twenty years went by. He developed two farms, brought up his children and married them off. Then he amazed his neighbors by quietly going away to study at a college in a distant State. A farmer cannot do so unusual a thing as that without causing a wagging of heads in a country community, and it was surprising, even to the summer visitor, who asked about the health of an old settler, to be told that he was "away at college." It takes courage, of course, to do what one wants to in this world, and the smaller the community the harder it is to defy public opinion. But our old neighbor did just that. He went to college, and stayed until he got his degree.

The country schoolhouses were lonely looking buildings, nearly always rectangular, three windows on each side, with a little entry-hall and a door at one end. They sat out on the bare prairie, without a bush or tree or fence. A gray spot, where the grass was worn short, indicated the playground. There was no bell, but every morning at the same hour the children came hurrying on foot or creeping along three-deep on a horse that was too old to work; and in the afternoon they ran away, flashing their empty dinner pails in the sun. They were rather reserved children, bashful and uncommunicative even with each other, too frightened to make a sound when the county superintendent came to inspect their school. They saw very few strangers, and the farms were too far apart for children to visit each other often. The very little ones were so shy that their first days at school were a dreaded ordeal and sometimes they cried bitterly. Their clothes were much clumsier than those that country children wear today. The girls wore severe gingham aprons, buttoned up the back, and sunbonnets, and the boys usually had to appear in their father's clothes, cut down by a mother who was too busy to become an expert tailoress. The boys grew more lively and seemed more at ease when warm weather came and they could run free in two garments, a shirt and blue overalls. Summer brought lazy, pleasant days in the schoolroom and interesting distractions for the noon hour, such as drowning out gophers and bullsnakes, and discussing what was the best thing to do if a rattler bit you.

The children were always trying to find wild flowers that would puzzle the teacher. That was not hard to do, for the old, unrevised Gray's Botany, which was the text-book then, though it was supposed to cover all the flora to the 100th meridian, touched the flowers of western Nebraska and Kansas very lightly, and the gorgeous flora of the Rocky Mountains was largely unnamed and undiscovered. We were living in a world of mysterious flowers that had never been put into books, and the best we could do was to hitch them up with some family to which they apparently belonged and invent names of our own for them.

After the days when the farmers and farmers' wives took turns keeping school, our country teachers were usually very young people, high school graduates, who were trying to make enough money to go away to college or to prepare for some profession. Perhaps they did not have all the qualifications of trained teachers, but they had an energy and enthusiasm that was very effective in stirring up country children. To my mind a teacher is never the worse for having personal ambitions; anything that gives him direction and intensity is all to the good of his pupils. In the West we have many men of affairs, doctors and lawyers, bankers and railroad officials, who spent a few of the most vigorous years of their youth teaching school. The best teachers I ever had were those who were on their way to something else. Their momentum carried us on a little way.

I remember one young teacher who used to spend the noon hour with his elbows on his desk and his head bent over a Latin book. From the arrangement of the lines on the page we knew that it was poetry. His face was sometimes very stern while he read, and be would compress his lips and fly at his lexicon in a way that made us feel that what he read must be very exciting. I used to long to know what it was about, but I never got up courage to ask him. The mere sight of that boy at his desk was worth as much as anything that can be taught in courses in pedagogy. Children can't be fooled; they know when learning is priceless to a man and when he is merely making his living out of it.

To many young men and women in those new States learning was priceless. The country was full of boys walking up and down the long corn rows on the farms, or sweeping out the grocery store in the little towns, who were night and day planning and contriving how they could go to college. Because it was so difficult then, it seemed infinitely desirable.

The case of Dr. Samuel Williston, Professor of Paleontology at the University of Chicago, who died last summer, is very typical. When he was a baby his parents left Boston and went West, traveling overland in a prairie schooner. They took up a homestead near Manhattan, Kan., on a grant of land made by President Lincoln. When Samuel was sixteen years old his father sent him to the Kansas Agricultural School. But young Williston did not want to be a farmer. He wanted to become a scholar of some kind, though he had no notion how to set about it, and he wanted to see the world. He ran away from school, joined a construction gang, and for three years worked as a railroad hand, surveying and grading the first line from Kansas down into Arkansas. While he was working in gravel beds and cutting down chalk hills full of fossils he found that he wanted to be a scientist. At nineteen he went back to the school he had left, finished his course, and afterward worked his way to Yale. During his life Dr. Williston wrote a great many scientific books of the highest importance and at his death he left a collection of flies and fossil reptiles which contained over a million specimens which had not previously been identified.

The prairie schoolhouse often started boys off on careers like this. Other countries have had their peasant scholars, but they were so rare that they became proverbial, while in our country they are so usual that they are not even commented upon.

Twenty-five years ago the Western farmers were poor; forty years ago they were poorer still. The newly founded State universities were poor, and so were the professors. There were no scholarships. The difficulties that lay between a country boy and a college education were unsurmountable except to fellows with unusual pluck and endurance.

From the book, The Education You Have to Fight for

More information about Willa Cather from Wikipedia




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