The Three R’s: Ridin’, Ropin’, and Romance (of course!)
The leading lady of my first book, The Angel and the Outlaw, was a schoolteacher in the “wild, wild, West” of 1873 and so I thought I’d give a small glimpse into the life of a teacher in that day and age. I am also working on a new story in which the heroine is a teacher in Southern California’s back country.
Prior to the Civil War, schoolteachers were mostly men because the prevailing belief was that women could not maintain discipline in the classroom. When the men left for the war, women moved in and filled positions at 60% less salary. When the men returned, they refused to work at the reduced wages (even though they did make more than the women teachers) and most left the profession.
Women teachers were required to be single. They could “sit” for their teaching certificate as long as they had graduated. Some were as young as fifteen. If they married, they had to give up their job. They were not allowed to attend public performances or dances. Male teachers were permitted to date one night a week or two if they attended church regularly. Because women were so few in number compared to men in the West, the turn-over rate for teachers was fairly high as women married and started their own families.
Children from the age of five would go to school daily through the week and then on weekends, would be expected to come back and help clean the schoolhouse. A teacher might have anywhere from three to forty-five students in the first through eighth grade. Discipline could be difficult at times, especially when some of the older boys towered over the teacher.
The typical school house was a one-room building. A male teacher and his family often lived in a home next door or attached to the school house—a teacherage. Women teachers would be housed with one of the families whose children attended the school so that they could be supervised. (Now that would make it hard to “leave your day job” at the end of the day!)
Teachers had to be creative and work with whatever supplies they had. They used memorizing, reciting, and oral testing to teach reading, spelling, arithmetic and history. For many years, the main textbook was the McGuffey Reader. A staggering amount, approximately 120 million copies of McGuffey Readers were sold between 1836 and 1960. Many parents could not afford textbooks and so they sent their children to school with any book from home—usually the Bible—for instruction in reading. Eliza Mott was a teacher who taught the alphabet using the inscriptions on tombstones!
In doing research about the school in La Playa where The Angel and the Outlaw is set, I learned that the main difficulty for the teacher there was a horse track in Old Town San Diego that enticed the children to play hooky and also let them wager on the horses. When the school in La Playa had a teacher vacancy, the children rowed boats to the school in Old Town and attended there.
Some very important and influential people have “graduated” from one-room schools. To name a few ~ Abraham Lincoln (President), Herbert Hoover (President), Joyce Carol Oates (Pulitzer Prize), Laura Ingalls Wilder (author), and my father.
My father and his brothers attended a one-room school house that was built on land his father donated for the school. It still stands (and is now a private home), down a winding country road in central Illinois. It feels like stepping back in time a hundred years when I go back for a visit. My grandparents farmhouse is just around the corner ~ a country mile…
One of my memories is that my Junior High School was situated right up against the back of the San Diego Zoo next to the wallaby and kangaroo enclosures. When the tour bus would drive by loaded with people, the bus driver would often comment on the “animals” on the other side of the fence– meaning the children on the gym field. It was all in good-natured fun (I think…)
What about you?
Do you have any unusual or fond memories of school?
Comment for a chance to win a copy of my newest release ~ The Gunslinger and the Heiress ~ (which does not have a schoolteacher in it!) along with Playing the Rake’s Game by Bronwyn Scott. (Continental U.S. only)