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 ❤️

Visitors to the Parsonage: Goatmen, Drunkards, and Convicts

In our last episode of Feeding of Folly, the blogger hinted she was “busy,” and therefore would have difficulty posting on a regular basis.

“Busy with what?” readers demanded.

She didn’t say. The only morsel she offered was that for the next few weeks, she would be supplementing her blog posts with found writings from her Great-Aunt and Great-Grandfather. (Leaving readers with the profound hope that not only will Great-Aunt Clara be a good storyteller, she’ll also know the proper use of a semicolon.)

First, by way of introduction, here is the short bio for Clara that appears in Pioneer Memoirs:

Clara Jacobson (1863-1949), eldest child of Abraham and Nicoline Jacobson, studied at Monona Academy, Decorah Institute, and Valder College. She taught both public and parochial school for many years in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. She wrote a great many accounts of the pioneer days and her work appeared in Norwegian-American journals and newspapers.

The passage below is an excerpt from “Minder fra Perry Prestegard” — Memories from Perry Parsonage. It first appeared in print in 1911 in the Norwegian-American journal Symra. Clara’s father, Abraham, served a congregation in Dane County, Wisconsin from 1868-1878.

Here, Clara describes a few of the guests her family entertained at the parsonage. (I have to say, I rather like these people. Their guests, too.)

In those days the parsonage was a stopping place for itinerant people of various kinds. Father and Mother never asked any pay for keeping them, and it was in exceptional cases that anything was offered for their trouble.

Many queer personages visited the minister. Among others may be named Gjeitemand (the goat man). He had gotten this name because he had brought goats with him from Norway. These he sold to Americans, but after a while they returned to their former owner, who sold them again. He loved to tell local stories, but when they did not receive the desired appreciation his visits ceased.

Jonsebergen was also a well-known figure. He was very fond of strong liquor, but as he lived far from town he could not get it easily when the longing came over him.

Mr. Dahle, who kept the store, always had spirits on hand, together with various patent medicines, but he only sold them for medicinal purposes. Once when Jonsebergen was somewhat drunk, he went to the store to get liquor, but Dahle would not sell him any.

What did he do then? Yes, he actually came to the minister and asked him to write a testimony saying, Let Jonsebergen get a pint of whiskey. “The pastor in Valdres wrote this for me,” he added.

“No,” Father said. “If I were to write, I would have to say, ‘Do not let Jonesbergen get any whiskey.’”

Jonsebergen left, stumbling along. Later he said to his friends, “What in the world was the matter with me that I should think of going to the minister when I was drunk?”

Haavelsongutten, who was well known among people from Valdres, Norway, also visited the parsonage. He had a bad record, for he had served a prison sentence at Christiania (Oslo) for his misdeeds. When he was released he left for America.

He had acquired a citified speech and did not use his native dialect when he visited the minister. He spoke of the “institution,” and Father understood that by this he meant the prison. Once he told Father that his daughter was married to a cavalry officer in Christiania. When Father could not conceal his surprise, he said in his stiffest book language, “Do you not know, pastor, that a black sow can have white pigs?”

Here is a picture of the whole Jacobson clan: Mom, Dad, and all 11 (eleven!) children:

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Great-Aunt Clara is the woman seated on the far right. The young child leaning into her is my Grandmother.

Tune in next week when Great-Aunt Clara tells of more visitors, including a schoolteacher of whom a farmer says, “We might just as well have a cow to teach school as this Berentsen.”

I Never Got What I Wanted for Christmas

If that sounds like a whine, I don’t mean it as such. It’s true that as a child I never received anything I wanted for Christmas, despite the fact that I noted page numbers in catalogs, circled items, made note of color preferences and quantity, and any other helpful information my mother might need.

Nevertheless, it’s true. I never got a single thing I requested.

If you remember, a few weeks ago I also told you how Santa Claus never visited my house. That’s true too, but I’m not asking for your pity. In fact, if there was ever a child less deserving of pity than myself from days past, I’d like to meet them. For not only did I have a family who loved me, I had parents who knew what was best for me. And what was best for me was rarely what I wanted.

