In the summer of 1936, my family was living in a cottage in Jefferson Township, Somerset County, at the foot of Laurel Hill on what is now Hidden Valley resort property. Oil lamps, hand pumps and outhouses made up the amenities of most homes.
As autumn approached, my parents enrolled my sister and me in a one-room school about 10 miles from our home. Jefferson Township had no school, so we were enrolled in Somerset Township, probably in a county school.
This was my sister's first year in school. I was to be the smartest kid in third grade ... as I was the only one.
Miss Kay, the teacher, was a multi-tasker, way ahead of her time. Each morning she would pick us up in her Ford station wagon along with two or three other children and drive us the 10 miles to the school, about one-half mile north of Lavansville.
Upon arrival, she would open the school, fire up the potbelly stove, open some windows at the top, check the outdoor privies and then post assignments on the chalkboard.
With this done, she rang the bell for school to start. Most of the students were farm children who lived within walking distance of the school and were gathered outside awaiting the bell.
Ages ranged from 6 to 15 in the school's eight grades. Sixth grade had the most students, 10 -- mostly boys who were about 14-15 years old, awaiting their 16th birthday in order to drop out.
Truancy was rampant. Boys, especially, stayed home to plow the fields or spread manure. One 14-year-old boy in sixth grade would wave to fellow students outside for recess as he drove a tractor on a field adjacent to the school. He attended a couple days per week, usually when it rained.
The school was furnished with the bare essentials. The three rows contained eight double desks that served two students each. Ink wells were empty to discourage mischief except when a writing exercise involving the entire student body took place.
Windows were very large to allow in sunlight. There was no screen door and no window screens, so in September flies were usually buzzing around. This was farm country, and the manure spread in the plowed fields surrounding the schoolyard offered a real country smell.
Miss Kay was a wonder. She spent time with each group of students, showing and explaining how to do something and then moving on to the next group. Chalkboard instructions kept older students occupied while she worked with lower grades.
Interruptions were few, although some of the older, disinterested boys would sometimes misbehave with spitballs. Any troublemakers were moved to isolation in the back of the room where their antics would not be seen by the rest of the student body.
There was a one-hour lunch period, as some of the students walked home to neighboring farms. Others carried their own lunch, which on sunny days could be eaten outside before playing games.
Miss Kay wore many hats. As the sole employee at the school, she would perform the duties of a principal, guidance counselor and teacher of all subjects -- including art, music and health -- as well as serving as the custodian. That meant stoking the stove's fire and cleaning the building, including the windows, and dumping lime in the outhouse.
I am unaware of her salary at that time, but during the Depression, some school districts in mining areas paid teachers in scrip that could be spent in company stores. The average elementary salary was about $3.75 a day, amounting to about $675 for a nine-month period.
The one-room school like ours met a need in rural America, and the opportunity for advancement in it was open, because one could always eavesdrop on lessons for grades above the one you were in. (Perhaps that was why so many students skipped grades in the good old days.)
But as population grew such schools became outmoded. Ours was converted to a residence sometime after World War II. My sister and I had left the one-room school behind before then, when our family moved back to Irwin, but it did leave an unforgettable imprint on my life.
The PG Portfolio welcomes "Back to School" submissions about most memorable experiences at all levels of education, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.
Leo R. West of Penn Hills, a retired social studies teacher, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.