Memories from a One Room School House

Story One

Our little school (Yonge Mills) had a few memories besides education that stands out in my mind.

At Christmas time before school closed our teacher and pupils held a Christmas Concert. For weeks we practised our part then one school afternoon we held the concert. A couple of the older boys would go and get a Christmas tree, cut it and bring it back for us to decorate. We all brought home made decorations for the tree. Most of our parents and neighbours attended the event and Santa Claus came at the closing to give out the gifts and greet us all.

Arbour Day, May 1st, or near that day, we had a clean up time of the school yard. We raked then burned the leaves and tidy up then by noon we went to the brook nearby for a picnic.

We also had Valentine parties and exchanged Valentines. At Easter our teacher gave us all an Easter egg treat before we left for the holidays usually in March or April.

Back in the early 1930’s the schools, and all the different school sections, attended a school fair which was held at Mallorytown continuation school. We had banners with our school section number and paraded around the ground then lined up for inspection. I was probably 8 years old then, There was a tent with vegetables, flowers and school writing and art that we judged. It was a great day which was eventually discontinued. It was the only one I remember going to that one year.

School pranks were locking the girls in the toilets for awhile then letting them out. This usually happened at noon hour. We used to play baseball and the toilets were in a line of three so we played “Auntie Eye” in teams with a ball throwing it over (the toilets) and whoever caught a ball would chase around and touch someone then they had to go to their side of the team and toilets.

These are a few items that I remember from those days at the one room schoolhouse.

Story Two

I was fortunate in being one of those pupils who attended Yonge Mills School from Grade 1 to Grade 8, with the same teacher through all the years. I think this helped provide a feeling of permanence and order that together with a solid sense of family and place, helped make for a secure childhood.

I attended the school from September 1953 until June 1960. I know this is 7 years, not8 – I skipped grade 3, because I was the only pupil in the class, and my teacher felt that I could do the grade 4 work. (I proved her right and everyone was happy) The whole time that I was at Yonge Mills School, my teacher was Mrs. Helen Steacy, one of the best teachers ever, I’m sure. I don’t know how she did it – teaching 8 grades in one room for the first few years, as well as being a wife and mother (her 2 sons were around my age). After the school was divided into two rooms, she taught grades 5 through 8, still a complex and demanding job.

I remember the day that I first started in grade 1. I wore a blue cotton dress, the front of which had been hand smocked by my grandmother. My hair was braided into 2 neat pigtails, also by my grandmother. When I came into the classroom and sat down, I was almost too terrified to move. I wondered how the teacher knew my name. There were, I think, 2 or 3 other children in the grade 1 class with me. Our reading books were the Dick and Jane primers, books which my brother had brought home the year before and which I had already read and memorized. This was a blessing and a curse because, after I had read aloud, I had to stand in agonized boredom (we all stood in a row for reading) while some the other children struggled through the words.

I soon learned the format of a typical day. The teacher rang a hand bell at 9am. We all came in, shedding boots and coats if it was winter. Morning exercises consisted of a scripture reading (students took turns reading a verse or two from the Bible), the Lord’s Prayer, and the singing of “God Save the Queen”. Our first subject was arithmetic (we didn’t call it math then). Then there was spelling, for all grades except grade 1. When I was in that first year, I remember looking forward so much to being in grade 2, because then I could do spelling.

Mid-morning recess lasted 10-20 minutes before the bell called us back in. We played the usual games, depending on the season- tag, ball tag, hide-and-seak, Red Rover, baseball. In winter there were snowballs and snow forts and all the younger children had to keep on the lookout for the older ones who wanted to “wash their faces”, i.e. rub snow roughly into the face.

I’m not sure which subjects came after recess – there was reading, social studies and science. We usually had writing or printing right after lunch.

Lunch hour was from 12 until 1. Everyone brought a lunch and washed it down with water. For the first 2 or 3 years I didn’t mind sandwiches, but after that I grew sick of them. I remember days when I just couldn’t face them at noon and so I waited until I was ravenous at 4:00 and then ate them on the way home.

I remember a day too, when I forgot my lunch and Mrs. Steacy gave me hers. These were delicious cheese sandwiches, freshly made, and I ate every crumb. I’ll never forget how good that lunch tasted.

When we finished eating, we played outside in the schoolyard, and it seemed that there was always lots of time. I’ve mentioned some of our games; we also had a lot of fun in autumn, playing in the abundant fallen leaves- jumping in them, playing ghost in the well, making leaf forts.

When the bell rang at 1pm, we were almost always tired sweaty and ready to sit quietly. This was story time. Mrs. Steacy would read for 10 or 15 minutes from a book that hopefully would appeal to all ages, no easy feat. There would be Burgess books about the animals of the Green Forest, or the Hardy Boys, or perhaps Nancy Drew. There was a blissful feeling of relaxation and calm as we listened quietly. Disturbances at this time were rare.

Afternoons seemed relaxed as we worked on science, grammar or Social Studies. When we finished our work, we were allowed to read. This was a wonderful thing, and I would go to the book cupboard (which we called the ‘library’) to see what I could find. There was always something interesting: Classic fairy tales, mysteries and an old encyclopedia.

Sometimes two children would go and get water. We brought our drinking water in a pail from a well at the neighbouring house up the hill. After two of us had carried the water back to the school, we filled a small water tank that stood at the back of the room. Each student had his own plastic cup which he placed under the spigot to fill. We enjoyed going to get water on a fine spring or summer day, but we were allowed to do this only if we had finished our work.

