School Days–Past and Present
Education is somewhat different from days of yore for many of us. With school now in session throughout the country, we hear of various methods of teaching and classroom arrangements approved by school boards, as well as parental choice to protect students and teachers from exposure to COVID-19.
I may have felt like today’s immigrants on my first day of country school in 1934. Would I like my new teacher? Would the other students like me? Would I like them?
My first day memories are only good ones. Everyone must have helped me transition easily into a new language, as I can scarcely recall how it happened. What I do remember, are my hidden resentments of feeling old-fashioned, while growing up in the modern country of America. This feeling remained hidden within me for many years.
My third generation American parents were bilingual, but spoke only Norwegian in our home for the benefit of those in our household. I was the only child for five years until my sister was born. Grandma Fjone lived with us and there was ALWAYS a hired man, usually a young, newly-arrived emigrant from Norway who had followed his dream to “the promise of America.”
Our farm home was blended into a cohesive unit, with Dad’s confidence that farm chores would be handled when he attended meetings. Dad was a 1926 Lake Mills graduate, with a year at St. Olaf College, before he married and started farming. He must have been aware of the country’s need for change in areas of technology, as he became involved in many areas of community service. His most notable areas of volunteerism involved schools and rural electrification.
During my Kittleson country school days, a local farmer had donated an acre of land for a school that had been named after him. Each day began with devotions, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the singing of “God Bless America,” sung to Kate Smith’s phonograph record.
A school teacher’s day was long and busy, as she prepared and taught lessons to all eight grades, using the prescribed curriculum needed to prepare the eighth grade students for the exams taken at the county courthouse in order to matriculate into high school. She was also the custodian who managed the heat in the winter and cleaned the classroom on a daily basis. Often the students were assigned to help with certain tasks.
There was no indoor plumbing, so during the first recess each day, two older students walked to a neighboring farm to bring back a pail of drinking water. It was poured into a crock in the basement with a dipper hanging beside it. There were two necessaries (toilets) located outside the building, with the girls on one side and boys on the other. Winter visits were swift and cold.
Our lunch buckets or pails (former syrup containers) remained in the cloak room until noon, when we ate our lunches at our desks before dismissal to spend the remainder of the hour outdoors. We played games such as ball, cricket, “ring around the Rosie” or used the teeter totter and swings. On rainy days or in the winter, we could be found playing hopscotch in the basement, jacks on the classroom floor, or “cat or rat” and “hangman” on the blackboards. The afternoon school session began with our teachers settling us down again by reading an interesting book that appealed to all ages. Bambi was a favorite, as I recall.
Lessons and classes resumed and the teacher’s innovative methods of teaching the “three R’s,” the basis for future learning, continued as we returned from class with seat work assignments, while she continued to call upper classes to the front of the room for their learning. The drawing and coloring assignments given us, may have been the teacher’s assessment of “art work,” but we students thought of them as busy work. Probably the biggest hidden benefit received, was listening to the upper grade classes’ recitations, while we pretended to be busy with our assignments.
More classes and study with a short recess passed, before school was dismissed for the day. Classroom discipline was maintained by punishing those caught whispering or misbehaving. A certain number of demerits (our names on the blackboard) resulted in after-school detention, while the rest of the students were free to walk home.
The highlight of the school year was the fall fundraising program that turned the students into actors and actresses for one night, as they performed on a raised stage, complete with draw curtains. I admit, however, that nobody went on to Hollywood.
We thought those days of youth would never end, but they did. Years later, a son-in-law asked me who Don, my husband, and my great-grandparents had been. I was unable to answer him, which became the key that unlocked my repressed heritage rejection of my early days.
After many years of intense research, I now own many books of Bergan/Ness genealogy. The climax of my quest was realized in 1990, when Don and I spent three wonderful weeks in Norway visiting a few relatives, farms, and areas where ancestors had once lived before emigrating from Norway. A special memory of the three days spent on Upper Nes, Telemark was sentimental, as I recalled the many generations of family who had lived in the house, owned yet by a family member, to be used by relatives as a vacation home.
I am now a full-blooded Norwegian-American who is proud of the struggles, victories and Viking courage it took for our ancestors to leave their homes for a new world of opportunity—America.’