The District School


I FIND myself sighing, now and then, for ways which most of my friends seem to regard as obsolete. In the matter of education, for instance, I have never reconciled myself to the graded school. Its facility in running through the mould fifty or seventy-five boys and girls, all of a smallness, turning them into the next room to be planed and drilled and grooved and otherwise ornamented, and taking in a fresh lot all in a breath, awes and grieves me. I am so behind the times that I believe in the district school. I once heard a learned Commissioner of Education denounce the district school. He spoke feelingly of it as an unworthy institution. He cited its methods of punishment — the boy who sits on nothing by the door, and the one who holds down a nail in the floor till his back is breaking, and the tyranny of the rod. These devices of education are, I believe, set forth in detail in The Hoosier Schoolmaster. But the district schools that I had the good fortune to attend were of so different a character that it would be almost worth the while of even a Commissioner of Education to have the memory of one stretching back into childhood days.

The lessons, as I recall them, were never very important or very onerous. But lessons formed a small part of the education of the district school. It mattered little whether they were learned. There were always stray bits of knowledge to be picked up from the big boys and girls on the back bench. When the teacher sits in front and the class in history at the rear of the room, bits of wisdom are bound to fall, in passing, on small heads between, and lodge in minds supposed to be intent on b-a ba, k-e-r ker, baker, or “I see a cat.” Every one remembers that there was nothing especially soul-filling in “baker,” or in the perennial vision of the cat. It is little better to-day when we have all varieties of cat, — some wide awake, and some fast asleep, and some playing with their tails. The cat, we can all bear testimony, fails to fill the void. But when one heard a real battle described, and listened, with one little cocked-up ear, to the details of killed and wounded, the imagination took a big leap. This was not “history in one syllable ” made easy for beginners. It was life. Never fear that a child will not learn if he has a chance to watch, unobserved, how the world wags. Try to educate him with a worsted ball, swinging it gayly before his eyes — “ tick - tack, tick - tack ” — he will follow it with shining eyes — but only till the first bit of real life comes trundling by.

The district school, like many other wise institutions, had no theories. But in practice its facilities for learning were unique. There were warm summer days when the hot sun poured in through the unshaded windows, and flies droned on the warm panes, when the whole school moved out of doors under the old apple tree. Lessons were recited from the top of a stone wall. Then there was the semi-diurnal excitement of “passing the water, ” when every one drank deep, as a matter of principle, and some dipped twice for airs. Then when the pail, by lucky chance, was empty, there was the deputation of two who bore it over to “Old Lady Scott’s ” to fill it — always with a sense of risk — she might scold. Old Lady Scott had seen generations of children come and go with that pail. She knew all the ways a bucket could be slammed. It had got on her nerves, I think. We liked to be afraid. It made the way seem longer. Then there were the long spring recesses when some one found the first dandelion, and shoes and stockings were kicked scornfully off, and the teacher stood on the old stone step, the clapper of the bell held securely in her fingers — five, ten, fifteen minutes past the hour, watching us play and loath to ring it. In the graded school, they tell me, it is only now and then that some plebeian boy dares meet the spring halfway, barefoot and shameless. How can a generation be educated that never knows the sudden sense of lightness, the tickling of soft grass on the soles of small feet, and pebbles and gravel and sand crunching under wriggling toes ?

The teacher of the district school may not have been a well of wisdom. I am inclined to believe that there were points in long division and decimals that caused her anxiety now and then. But decimals are not all of education. The district school-teacher had pretty curls and sometimes an idea under them. The district school is peculiarly friendly to ideas. An idea may be carried out at a moment’s notice, with no fear of superintendent or principal or other high chief dignitary whose business it is to see that the System rolls safely on its way.

The graded school, the idol which we have made of brass and clay, seems sometimes threatening to totter and fall, crushing its worshipers in the débris. Some of us who had long years ago a chance for life in the district school would pray “God speed the day.” But we know that we belong to a forgotten generation. The old times will never return. The man or woman who wishes it, we sadly know, must always belong to the past.