This is a picture of my brothers and me on Christmas Eve, before the evening’s festivities began.

Brothers and me

My two older sisters are missing, the oldest one married with a little girl of her own, the other sister… well, I’m not sure where she is. Maybe she was still getting dressed.

The sparkly dress I’m wearing was my “movie star dress.”  I wanted to wear it all the time.

“Mom, mom, can I wear my movie star dress? Pretty please? Pleeeease?”
“No dear, that’s too fancy. That’s for fancy events.”

Christmas Eve was our fancy event.

The entire family gathered for dinner, relatives came from out-of-town, everyone dressed in their Sunday best. It was a sit-down meal with Mom’s finest plates (Corelle®) and her only set of matching silverware. We may have used fabric napkins, I don’t remember.

After the meal, everyone helped clear the table and the adults washed the dishes. By hand. We had to wait until every dish was clean, dried, and put away.

Finally, after the last piece of silverware was put in the box (not used again until Easter), Mom wiped her hands, removed her apron, and announced it was time. Everyone took a seat by the tree, we children sat on the floor.

One gift at a time, that’s how it was done. Usually Mom, but sometimes Dad, would select a gift, hand it to the person it was intended for, and we’d watch as they unwrapped it.

If this sounds ponderously slow, I should point out that children received three gifts each and the adults, as I remember, received one. If that. Even so, when you’re six years old and the last of five kids…

This particular year, the year of the photo, I wanted a doll. But not just any doll. I wanted Dancerina Ballerina.

Dancerina Ballerina ad

Push a button on top of Dancerina’s head, her leg kicks out and… get this… she twirls! Just like a real ballerina!

I told my mom: That’s it. That’s all I want for Christmas. Dancerina Ballerina

My mom, I have to give her credit, she looked into it. She must have for a few days later she broke the news: It exceeded her price limit for dolls.

You see, my mom was a great believer in budgets and rules. She had many rules, most of them her own creation. Two of her long standing rules involved dolls.

Mom’s Doll Rule #1: Every little girl should have a doll at Christmas
Mom’s Doll Rule #2: No doll should cost more than $20.00

Dancerina Ballerina cost slightly more than $20.00.

It wasn’t a lot, maybe a dollar or two at the most. But it was a dollar or two over $20, and that broke Mom’s rule. Other parents would have thought, “Oh, it’s not that much. We can swing it.” But those parents weren’t my mom. Mom was a rule follower. 

Plus, Mom was German. Dancerina Ballerina didn’t have a chance.

Even so, I had hope. When Mom handed me the wrapped, doll-sized box that year, presented it with a comment along the lines of, “This is Christi’s special gift,” I was certain it was Dancerina.

But of course it wasn’t. If it was, I would have titled this post something other than, “I Never Got What I Wanted for Christmas.”

Here I am with the doll I did get, along with my two other gifts:

Giggles and me
The larger doll, the one with the shiny golden hair, that’s Giggles. When you held her hands and moved her arms, she giggled. As I recall she sounded a bit like a dolphin, but that was okay by me. I loved her.

The next morning, Christmas Day, my brothers and I headed outside to show off our new toys to friends, who were all outside for the same reason. It would be several years before I realized they probably opened their gifts that morning. At the time, I thought everyone celebrated on Christmas Eve. I had no reason to think otherwise.

That morning’s “look-what-I-got” exchange is an especially memorable one for me. Of all the girls my age who received dolls, I was the only one without a Dancerina Ballerina.

I realize how that sounds. You probably think I’m exaggerating for effect, but please believe me, I am not. I truly was the only one without a Dancerina.

Again, don’t pity me. For there’s a funny thing that happens when children see the same toy over and over, then finally see something different. The different toy becomes the most popular.

Giggles was the life of the party.

And why wouldn’t she be? Everything made her happy, nothing ever got her down. She was the friend who cheered you up, the playmate who laughed at all your jokes. She was a perfect delight.

As for me, I remember holding another girl’s Dancerina and feeling her stiff, awkward limbs, seeing the odd button on top of her head. Without a word, I handed her back to the girl and gave quiet thanks for my mom’s rules. She really did know best.

