By Gary Kenny
When I first walked through the door of S.S. No. 1, I was bejesus scared. What would all those farm kids think of me, a “foreigner,” a “city slicker,” from London, Ontario who had parachuted into their territory, the 10th Concession of Logan Township, Perth County. Curiosity is only natural and to be expected. But would I be warmly welcomed, or would I possibly be mocked, ostracized, or even scorned? I was an overly-sensitive kid and feared all of this.
I was also apprehensive about the school itself – one room, one teacher, eight grades, and located on a concession road in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. It was a far cry from the modern, multi-room elementary school with its several hundred students that I had come from and where I had been perfectly happy. I didn’t want to leave my friends. I didn’t want to move to a farm. But my Dad, a carpenter who had grown up on a farm on Logan’s 10th, had long dreamed of returning to the original Kenny family farmstead (his ancestors were immigrants from Ireland) and farming once again. Back then anyway, a nine-year-old had no real say in such matters.
I don’t recall much of how I was greeted on that first bone-chillingly cold morning in February. To get to the school I had walked 1.5 miles along snow-covered gravel roads the sides of which were piled 12 feet high with snow. I do remember the teacher, Mrs. Thompson, introducing me to the 30 or so students and showing me to my seat. My “desk” was a far cry from the shiny, modern desk I had known in London. It was a beaten-up wooden structure the top of which was heavily scuffed and carved with initials. There was also a curious hole in the upper right-hand corner. It turned out to be an ink well. Didn’t they use ballpoint pens here? (They didn’t.)
I think I was asked some questions at recess by a couple of fellow students, but mostly I was stared at or ignored. Pretty normal behaviour under the circumstances, I suppose. Except it continued for some months. That wasn’t fun. Fitting in can be a … well, I can’t say that word here.
S.S. No. 1, Logan Township was one of the last one-room schoolhouses in Ontario. As a building there was nothing particularly distinct about it. It was a mundane, rectangular, yellow-brick structure consisting of his and her cloak rooms with toilets and one large classroom. Some one-room schoolhouses were crowned with bell towers giving them a venerable, church-like appearance. Not S.S. No. 1. The end of lunches and recesses was marked by Mrs. Thompson’s ringing of a brass hand-bell.
If there was anything unusual about the schoolhouse, it was the steel cables that criss-crossed overhead through the vaulted ceiling. The high walls of the building, erected in the early 20th century, were never buttressed. As the building aged and the walls became frail, they had to be stabilized. On windy days the cables visibly shook and audibly hummed, leaving especially me, a newbie, wondering just how much buffeting the building could take!
Oh, and there was one other oddity. At the front of the classroom was a large map of the world. Common enough in classrooms. But the map’s imaging of the African continent caught my eye. Taking up much of the middle of the African land mass pictured was a large green splotch. Not included were any of the countries that even I, a nine-year-old, knew were there. At S.S. No. 1, it seemed, Stanley and Livingstone were still hacking their way through the undiscovered African bush! That story would come in handy many years later when I became engaged in work about how Africa and Africans are wrongly and unfairly perceived in Western culture.
Only once in my four years at S.S. No. 1 was I the object of Mrs. Thompson’s wrath, and the aforesaid steel cables were at the center of the incident. All of us boys were in our cloak room at lunchtime one day, and one fellow student, Larry, was swinging on a cable. Using the cables for recreational purposes was strictly forbidden. Before long Mrs. Thompson, a large and imposing woman, burst through the cloakroom door demanding to know who the culprit was. Silence. I wasn’t the offender, but because she thought I was smirking, Mrs. Thompson hauled me into the classroom and scolded me mightily. To accentuate her point, she cuffed me up side of my head (teachers could do that then) and yelled at me some more. That little display of corporal punishment upset me. And even though justice was on my side, to this day I regret ratting out Larry – my best friend, no less – who received not one, but several smacks from the furious Mrs. Thompson. Sorry, Larry.
When writing about life attending a one-room rural schoolhouse, many tend to romanticize the experience. I hope I’m not one of them. As my fellow columnist Kate Procter has written, one-room schoolhouses did not always live up to the Norman Rockwell image some people have of them. Indeed. Rural kids, I quickly learned, could be just as thoughtless and cruel as their urban counterparts. Bullying was not uncommon, even among S.S. No. 1’s small student body. The children of one family in particular often came to school wearing threadbare clothing, unbathed and smelling of body odour, and with little in their lunch boxes. They were picked on continuously. I too was bullied at times, or until my “newness” wore off. I’m ashamed to say that, on occasion, I also persecuted one of my meeker classmates. Kids who are victims of bullying will sometimes in turn resort to bullying others. A troubling dynamic, that one.
But I also took away many fond memories: the always interesting annual bus trips to museums, historic monuments and interesting places of commerce; the full-house Christmas concerts that featured skits, recitations, and choral and solo singing; playing fox and goose (anyone remember that one?) in the snow in the wintertime wearing mitts, toques, earmuffs, but no coats; lacing up a pair of black and white running shoes on the first warm day of spring and riding my CCM bicycle to school rather than hoofing it; and the co-ed baseball games with other local one-room schoolhouses. With perhaps feminist leanings even back then, I always felt sorry for the girls on the team who were meanly berated by the boys for their baseball skills (or perceived lack of).
Despite resentment from some parents about sending their children lengthier distances by bus to be educated in consolidated schools, the process of closing one-room schoolhouses was virtually complete by the 1960s. By then, they were no longer considered a viable option for Canadian students. Their closure, of course, also marked the passing of the one-room schoolteacher. She/he are heroes in my books – even Mrs. Thompson who I’ve long forgiven for hitting me. They had to teach multiple subjects – reading, writing, science, arithmetic, geography, and history – often to 30 or more children of different ages and abilities. It must have felt like herding cats at times. Their capacity to innovate was key to their success, and survival.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to attend one of Ontario’s last iconic one-room rural schoolhouses, mixed experience though it was. All such schools are now retired and either razed (as with S.S. No. 1 – it’s now a pasture) or converted for other purposes including quaint rural restaurants and private homes and retreats. S.S. No. 1, and rural and farm life in general, made me a better, more resilient person.
And I learned to use a fountain pen. ◊