Most teachers and students are already back in school. Veritas Academy starts a bit later, so school begins for me on Monday morning. This must be the beginning of about the 37th year for me. I see friends and former colleagues retiring, but I have kids still living at home or in college and only enough retirement to get me through one year in a third world country. Besides, if I retired and could do anything I wanted, I would be reading, writing, and talking to people about reading and writing.
Speaking about reading and now that I am writing, I have had occasion to think about books about teachers and school. I am currently reading a delightful and short book called Horseback Schoolmarm–Montana, 1953-1954 by Margot Liberty. This book is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
In time, Dr. Liberty became known as a anthropologist and the author of several studies on Northern Plains Indians. Both her parents were authors, and she grew up in a highly academic home in the east. Her first job after college, however, was in a one-room school house on a ranch in Montana. She had seven students with one being a 7th grader and the others being in lower elementary classes. At the back of the school house was a small room known as the “teacherage” (similar to what we know of as a parsonage). The horse, featured on the dust jacket and in the story, was Orphan Annie. Orphan Annie’s story itself is interesting. She was on her way to the dog food market–fillies were not generally used on ranches–when Margot was able to purchase her. (They remained companions for over 20 years.)
Margot had a car, but such conditions as roads and weather made horseback riding the best transportation. The memoirs of this first year of teaching were written by the author and then tucked away in a file and forgotten for several decades. Thankfully, she found both the account and a publisher who saw the potential of this story.
There are many things about teaching that transcend time and circumstances. In other words, I found myself sharing many of the experiences this teacher had. As always, it seems, the conditions of the school and the materials are abysmal. The first year (or first 36 years) are spent consulting the materials trying to figure out how to teach. The students are at different levels. Even in a one room school, some kids were exceedingly bright, while others struggled. Parents often misunderstood or complained or compared SH School, as it was called, with other schools. The teacher worked endless hours, thought up all kinds of creative learning experiences, and really worked to impact the lives–rather than just filling the heads–of her students.
Montana in the early 1950s still had a culture closely tied to the frontier. (I hope it still does.) Cowboys, ranches, cattle, wild animals, weather, and long distances still dominated that world. Margot Liberty had grown up in a different part of the country, but had visited the west enough times to know what she was getting into. As I write that, I wonder, do any of us ever really know what we are getting in to.
I feel a book reviewer’s need to give the academic insights found in this book. I could mention such things as gender expectations (teachers were usually “schoolmarms”), educational methods, curriculum needs, individualized study programs, cultural themes of the western states in the early 1950s, and so on. There are lots of things that can be learned or gleaned from this book on a number of topics.
However–a word which should not often begin paragraphs–the key insight, profound discovery, intellectual value of this book is that it is simply enjoyable. Certainly, teachers should love reading this book. I plan on passing it over to my wife as soon as I finish it in a few days. But it is hard to imagine anyone not enjoying this story. It may lack a little polish here and there due to having been written long ago, but that just adds to its value.
This selection–although not entirely convincing to me–is a good example of some of the fun found in reading this book. Dr. Liberty writes:
In fact, to one used to modern plumbing, it is surprising how clean and pleasant an outdoor toilet can be. This revelation applies to other areas as well. The first day or two without modern conveniences, one tends to grumble and feel demoted to the dark ages. After that, the rituals of carrying water and coal, of lighting gas or kerosene lamps, or of heating dishwater become customary and provide a pleasant sense of independence.
And the glow from lamps, yellow and golden, sheds a far warmer circle of light than the balding glare from electric overheads. There is a certain beauty of movement in lifting a dipper of cool water from a sparkling porcelain pail. Stepping outdoors can bring one very close to stars and storms or to the fain pulsing of a spring night wind.
That passage doesn’t quite move me to remove the indoor plumbing from my house, but the book as a whole is a big help in getting back to school.