Many parents worry over whether their children will be disappointed on Christmas Day if they don’t get exactly what they want. Personally? I think it’s a needless worry.

Children are resilient. They can handle much more than we give them credit for, even a few strange rules and a strict budget. And the way I see it, no one would be more deserving of pity than a child who always got what they wanted and never heard the word ‘No’.

In the end, all that truly matters is whether or not they were loved.

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Merry Christmas, friends. I hope the day brings you every good thing, many happy memories, and lots and lots of love. ❤️

The Story of a Young Girl’s Faith in Santa, Her Ensuing Disgrace, and Her Rescue From Certain Despair

The year was 1970. I was in the first grade, and I was being punished for believing in Santa.

Rather, to be more clear, I was punished for defending Santa.

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You see, an unbeliever in the ranks – a heathen – was casting doubt on his existence. Pointing out irregularities in the Santa Claus canon. Casting aspersions on his good name.

Several of my classmates were listening and their faith was shaken. You could see it in their eyes.

I’d had enough. I proclaimed in a voice for all to hear:

There is so a Santa Claus! He’s been to MY HOUSE!

Gasp!

Unfortunately we were in class at the time and our teacher was not fond of loud proclamations. Even those in defense of Santa.

It was the time-out table for me.

I must pause here, for I need you to understand the overall makeup of our teacher’s time-out table. Only then can you grasp the true horror of what was before me.

Miss September — okay, my teacher’s name wasn’t really Miss September. It was something similar to Miss September. Something like Miss Sembler… or maybe it was Stremble. Honestly, I don’t know.

The fact is, I was never very good with names, even as a child. For those I didn’t recognize or couldn’t pronounce, I’d come up with a close approximation and stick with it. No doubt Miss September corrected me plenty of times before giving up, figuring there were worse things to be called than the name of a centerfold.

In any case, it wasn’t enough for Miss September that a noisy child sat at the time-out table. The point had to be driven home, which was why there was a stack of index cards on the table. Whoever sat at the table had to do so while keeping an index card in their mouth. The entire time.

I had never, in the entire history of my academic career (now spanning kindergarten and a few months of first grade), been punished for speaking out of turn.

I can still hear Miss September’s voice, “Who said that?!” Adding, in disbelief, “Christi? Was that you?!”

Was there a moment of hesitation? A possibility of reprieve given my incredible track record? Was consideration given for the fact my outburst was a necessary one? The foundation of our faith was being challenged! A defender had to rise up!

I was that defender.

But no. Consistency in punishment, that was Miss September’s way. She pointed to the back table without saying a word. I made my way, my head cast low.

The truly frustrating thing was that I had no reason to stand up for Santa.

Santa had never brought me a present. There was no chimney in our house for him to come down, no stockings to fill. My parents never threatened us with “Santa won’t come if you don’t behave,” because we were always to behave. Santa had nothing to do with it. And Santa never came on Christmas morning, presumably, because we celebrated on Christmas Eve. It was our family’s tradition from ages past.

Clearly, Santa and my family had denominational differences.

But being the broadminded people they were, my parents were not Santa-deniers. They never spoke out in favor of him, nor against him. They simply never brought him up.

What I learned, you might say, I picked up on the streets.

My faith was a pure one. Not born out of fear or greed, but out of sincere philosophical musing and sound theology.

Plus, as I said, he’d been to my house.

Santa and me 2

Many years later, as my mom was showing family pictures to my husband, I asked her who the man was who showed up at our house one December day so long ago, dressed as Santa.

She laughed. It wasn’t a man. (Gasp!) It was the neighbor lady from across the street. The people who bred Boston terriers and decorated their house with blue Christmas lights. It was her.

Honestly, I had no idea.

Back to Miss September’s class: I approached the time-out table, sat down heavily, put the card in my mouth. The tears… oh my friends, the tears! Never has a child suffered so much, nor felt it so deeply as I. Shame and misery were mine.

