Lessons From a Little Brick Schoolhouse

LESSONS FROM A LITTLE BRICK SCHOOLHOUSE

By Sharon Sheppard

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 dirt poor–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.  When I was growing up, all the classes were small.  My younger brother’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.  My graduating class boasted 22 members.

The town fathers knew good and well that kindergarten was a lousy investment, 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, but she quit mid-year to join the WACs, and in all my years of schooling that followed, no other teacher ever quite lived  up to her angelic status in my eyes.

Our little school had a motley spectrum of teachers over the years, and while small-town salaries tended not to attract the cream of the crop, we did truly have some bright and conscientious role models.  Murray Warren, my high school math and science teacher, set a terrific example.  Smart, articulate, and patient, he brought out the best in us—which for some of us was, unfortunately, none too good.

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 and had all that authority, he never succeeded in shaking his old nickname:  Georgie.

Others who shall remain nameless include the eccentric English teacher, rumored to have kept a flask in the adjoining cloak room, and the unmotivated music teacher who also taught social studies and history and business and a raft of other courses he never trained for.  He often slept through class.

Also remaining nameless is 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 sleeping music teacher).

After placing at the regional vocal music contest and spending countless hours perfecting “I Heard a Forest Praying,” 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.

Imagine our dismay when we learned that because of our superintendent’s snafu, we wouldn’t be allowed to compete.  Our fearless but disorganized leader had goofed again.  Dismay was only the first of a whole slew of emotions I won’t bring up here, some of which triggered more than a few choice words for the superintendent of schools whom we thoroughly trashed during the four-hour ride back home.  I can now empathize with the host of people who have throughout the millennia been turned away from the Pearly Gates because they didn’t have the right ticket.

I suppose there may have been a lesson to be learned from this disappointing experience, but I haven’t yet figured it out.

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. Any warm body could join the choir.  And almost anybody who cracked a book a few times could become valedictorian if she set her mind to it.

An ongoing tradition in our town dictated that the junior class trek out to “the point” on Pine Mountain Lake each spring and gather a truckload of cedar branches.   Poked into chicken wire, the boughs created a fragrant on-stage backdrop for the graduation ceremonies—a sort of Christmas-in-May effect.  It also fell to the juniors to make and suspend letters across the stage spelling out the senior class motto in front of the cedar background.

Principal Georgie Sycks provided a booklet of motto options he considered appropriate, and our class had no trouble choosing one.   It was a no-brainer.  The longest would mean the most work for the juniors.  We ended up with “Failure to hit the bull’s eye is not the fault of the target.”  A profound sentiment that inspires me to this day.

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.  Rolling with the punches, making do, resolving conflicts, pulling together, learning to enjoy homespun fun.  Those lessons have served us well for a lifetime.

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 disoriented when it comes to directions, and 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.

Memories of freshly waxed, creaking oak floors, polished wooden desks with ink wells, freshly washed blackboards and a newly starched, scratchy homemade pinafore spell the first day of school in the fall.  The aroma of cedar coupled with fragrant bouquets of lilacs and the sound of “Pomp and Circumstance” played on the school’s upright piano–these indelibly spell graduation night—my last in this humble building.

A few Backus High School graduates 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 went on to a state university where I majored in English (despite my being ill-prepared by my alcoholic high school English teacher’s sketchy instruction) and minored in music (drowsy, unmotivated high school music teacher notwithstanding).

Now that I’ve learned to proofread, the last time I drove by our hometown school I noticed that the L had dropped off the Backus Public Schools nameplate.  The sign gracing the front lawn now reads:  Backus Pubic Schools.

Somehow, it didn’t surprise me a bit.