School Stories From Olden Days: Trust Me, We Got it Better

As much criticism leveled against public schools nowadays, it might be tempting to think it was better in the past. Back when there was no standardized testing or government interference, back when parents had complete control. Then you read something about that earlier time and you realize it was only the rich who could afford good teachers; the rest of us poor slobs were on our own.

Continuing on with our perusal through my Great-Aunt Clara’s writings in Pioneer Memoirs, we come across her memories of school, or rather, the pioneer version of school. Specifically, two teachers whom she remembers fondly, however incompetent they turned out to be.

Keep in mind she’s writing this in 1911, regarding events that happened nearly 50 years prior. Imagine in this small country parsonage, somewhere in Dane County, Wisconsin, there lived our spunky writer, along with her parents and 10 younger siblings.

Someone must teach the children, yes? With no Board of Education or government funding, you take what you can get.

“One of them was old Berentsen. He must have died years ago. He came from Lindesnes in the southern part of Norway; “near the lighthouse at Lindesnes,” he said.

He had been a teacher of navigation. He tried to get a job teaching parochial school and pestered the minister with his many and lengthy testimonials. Once he was really allowed to try teaching, but he was not fitted for it, for, as a farmer declared, “We might just as well have a cow to teach school as this Berentsen.”

It was his first and last effort in these parts.

I remember Berentsen well — the square figure, the red wig, and the straggling hair handing beneath it. He had all his belongings in a bag that he carried on his back. He always shook hands, Mother said, with such a fierce grip that her fingers tingled.

She always treated him like a guest and never showed that he was not especially welcome. It amused us children to see him eat, for he had an unusually good appetite. He was not troubled with dyspepsia.

When he had eaten he always read the newspapers. He also read certain books. He asked permission to read Holberg’s Comedies nearly every time he came. He sat and read in a half whisper, chuckling as he read. Poor old man! Then he forgot his troubles and sorrows and lived in another world far away, where no doubt schoolmasters led a far more honored existence than fell to his lot.

Old Hans Heegaard was in many respects a complete contrast to Berentsen. Tall and thin I remember him, with an almost military bearing.

His long, well-worn coat was carefully brushed. He had a large neckerchief that he tied with great care. He would stand before the mirror as long as any lady of fashion. He would spread his silvery locks to cover his bare head. I remember how pleased he was once when Mother gave him a new neckerchief. He did not like to share the bedroom with John, the hired man who had been with us so long that he was a real factotum.

Heegaard once told Mother something about himself when he was in a talkative mood. In his youth he had been a clerk in one of the larger cities in Norway. He had gotten into gay drinking parties with like-minded companions and so gradually he went down. In brief, it was the old story — he lost, step by step, money, position, friends, health, all. By an accident he came to America, where for some time now he had wandered about in the Norwegian settlements.

He had also tried his luck as schoolmaster, presumably with not much better success than his colleague, Berentsen. When Heegaard came to us, he always asked Mother in his most polite manner, “O dear Mrs. Jacobson, may I stay a couple of days? I’m so tired and poorly.” Mother, of course, could not say no. The “couple of days” usually became weeks.

I remember the time brother Jacob was to learn to read. He was rather slow and had no liking for the A-B-C’s. As Heegaard happened to be there at this time, Mother proposed that he should undertake to be Jacob’s tutor. Heegaard expressed his willingness, and the lessons began quite impressively but were very short ones. The boy read about five minutes and then had a recess that lasted till Heegaard saw Mother, when he would tap at the windowpane and call, “Jacob, Jacob, you must come in again.” Soon both teacher and pupil became sick and tired of the reading and the boy had a vacation until Mother took hold in earnest.

As much as I love Clara’s description of these two men — it’s a wonder she never attempted a novel, right? — for my own part, I appreciate our modern version of schools. In particular, our teachers.

Here in Arizona, we are in our fifth day of teacher strikes. Their demands are modest. In a nutshell: competitive salaries and for school funding to be returned to 2008 levels. It is expected our legislature will have a favorable meeting today and classes will resume tomorrow. (Keep your fingers crossed.)

