I see myself as one of the lucky ones.
I spent my first seven grades in a one room school planted in an acre of long grass about two miles away, along a bumpy gravel road, from my home. Old USS #14, as the school was called, was outside Sarnia.
USS # 14 was constructed of weathered brown boards, complete with rough-paned windows that pushed up, and generally stuck part way. (Great in the summer, a bit of a curse in February!). The whole school was one big open room, with storage cupboards at the front, and a scuffed blackboard.
In keeping with most country schools of a certain age, #14 was equipped with two really basic chemical toilets off the cloak rooms (peek holes optional!). The wooden pump in the yard provided the only running water. And a cantankerous brown stove dominated the centre of the room. It wasn’t pot-bellied: just overweight.
This beast sent heat about three feet in all directions. If you were in the far classroom corner, well, let’s just call the experience fortitude-building. Sit too close, however, and your wet winter clothes might steam up and scald you. Ask my sister.
USS#14 was actually built by the area farm families. My great-grandfather worked on it. My grandfather and my father attended it. Schooling was tied directly to seasons in the farming year, and some of the grade eight boys were a rather strapping 16+.
School often closed for harvest and planting, and once, for three days, according to the old ledgers in the open loft, for “helping the police.” (I don’t even want to guess.)
When I started, there were three of us in grade one. Total school population was 13.
Mr. Eyre was my first teacher. He was Old School and sometimes wielded a mean strap. (Not me, of course!) After him came the years of the wondrous Mrs. Kennedy, late of Ireland, who breathed life into learning and joy into words and numbers and ideas. Last, we had the very young Mr. Burr, just for one year. By then there were 42 of us scattered in the eight grades. The older kids generally helped to teach the younger ones.
School seemed quite an adventure.
On hot spring days, we simply picked up our battered wooden desks (which still had holes cut into them to accommodate ink wells) and carried them outside. Story hour under those big old trees in the backyard was magical. Even arithmetic was better in the shade.
The lunch bell – it really was a big old hand bell – almost always signalled a mad rush to reach the back acre where we had a rough ball diamond. He or she who ran fastest got to claim the choice ball positions: 1st, 2nd, 3rd batters, pitcher, catcher and infield.
Finding yourself stuck as 11th fielder unfortunately meant that, unless everyone else was swinging like a rusty gate, the best you could hope to achieve by the end of lunch was maybe short stop.
We ran anyway.
In winter, we brought our skates with us and the whole school would hike across a couple of fields to a pond for an afternoon of skating, despite the plow ruts roughening the ice.
Pet Day saw ponies tethered in the yard amongst our bikes, and a large assortment of dogs racing around the building who livened things up considerably by taking an instant dislike to each other. There might even be a couple of baby raccoons, and a few hissing cats wondering around.
On Hallowe’en, decked out in our costumes, all the students walked a quarter mile down the road to Mr. Brander’s house. Mr. Brander had been struck down by polio years earlier, but he somehow managed to make it to his porch for that one day every October, when he would admire our outfits and hand out our prize ribbons.
Everybody in the community used to crowd into USS #14 for Field Days, the Christmas concerts, for public speaking and every other kind of holiday celebration. There was a lot of singing, a lot of laughter, a lot of food served up in that old school.
When I was ready to start grade eight, USS #14 was closed for good.
We now rode a bus an hour or more each way to attend a brand new, modern town school. There were proper, factory designed desks in rows in separate classrooms, with proper green chalkboards at the front. There was fluorescent lighting in the building and windows that actually slid open and closed. The washrooms all had private cubicles and running water. Hundreds of students, collected from miles away all over the countryside, were bussed daily to and from this progressive new building.
I was at that school for grade eight.
It’s kind of funny.
I don’t remember anything at all about it.