Wednesday, October 22, 2008

School Days



I'm still leafing through old Yankee Magazines. This morning with my coffee I read passages from a diary of a schoolteacher from 1912 when Miss Amy C. Jarvis was just 19 and set out from near Boston to Hancock Massachusetts to become schoolma'am.

Just before the article is a small photo essay of New England school houses. The most forlorn of all is the one shown--sorry for the poor quality of the scan. I was surprised to see the schoolhouse was in Kennebunkport, Maine, a place famous for the Bush family's summer compound along with many other opulent estates.

The legendary Yankee thrift stems in part from the difficulty making a living in New England. The winters are long and hard, the soil often poor and sandy and settlements isolated by geography.

When Miss Jarvis arrived at the Pittsfield train station she was met by a Mr. Jones, the driver of a stage. The early entries recall the journey to her lodgings with stops along the way:
So we jolted along, stopping now and then for him to deliver packages and newspapers to people along the route. He is the errand boy and takes his time visiting with each one. No doubt he told them who was his passenger was and where she was going to teach. When we started going through the hills it was nearly dark and quite cold, so he wrapped me in a pungent horse blanket which kept me warm. The houses were miles apart and no lights except those shining faintly from the windows. We met few travelers and it was very still.
Before being taken to her accommodations Mr. Jones stopped the stage at the White's homestead. Mr. White was the president of the school board and they were to take supper with the White family.
Mr. White then spoke of my new position. 'We've had awful bad luck with that school up thar. Five teachers in five years, and they ran the last one out bodily...I had to go and git her back. The kids need ploughin' under. Think ye can do it?' He looked at me skeptically, so I said timidly, 'I can try anyway.'
The "ploughin' under" bit made me laugh because I once tried my hand at teaching and the students got the better of me.

The whole article charmed me. I was impressed with Miss Jarvis's courage and the general good temper of the families she lived and worked among. Her home was near Boston and at the end of the school year did not take up a commission for the next year so she could return closer to home. The students at her schoolhouse attended until they were in ninth grade. In those days children 14 or 15 were expected to begin their working lives at that age. A few of the incidents related in her diary suggested the older boys were chomping at the bit to get on with it.

Those boys reminded me of a story book my New England grandmother sent me for Christmas when I was in third grade, The Grandma Moses Storybook. Although the book is worse for wear, I still have it as a treasured possession. Grandma Moses, Anna Mary Moses was born in 1860 and died at the ripe old age of 101 in 1961. She began painting in her seventies and became an acclaimed American folk artist. The storybook contains poems, stories and speeches which complement the prints of Moses's paintings. As a boy I was fascinated with these stories of olden times.

One of the stories is School Surprise which is excerpted from Laura Engalls Wilder's book Farmer Boy a book depicting a year in the life of Wilder's husband Almanzo's childhood.

Almanzo Wilder's boyhood school apparently suffered some of the awful time the community of Hancock was having keeping teachers.
'The Hardscrabble boys came to school today, Royal tells me.'
'Yes,' Mr. Corse said.
'I hear they're saying they'll throw you out.'
Mr. Corse said, 'I'll guess they'll be trying it.'
Father drank his tea. 'They have driven out two teachers,' he said. 'Last year they hurt Jonas Lane so bad he died of it later.'
'I know,' Mr. Corse said. 'Jonas Lane and I went to school together . He was my friend.'
Suitably for a children's book the showdown between Mr. Corse and the Hardsrabble boys turns in Mr. Corse's favor in a dramatic scene where he pulls out a blacksnake ox whip and gets the better of them. Those olden days were rough and tumble it seems and providing education a struggle.

It's easy sometimes to forget the struggle, but one is constantly reminded of it by communities in the developing world. It's a struggle that's ripe for people all over to join in.

I saw a page yesterday, the African Children's Book Project which really pulled on my heart strings. Piers Elrington, and his good friend in Ethiopia Selam Negussie undertook a project to publish an adaptation of an Ethiopian story by Jane Kurtz called Fire on the Mountain in Amharic, one of the languages broadly spoken in Ethiopia. They contracted an Ethiopian artist to do illustrations and produced a run of 5,000 copies of their book. Most of the run was distributed free to school children, most of them whom had never seen a book written in their own language before.

They want to do more books. I hope they do. But I understand well the dilemma of Piers that what to do next to make more books happen isn't so clear. Here's what he says:
What can you do to help?
At the moment not a lot, but if you are interested to help, pass the details of this blog to everyone you know, give me feed back and ideas, find me a lawyer who knows how to set up a charity who would like to give his/her time for free and keep checking this page for any new information which will be coming slowly over the next few months.
Thanks for coming and reading this far if you did,
I hope to hear from you.
Got some feedback for Piers, then don't tarry, run to his place and leave a comment.

3 comments:

blue said...

You should check out Discoverybox. They are great for Kids aged 9-12 and have a unicorn drawing competition on this month!

John Powers said...

Thanks blue! It's great to see innovative ideas in publishing for kids.

Pingting said...

FYI~ there are some broken links here, notably
the African Children's Book Project, so you might
want to check them.

: )