Due to being out-of-town, I haven’t been part of either the marches or the “Stand-Out” groups on city corners. But I have to say, the site of our downtown being turned into a sea of red is indeed lovely…

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Hug a Teacher Today ❤️

25 thoughts on “School Stories From Olden Days: Trust Me, We Got it Better

    1. Thanks, Mary! We’re hopeful the legislature will come through with their promises, and it looks like school will be back in session tomorrow. So that’s a good start!

  1. I relish your Great-Auntie Clara’s stories. Our local paper predicted more strikes across the country when the first one in some time settled a few weeks ago. I was glad I mentioned that to Sister in east Phoenix , (think I read the short article to her, in fact). This morning she told me about the “red road.” We’re both all-in for teachers, so we agreed it’s too bad it has to come to a strike. People that are quick to complain about how it used to be, don’t seem to realize how much parents were involved in their children’s education back when it was good and affordable. And then, some people simply like to complain.

    1. True, there are many who enjoy complaining. And sadly, as much as people claim they support teachers and education, the minute we start talking about raising property tax it’s “Whoa, not MY property tax!” Arizona is pretty bad that way, unfortunately, but maybe the tide is changing. It’s well past time for it!

  2. Great Aunt Clara is quite the story teller. You come by it honestly. Actually my wife’s a teacher (underpaid and overworked) so I get to hug one most days.

  3. As my Uncle use to say… things were cheap back then, but nobody had any money.These are wonderful stories, they remind me of my grandmother reading to me… jc

  4. Great story. Given how weak many of those teachers were in the past, it’s a wonder anyone learned anything. However, I wish the present-day teachers good luck – asking for funding at 2008 levels shows how poorly students (and their teachers) have been treated.

    1. I thought that too, regarding the funding. They took a cut due to economy tanking because we were assured it would be temporary. Ten years later… 😠
      It looks like it’s possible, fairly possible, their actions have made a difference. Time will tell!

  5. I finally got around to doing some digital housekeeping, and I am stunned to realize that I am over two months behind on your blog. Two months! (The shame.) I shall strive to catch up us much as I can over the next few days, but I fear that my efforts at creative commentary will be woefully depleted very quickly. We shall see.

    My favorite line in this piece? “He was not troubled with dyspepsia.” I cannot WAIT to use that bit in a public setting. I am trembling with the possibilities…

    1. So imagine my surprise one rushed morning when I saw a whole slew of likes and comments from you, and me with no time to fully read, savor, and leave responses. Gah!
      That truly is a great line, isn’t it? Heck, just the word itself — dyspepsia — which I had to look up, is worthy of daily use.
      Nice to see you again! Keep in touch!

  6. I do agree things are getting better, but as much as I love urban life I do think my public school education in Indiana was better than in LA and I’m guessing other major cities. Most of the friends I’ve made that grew up in major cities would attend private schools because the public education was so poor. This really disturbs me. I wish rich people would donate to public schools to make them better instead of spending money on private.

    I also feel it creates a class divide when parents send their kids to private schools. Where I grew up, rich, poor, and inbetween were in the same school together. I felt I not only had a good education but I got to see how other kids lived and that’s an education in itself.

    I have friends who grew up upper middle class in LA and as nice as they are I feel like they don’t understand how lucky they are to have been born as such in a major city. They went to school with other upper middle class kids and rich kids. Their parents have been able to give them things that other kids parent’s couldn’t afford. From college education to cars and that’s a norm for them.

    I have also been lucky in this regard, but I know how lucky I am. I feel because they grew up among other affluent kids, they don’t quite get this.

    In general, teachers and public schools in America deserve better treatment. Education is a major backbone of our society and could be a thing to make us great.

    1. Another benefit of a socioeconomically varied members in a classroom is seeing each other as classmates instead of seeing a differentiation between the classes. Perhaps America would be a very different place right now if so many upper income children had attended the same schools as the poor. There is still time. We can change this.

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