Ireland School: a Good Education for a Farm Boy
Our family farm was a mile and a half north of the Ireland School that I attended for eight years. My father and his five sisters and brothers also attended the school for their elementary education when Grandfather and Grandmother moved from Coburg, Iowa, to the farm seven and a half miles from Maryville, the county seat of Nodaway County Missouri at the beginning of the 20th century.
The origin of the school name? It could have been the name of an early settler who perhaps gave the one-acre plot to the community for a school or the name of an early teacher or a settler homesick for Ireland. There were a few Irish in the territory but greater numbers of English, Scotch-Irish, and Germans.
The Ireland School had one room and an entry vestibule with coat hooks along one wall and a counter with storage cabinets on the other wall. The vestibule served to keep the outside cold from the classroom. A pot-bellied stove sat in the southwest corner of the classroom next to the bench where the students read aloud and recited to the teacher.
The “library” was in the southeast corner of the room consisting of two bookcases with four shelves each. The “collection” consisted of a set of World Book Encyclopedias; a few books of poetry, history, geography, Richard Halliburton’s travel adventures; and a few novels by such famous authors as Zane Grey whose Western stories such as Riders of the Purple Sage taught us the treachery of the Indians and the worthlessness of the Mexicans who were too lazy to go “home” when the Americans liberated the Southwest. Except for the Encyclopedias and Zane Grey, the students rarely referred to the collection. During my fifth grade I read in my spare time (I had a lot) all the Encyclopedias. I’d read the Halliburton and Zane Grey books at home.
The Encyclopedia entry on Greek history so captivated my imagination that I decided to write my own version of it. Except for an article on Greece in the National Geographic and an Ancient European history book I found in my home library, I lacked collateral research sources, limiting my treatise to about a fifteen or twenty pages. I was able to liven the history and give Zeus and the other gods and goddesses more space. I also tried to teach myself the Greek alphabet to use as a code language but was unsuccessful in recruiting any fellow students or my aunts, brother, or parents for the project.
Growing up on the farm, I socialized with my two girl cousins and adult family members and neighbors. No children lived within four or five miles from me. The Great Depression was in full force; in our community birth rates were low. On the adjoining farms the few young people were high school age or young adults. My parents and grandfather didn’t attend church so my first day at school was the beginning of my socializing with contemporaries other than the cousins. I was content to talk with the teacher and read my books and saw little need to interact with classmates. During the first month of school I adjusted to having my new contemporaries around, and learned to socialize and join in the games we played during our recess and lunch breaks.
The teacher’s desk was at the front of the room. During these eight years I had four teachers. The first three were single women, eighteen to twenty years old who had a year, or at least a summer session, of training at the local teachers college. One teacher lived with us for the school year, my father being the president of the school board. My last teacher, a neighbor’s wife, lived next to the school and her two daughters were my classmates. Eight years later, I appreciated her coming to my college graduation to hear me give the valedictorian speech.
The number of students varied between eight and a dozen. Sometimes there would be no students in a grade. The teachers did all the work. Besides teaching, they started the fire in the stove during the winter, carried in the wood for the fire, and cleaned the building. Sometimes, if they were single and cute, the older male students would volunteer to help with their chores.
An upright piano was in the northwest corner of the room, always out of tune. Playing the piano was a requisite for teaching in a rural one-room school. Each day after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance we sang two or three hymns and patriotic songs. We used the blackboard at the front of the room behind the teacher’s desk for spelling and “ciphering” (arithmetic) contests.
Several times a year parents and other members of the community gathered at the schoolhouse for a potluck supper and program presented by the students. We gave dramatic readings such as speeches by famous people and orations from Shakespeare mercifully truncated to fit the attention span of the audience. We performed plays and recited rhymed poetry (it wasn’t a poem if it didn’t rhyme). Until I went to high school I assumed Shakespeare was only three or four generations older than I and was from somewhere in the South because he wrote in “hillbilly,” a quaint, Appalachian-like dialect some of my neighbors and relatives still spoke. The parents masked their boredom, admired their child’s contribution to the entertainment, and applauded vigorously, particularly the last number.
During my first year in school I suffered a great disappointment in my budding entertainment career as a performer in these programs. After school the children walked or rode their bicycles home from school. This daily journey provided opportunities for the older children to haze and tease the younger and play tricks on each other.
I was excited about the Minstrel Play we were performing at the parent’s night program. We would wear “black face” and dress in the costumes Negroes (the polite name we used when referring to African-Americans) wore based on the movies we’d seen. We’d practiced diligently the dialogue used by blacks in these movies. Of course none of us had ever seen a black person or heard one speak other than in the movies. Only one African American lived in our town and she was the upstairs maid for the wealthiest family. We weren’t in her employer’s social circle.
Walking home from school on the afternoon of the performance, my classmates and I discovered a short distance from my driveway a road kill squirrel.
The pack leader said: “Frankie, look, a squirrel that’s just been run over! Squirrels are great eating. We eat them all the time at my house. You should take it home to your mother.”
Now, I was perfectly aware that squirrel had never appeared on our table. Although I was generally bored by the cuisine at home, fried, roasted or baked squirrel (how does one cook squirrel?) wasn’t enticing. But, to appear respectful of the Alpha dog in our pack and because my mind was on the coming performance, I replied:
“Oh, I will.”
Bending down, I seized the defunct squirrel by the tail and dragged it toward home. I was so intent on the mission that I failed to notice the pack’s suppressed giggling.
As I walked across the yard to the house, I was so involved with looking at the squirrel trailing behind me that I failed to notice the tree stump in my path. I tripped and fell on the sharp edge of the stump cutting a gash at the bottom of my chin. The blood flowed. My father, who had just come out of the house, observed me crossing the yard, looking back rather than where I was walking, and rushed over.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Why are you dragging that dead squirrel? For God’s sake, let go of it, and get over here so I can see your chin!”
“That’s going to take some stitches,” he said. “Let’s go see Dr. Bloomer.”
With my mother holding a frayed towel under my chin to keep the blood off the car seat, we drove to the doctor’s office. Within forty-five minutes of the event Dr. Bloomer was putting three stitches in my chin and a bandage on my face.
As he finished sewing, I asked, “Doctor, I’m going to be in a play at school tonight.”
“That’ll be fine,” he said. “Not a problem.”
Fearing that I knew the answer, I continued quickly, “We’ll be wearing ‘black face.’ It’s a Minstrel show.”
“No black face for you, young man, absolutely not. The cream could get into the cut. You might have an infection.”
That night I was the only white face in the Minstrel show. Explaining how I’d injured my chin took some imaginative explanations.
One spring evening, the Superintendent of the Nodaway County education system came to our potluck supper to talk about changes in the laws and practices affecting our schools. The speech was long and well beyond our attention spans.
One father, deprived of a cigarette for the past thirty minutes slipped out to the vestibule for a smoke. Shortly after, another joined him.
In the vestibule the first father ask: “Is he done finished yet?”
“He sure is, but he don’t know it,” said the second father.
The speech soon ended and we had supper.