By Mary Vetter
While thinking about the September newsletter, I was reminded that all over this country and including here in Greenfield, kids would be beginning their first day of school or returning for the first day of another year and it gave me pause.
I thought about how different this school experience would be from the school experience of children 50, 60 or 70 years ago. So I decided to ask a couple of people at the Town Historian’s office to reminisce about their early educational experience.
Ron Feulner, our town historian, started school in 1943, a full year younger than he should have because the girl next door convinced his mother that she would look after him. I doubt that there is a school superintendent alive today that would allow a parent to do that. He attended the Middle Grove School on Cemetery Hill. It was a one room school where grades 1 through 8 learned their lessons. The district could use the land as long as the school remained operational. Once the school closed, the land would revert to the Cemetery. Ron recalled that in later years former students bought plots right on the site of the old schoolhouse.
Water for the school was brought up from the pump at Wilbur Barney’s house. At the school a metal dipper was used to fill paper cups with water. The school was heated by a large wood stove that was surrounded by a heat shield to prevent burns. Off the cloak room a single chemical toilet made up the sanitary facilities. The paper cups represented a step up from the common water dipper described by Clayton H. Brown on page 40 of his book “Greenfield Glimpses.”
The shenanigans of three hooligans, just waiting to turn sixteen so they could ditch school all together, conspired to make Ron’s first year of school miserable. In one incident, the teacher felt that everyone had behaved and left the school to go into town to buy all the students Eskimo Pies. While he was gone, the older kids soaped the windows and created some damage in the schoolroom. When the teacher returned, he forgot the treats and set the students to cleaning up the room. The forgotten pies melted in his car. In contrast to what might happen today, no criminal charges were brought and no one was expelled from school.
The dismal year inspired his mother to run for trustee. Some of the changes she championed brought positive changes to the little school and after that first year and with the help of a new teacher, he learned to love school. The room sported a long row of shelves full of books and Ron set a goal to read every one of those books.
Learning took place with the following practice: each grade had a lesson in the front of the room with the teacher. They were then sent back to their seats to work on assignments while another grade took a turn at the front of the room. Every student in the room not only learned their own lessons but absorbed the lessons they heard being taught around them.
Joyce (Burton) Woodard, our Deputy Town Historian, fondly remembers starting first grade at age 5 in Porter Corners. She began her first year with just three other students. It was a bigger school than the one Ron attended and grades were separated into different class rooms. Like Ron, she remembers shelves of books that she read and re-read. She also recalled listening to the lessons of other grades and absorbing those lessons. She remembers a school nurse visiting several times a year to check for head lice. Well I guess some things never change.
She wrote a lovely piece recalling her early school days in which she remembers lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic with Mrs. Lucy Ballou as her teacher. While there were no gym classes or music lessons but they did have drawing and in later grades history and some science. School parties and plays rounded out the school year. Significantly, she remembers feeling safe at school despite the war that was raging around the world. Everyone knew everyone. The children in her class were the children she played with after school. Her childhood was filled with companionship and loyalty. She never felt deprived.
So unlike yesterday’s young Greenfield students, today’s students probably won’t be walking to school, water will likely come out of a plastic bottle not out of a pump and they will not be privy to the lessons of other grades.
Yet their school years will be filled with parties and plays. Some will struggle with hooligans in class, but like Joyce and Ron many young minds will be inspired by the dedicated teachers they meet throughout their school years.
Note: This article and Joyce Woodard’s reminiscence will be posted on our web page. Each will have a comment section so that you may leave your own memories or comment on the articles. Please share these articles with those you know who do not use the internet.