Lessons From a Little Brick Schoolhouse


A childhood memory – shared in honor of Back-to-School Month


Some might say we were educationally deprived, growing up as we did in a small town. But just because there were only 350 of us in the whole village–most of us poor during those post-depression years–doesn’t mean we didn’t get a proper education.

These days you have to go to a fancy private school if you want small class size.  But in our town, all the classes were small. My brother Carl’s senior class fit into a phone booth—all 13 of them. Not that we had any phone booths in our town. They had to drive nine miles to Pine River to find one in order to have their cozy class picture taken.

Our town knew good and well that nobody really needed kindergarten, so, ready-or-not, we jumped right into first grade when we turned six, and most of us turned out none the worse for the wear.

I adored Miss Lyons, my first-grade teacher.  She seemed like angel to me. But when World War II got into full swing, she quit in the middle of the year to join the WACS (Women’s Army Corps). But compared to Miss Lyons, no other teacher ever seemed quite so perfect, in my young mind.

In grade school we had a different teacher almost every year, and some years we had two grades in the same classroom. But in high school, we had a different teacher every hour of the day. And some of them were really different! We had an English teacher who, according to rumors, kept a flask in the adjoining cloak room, though I never saw it. And our music teacher, who also taught social studies and business and a few other courses he had never trained for, often slept through class.

Georgie Sycks, a local boy who went away to college, came back home again to teach—all grown up and polished as could be. He was a fine teacher, but even after he became high school principal, he never could shake off his old nickname: Georgie.

I won’t mention the name of the superintendent who forgot to send in the registration for our musical group after we’d qualified to compete at the state level (under the direction of the above-mentioned sleepy music teacher). After all those hours of  practicing to perfect “I Heard a Forest Praying,” and taking first place at the regional vocal music contest, and after a four-hour ride from northern Minnesota to Minneapolis, our triple trio arrived at Northrup Auditorium, as excited as any of us had ever been.   This was to be our crowning fifteen minutes of fame—a chance to put Backus, Minnesota, on the map. Dressed in our Sunday best, we’d prepared to knock the socks off those snooty University of Minnesota judges and show them that we weren’t your average small town hicks.  But we never got the chance.

Because of our superintendent’s absentmindedness, we weren’t allowed to compete. Our fearless but disorganized leader had goofed again. This triggered a whole slew of emotions and, I’m ashamed to say, we thoroughly trashed the superintendent during the four-hour ride back home.

We had a lot of good times too, and small classes meant less competition, which, come to think of it, probably wasn’t the best motivator either. A small school meant anybody could become a big fish in a microscopic puddle. Any high school male could letter in all three sports. Almost any warm body could join the choir. And almost anybody who cracked a book from time to time could become valedictorian if she set her mind to it.

A long-standing tradition in our town dictated that each year the junior class would trek out to “The Point” on Pine Mountain Lake and gather a truckload of cedar branches. Poked into chicken wire, these boughs created a fragrant backdrop across the back of the stage for the graduation ceremonies—sort of like Christmas in May. It also fell to the juniors to make and suspend letters across the stage spelling out the senior class motto against those lush green boughs.

Principal Georgie Sycks provided a booklet of motto options he considered appropriate, and our senior class had no trouble choosing one: the longest motto would mean the most work for the juniors. So we quickly chose “Failure to hit the bull’s eye is not the fault of the target” as our ongoing inspiration for life.

Memories of my first day of school trigger sensory reminiscences of freshly waxed oak floors, polished wooden desks with ink wells, spotlessly washed blackboards, and a scratchy, newly starched pinafore Mama had made for me.

My last day of high school recalls an evening filled with the heavenly aroma of fresh cedar boughs coupled with fragrant bouquets of lilacs and the sound of “Pomp and Circumstance” played on the school’s upright piano.  These sights and sounds and smells are indelibly fixed in my mind as we finally reached our long-anticipated graduation night.

A few graduates from Backus High School have gone on to earn advanced degrees–master’s and Ph.D.s. Some became teachers, nurses, or pastors, and a few wrote books. As for me, I graduated at the top of my class of 22 students, some of whom had been together for all 12 grades, and delivering the valedictory speech to the hometown audience where everybody knew everybody was one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do. I and went on to a state university where I majored in English, despite sketchy preparation by my alcoholic high school English teacher, and minored in music (drowsy, unmotivated music teacher notwithstanding).

But just because we didn’t have electives or up-to-date textbooks or more than a couple hundred library books for all twelve grades was no sign we didn’t learn the basics, one way or another. Our schooling may not have been ideal preparation for college, but it made pretty good training for real life.  It taught us to roll with the punches, make do, pull together, resolve conflicts, and learn to enjoy homespun fun. Those lessons have served me well for a lifetime.

And no matter how far I travel in either miles or time, in my heart I’m never far from my hometown. I’ve always been directionally challenged–I think I must have been gone the day Mrs. Wirt taught map reading in fifth grade.  But if I want to figure out directions, in my mind’s eye I go back to our front yard and face the school. To my left is Pine Mountain Lake—that’s west. To my right is the cemetery out on the edge of town—that’s east. And the school—that’s my North Star.

Now that I’ve had lots of practice in proofreading (I taught English to college students for 18-plus years), the last time I drove by our hometown school I noticed that an L had dropped off the Backus Public Schools nameplate. The sign gracing the front lawn now reads:  Backus Pubic Schools.

And they say there’s no need for people with English degrees these days.


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