But the story doesn’t end here, for there was another student at the time-out table. She was a frequent visitor, a regular felon in our classroom. In truth, she was our class clown, and though we weren’t close friends, she gave me a gift that day.

I’m very sorry I don’t remember her name. A better writer would make one up for you. Just name her Angie or Susan or Debbie. Invent a name and run with it. But just as it is with Miss September and my Santa lady with blue Christmas lights, I cannot lie. Her name is lost.

I have failed you. Mea culpa.

All I can remember are two things: her hand sliding across the table until she got my attention, and then, when I looked up… do you know what I saw? This little comic genius had taken the index card, folded it in half, put it in her mouth and was now impersonating a duck!

Soon my tears of sadness were tears of joy and I could hardly stay in my seat due to giggling. My misery forgotten, my day instantly brightened.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, what impact we can have on others? Whether we dress up as Santa (remember ladies, it’s an equal opportunity position), or we cheer up a tearful child with a goofy face. It’s the little moments of kindness that matter.

So as we make our way through this holiday season — indeed, as we approach a new year — let’s look at the ways we leave our mark on others. The memories we give them, the words we leave them.

Let’s make them count, yes?

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And please, put in a good word for Santa. There are enough doubters in the world as it is.

First picture: srikanta H. U on Unsplash
Second picture: Author’s own, and ain’t I a cute one?
Third picture: Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

Cursive Schmursive: If It’s Legible, Who Cares?

If I were looking for a new job — I’m not, you know, but if I was — there’s a new skill I can add to my resume: Handwriting Translator.

Reason being, throughout the day students approach my desk and show me a yellow slip of paper. They ask in meek tone, one befitting Oliver Twist: “Please, ma’am, I don’t know what this says.”

Well, maybe not that Oliver Twistish. But you get my point.

The yellow slip is our school’s “student request pass”. The student’s name will be there, usually written clearly, we hope written clearly, the rest… well, the rest is a crapshoot. It might be written clearly. It might be like a doctor’s scribbling.

I do my best to decipher the note. Usually it’s from our Attendance department, sometimes the Nurse’s office. Back in my greenhorn days, I used to follow up with a polite email, suggesting the scribbler fill out the passes more carefully or give up cursive altogether. After all, most of our kids don’t read cursive.

I no longer do that. Reason being, it usually triggers a rant:

How come they don’t teach cursive anymore?!

Why in my day…

Everyone is so lazy nowadays!

Cursive handwriting is the hallmark of civilized society!

I usually enjoy seeing people on their high horse. It can be quite entertaining and worthy of a blog post or two. But after the fourth or fifth time around the track, even I grow tired of their raging.

Pity they don’t feel the same.

In any case, I’ve come to realize that people of a certain age, the age being somewhere on the far side of 40, tend to feel strongly about this issue.

Well, at least women do. I’ve not witnessed any men going off the deep end regarding cursive. Maybe they do. I’ve not seen it.

In any case, I’ve noticed the arguments for returning cursive to the curriculum range from the ridiculous:

“You’re more creative when you use cursive writing instead of a keyboard”

(Oh, if only Hemingway, Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, et. al., not insisted on using their typewriters! How much greater their works might have been!)

To the nostalgic:

“Remember those lined workbooks with the letters to trace? I loved those!”

I didn’t. As much as I tried to replicate the letters and follow their lines, my clumsy little hand would not cooperate.

And having to make such BIG letters too. The capitals absolutely insisted on touching both top and bottom lines. Not to be undone, several of the lower case demanded it too.

Cheeky little devils that they were.

Cursive alphabet

My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. McCullough, was not a patient woman. She rarely approved of my feeble attempts.

Ms. McCullough and me

It wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the fact several letters are battling identity issues.

The letter A, regretting her cross line and open bottom, caring little she represents my favorite article of apparel (A-line skirt), chucks it all away to look like an abnormal apple:

Cursive A

So too is S, no longer content with his smooth, sloping shape, chooses instead to shroud his silhouette.

Secretive little sneak:

Cursive S

G, ever the garrulous gent, decides he can’t give ground. He follows S’s guide and makes a point of it:

Cursive G

And what are we to make of Q? It’s shameless, really. Q, in her printed state, is round with a little tail; the cousin of O with a quirky flair.