Our bathroom was an outhouse at the back of the school. It was partitioned into three sections, one side was for the boys, the other for the girls and the middle was for the teacher. It never occurred to us that having to use an outhouse was a hardship or a problem. In fact when I first started school, most of the rural families had no indoor facilities in their homes.

For dismissal at 4pm we had to be ready, work finished, books put away, and we had to be sitting up straight with our hands behind our backs (this was the signal that we were ready). Mrs. Steacy would have us stand all together. We were not to turn and walk out until she said “turn”, and then “forward”. We had to be orderly and not make a mad rush for hats and coats.

At 4pm a caretaker was usually there to sweep the floor. About once a week, a pine smelling power was sprinkled on this wood floor to absorb the dust. The caretaker then swept up this granular material along with the dust and dirt.

In the first few years that I attended, the school was heated by a wood stove which stood in the centre of the room. I am not sure who supplied the wood, or how it got there, but we were always warm in the winter. On a cozy winter afternoon, the only sounds in the classroom would be the quiet singing of the wood fire and the slow steaming of wet woollen mittens on the stove.

Most of the wood supply was kept in the lean-to woodshed behind the school. We were not allowed in here, although some daring children would duck inside the door during a game of hide and seek. Later when an oil furnace was installed, its place was in the woodshed and the door was usually locked.

I think there was one event which speeded up the acquisition of an oil furnace. One sleepy afternoon, when all was quiet, there was a sudden crash- the stove had fallen over on the wood floor. I remember everyone’s consternation and fear. No fire ensued, but we all went home early.

Home for me was “the stone house”, “a mile and a half”, said my father, from the school. I think the distance is more like two miles; in any case we walked it every day except for days of rain or extreme cold, when my father drove us. We rode our bicycles in spring and fall. The road was gravel then, and much narrower than it is now,. There were many more trees along it, and dust covered the grass and weeds in the ditches. In winter, the snowplow threw up huge snowbanks, so that, when I was a child walking along a narrow white road, sometimes all I could see were snowbanks and bright blue sky.

In those days, girls were not allowed to wear pants, only dresses and skirts. In winter during my first couple of years at school, girls had to stuff dresses or skirts into ski pants. That was not comfortable, and I remembering complaining. Finally we were allowed to wear jeans or pants during the winter. Black slacks were fashionable; so were corduroy “slim jims” and khakis. These kept us reasonably warm on the walks to and from school. The walk was sometimes a cold one and I arrived home more than once with frostbitten hands.

One winter there was a snowfall so huge that cars couldn’t use the road. That day, my father hitched our team of horses to the big farm sled and drove us to school, picking up other pupils, and the teacher, along the way. There was an undeniable air of festivity during that ride.

High spirits usually didn’t get the better of us in class and most students were well behaved. If someone acted up, the usual punishment was to stand, for a few minutes, either beside one’s seat or at the front of the room. For really serious problems, there was the strap. I saw it used a few times- 2 or 3 blows to the offending student’s palm. At this time, there was an almost palpable sense of awe and dread that came over the classroom.

When summer came, especially during the month of June, there was much happy anticipation as we waited for the last day of school. There would be fields and woods to roam, there would be warm weather, and there would be freedom.

I have a picture in my mind of me, in grade 8, in my seat at the far right of the school, contentedly gazing out of one of the tall, wide windows on a drowsy summer day. The school door is open, letting in the sounds and smells of summer. It is actually very quiet, with just the neighbouring farmer mowing hay in the distance. The sun is on the leaves of the large poplar tree outside, and I can smell the tree’s resin. It is almost time for 4pm dismissal. We stand, Mrs. Steacy recites a short prayer and we’re off.

I have another mind’s-eye picture of myself in grade 8, on the last day of school. I am walking along the dusty road and stop to look at some wild roses growing in the ditch. As I look up and out to the sunny fields and then to the woods beyond, I am trying as hard as I can to see my own future. I think I can see a hazy path that stretches a long way, and I know that it will not be an easy one. I give up trying to see the future, but as I continue walking, I have an acute sense of being at the beginning of an awesome and challenging journey, and I knew that I already missed what had been a nurturing and enriching existence at my little one room schoolhouse.

Story Three

Over the years that the Yonge Mills School was in existence there were many little stories of various pranks that the kids did.

There was one time when students locked a number of cows in the school house over the weekend. You can only imagine the condition of the schoolhouse when the teacher opened the door on Monday morning.

The odd time some of the boys would take a chicken or two from a local farm and bar-b-qued them in the school yard.

One lad, named George, would wait until lunch time, when the teacher was out of the classroom, and with some effort stack boxes one upon another until he could get into the attic, and then remain very quiet until the class returned. His conspirator friends would remove the boxes. The concerned teacher would expend class time searching until rustling would emanate from above revealing his presence. Eventually the boxes would be re-stacked to get him down but much time would be wasted doing so.

An ex student had related that one of her two brothers stole a cigarette from their father. One lad smoked half while hiding in the school outhouse. He decided to share the experience with his brother and placed the smoldering cigarette on the toilet seat while he went to fetch him. Well it must have taken awhile for in the meantime the toilet seat caught fire and it had to be replaced