A few days back I was visiting with a young lady behind the desk in the Nevada Public Library about summer being almost gone. She lamented that she had only two weeks before going back to school. That got me thinking about my own school days, especially the beginnings in 1952, and how they differed from the experiences of our kids and grandkids.
After being in the U.S. for only a few months, I started school in a one-room country schoolhouse near Haysprings, Neb. Actually, the schoolhouse had two rooms and was of sturdy brick construction, but by the time I entered first grade, the population of Banner Public School District had declined so only one classroom was needed. The other room was used for storage and sometimes special activities. During my two years at Banner School, there were about 25 students, which included grades one through eight. The incoming first-grade class that year was a fairly large cohort—there were eight of us. Amazingly, the school survived until 2007, with only five students total the final year.
When I entered, Banner School retained some of the primitive features from when it was first built in this farming/ranching community. There were no inside facilities or inside water. Outhouses were in the back corner of the large property, and out front was a windmill and a hand pump for water. Playground equipment included a merry-go-round, teeter-totters and swings. A unique feature of the school, reflecting the culture of the community, was the barn in the back of the schoolyard. Students all lived several miles away and rode horses to school. After arriving at the school, the horses were tied up in the barn for the day.
The first few weeks were, for me, somewhat anxious. I had never ridden a horse before and I spoke almost no English. My ride to and from school was five miles each way. The rancher for whom Dad worked provided the horse, Rosie, a docile older little Shetland pony. She was almost impossible to bring to a gallop, and that was just fine with me. The rancher also had a younger, more spirited horse that Dad wanted me to ride, but I was never able to control him.
Riding to school was mostly enjoyable and even fun in nice weather, because I rode with other students part way. And what better activity could there be for an aspiring cowboy than riding a horse? When the weather turned cold, Mom just bundled me up and sent me off. I remember only two mishaps on the ride. While riding I often daydreamed, especially going home in the afternoon when time was not pressing. Rosie also probably daydreamed as we loped along. One afternoon she apparently did not notice the remains of a tire lying in the road until she was directly upon it. Startled, Rosie stopped dead in her tracks and maybe reared back a little. I went flying off head first. I received a few scratches and bruises, but I was OK. Another time I decided to get off and walk a stretch. I did not hold on to the reins as Rosie walked along beside me, just a bit faster. When she was about ten feet ahead of me I became alarmed and yelled at her. That was when I learned that Rosie could still gallop. I walked the last two miles!
English was initially a problem, but with the small class and assistance from student teachers, the teacher was able to provide the needed personal attention. Also, older students often helped with the activities of the younger students, so I picked up English quickly enough. Although there were some embarrassing times when something I said or the way I said it caused considerable laughter among the other students, I was never deliberately embarrassed or ridiculed for my English language difficulties.
During recess we played the same games the kids almost everywhere play, and make-believe games such as cowboys (there were no restrictions on bringing toy guns to school). During the longer lunch breaks, the teacher often organized group activities in which all students participated, and I learned to play baseball and "Red Rover." Halloween and St. Valentine’s Day were both celebrations unknown to me. For Halloween the older students set up a haunted house for the younger students in the store room. As schools do today, our teacher organized musical performances and plays that students performed in the evening for their parents. We did not have a car that first year, so Dad borrowed one of the rancher’s John Deere tractors to take me to school on what turned out to be a rainy night. I sat behind him to keep from becoming mud-spattered from the tractor wheels. Dad was quite a sight covered with mud, including his face.
When I tell my kids about the primitive features of the school and the five-mile ride regardless of the weather, they always add "…and it was uphill both ways!" So it felt some days, but starting in a small country school was ideal for a youth having to learn a new language and understand the nuances of a new culture. I look back with nostalgia, and, dare I say, the experience was priceless?!
(Pete Korsching is a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal. He lives in Nevada.)