Yet in script, she opts for something different, an queer and querulous affair:

Cursive Q

Yet none of that comes close to Z, that zany zealot who zigzags his way in print.

For cursive… well, at first he seems to copy Q. He zips onto the page, zeroes in toward the bottom and… what’s this? He zooms below the line, where he has no business being!

Cursive Z

Breaking all zoning laws!

You know what I think? I think Q and Z got together and hatched this devious plot!

“Why won’t they use us more in their writing?” Q queried. “I say we make them quiver and quake, every time they pick up their quill!”

“Zounds, Q, that’s zelicious!” And with that, Z zapped and zipped his shape in a most zesty fashion.

Q looked at him quizzically, but remained quiet.

For most of my early schooling, I disliked my handwriting. No, more than disliked. I actively despised my cursive skills. No matter how I tried, Mrs. McCullough’s elegant swoops and flourishes would never be mine.

Then sometime in high school, I was looking through old records and came across Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.”

Ignoring the cheesy mustache, I latched onto the words at the top.

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Look at those S’s folks! Sure, Z still gets down and dirty, but capital S remains true to form!

Only then did it occur to me how adults (as they do in so many things) throw out the rules and do what they want. I decided right then and there, Mrs. McCullough be damned, I’d write however I wanted.

Which is how I finally embraced my own version of handwriting (more like smushed together printing) and never looked back.

 

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All this is a long way of saying, I don’t think it’s a big deal students aren’t being taught cursive. Maybe you disagree with me. If you’re anything like the women I work with, I know you do.

I still say it’s not a big deal. If our youth want to learn cursive, they’ll figure it out just like my kids did. On their own, with no Mrs. McCullough breathing down their neck. There’s no age limit to acquiring it, and there are plenty of sites offering free lessons.

And of course, they can always make up their own rules.

As for the argument that it teaches them fine motor skills and helps brain development, art lessons and playing a musical instrument do that too. And I’d argue do a much better job of it.

Now as for students not being taught how to properly diagram a sentence?

My God people! When will the madness end?!

Diagram

Are You Keeping Score?

The woman with the most elegant home,

Wins an all-paid vacation to the city of Rome.

And the mother who births the smartest babies,

Gets a brand-new, red, convertible Mercedes.

And the woman who chants, “I’m so busy” the most,

Gains the respect of all, on account of her boast.

So for goodness sake, I hope you’re keeping score,

Cause if there ain’t no prizes, then what’s it all for?

Stressed

Bad Theology or Bad Parenting?

wp_20170104_14_18_20_proAlrighty gang, our judgment on last week’s Bad Theology post was considered not harsh enough for some readers (though one defended the picture), and I pledged I’d condemn with greater vigor from here on out.

Later, I found myself saying, “Meh. I’ll do what I want.”

In any case, I want you to know it’s not that I’m waffling on this week’s entry. It’s more that I’m not sure how I stand on it.

Is it bad theology, or is it just bad parenting? See for yourself: Continue reading “Bad Theology or Bad Parenting?”

TeacherScape – A Game of Strategy and Broken Dreams

Create a World of Epic Learning!

The Battle against ignorance is set to begin!

Objective: Educate students and reach retirement without suffering burnout or loss of hope for the next generation

Battlefield: Your Public High School

Ready to begin? Select a game figure:

Continue reading “TeacherScape – A Game of Strategy and Broken Dreams”

What Was I Thinking?

In which both kids’ wisdom teeth are removed and I live to tell the tale.

Remember last Friday, when I told you both my kids were getting their wisdom teeth removed? As in, BOTH kids.

AT THE SAME TIME?!

Image33Usually I’m so much smarter than that.

Oh, and let’s not forget we did this while Husband was out of town.

Yeahhhh

But hey, beings how this here’s a full-service blog, I’ve managed to derive some helpful tips from this situation.

You know. Should you ever find yourself in a similar oral-surgery hell.

You’re welcome. Continue reading “What Was I Thinking?”