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Readin’ Writin’ and ‘Rithmatic with Edward and Miss Iola

Letty Owings, 90, recalls two grade school teachers who taught in a one-room school house during the Great Depression.

One Room School House

In the fall of 1930, my formal education began in second grade at Cabbage Neck. I never went to first grade because my sister had already taught me how to read and write and do arithmetic. Our class consisted of four of us who were regulars and the miners’ kids who came now and then. Since ours was a farming/coal mining community, we were accustomed to having students who came only occasionally, smelled bad, lacked school supplies, couldn’t learn much, and always had some sickness or other. Since the miners were relatively far from the school, they had a long, miserable walk with empty stomachs and ragged clothes. My mother often tried to find bits of food to give them as they trugged by our place. A “safety net” designed by the government was far in the future.

Our teacher the first three years was Edward. He lived with his family at the edge of the community. His sister had been the Cabbage Neck teacher before him. All eight members of Edward’s family were good looking Swedes. For the farmers in the area, the family did not quite fit. They were Swedes, they voted for Democrats, and they did not attend the German Evangelical Church. In fact, they did not attend any church. But to me, Edward was as good as it gets. He was kind and considerate. He never, ever showed anger or disgust nor did he play favorites. He was my hero. His third year on the job when I was in fourth grade, he married the daughter of a local judge. Since the judge was a Democrat who kissed up to the political machine which ruled supreme, he had money. Edward no longer needed to herd kids at Cabbage Neck.

After Edward quit, the board hired Miss Iola, and my school experience changed. When I look back with the advantage of lessons life has taught me, I can begin to understand Miss Iola. Cabbage Neck was her first teaching experience. She was young, fearful, inexperienced, poorly trained and vulnerable. I thought she was downright mean, and probably she was that too. She was always cranky, or so it seemed to me. She would go in the school yard and take her time cutting a switch from a tree, a switch that would bend rather than break when she used it to strike a student. Always one stood near her desk. Probably Miss Iola’s meanest act was striking- hard- the palms of hands of kids who could not learn or recite as she demanded. She hit them with the cutting metal edge of a ruler. Of course, only the miners’ kids were recipients of her rage. She never hit a farmer’s kid. She would not dare.  Farmers were on the school board that hired her. One day at lunch break, she told us how she drowned kittens. I never told my parents about that or much of anything else Iola did because kids in those days did not carry tales. That was to her advantage.

Looking back on these unpleasant experiences Iola brought to Cabbage Neck, I have to believe she was so uncertain of herself that her reign of terror was the only way she felt she could control the motley crew she faced. If a car came by on the road, a rare event since only a dirt track came by the school, a student could be- would be- punished for turning a head to look. “Looking out the window,” as it was correctly termed, was another sin worthy of harsh punishment. And whispering or smiling at another student? Perish the thought.

Depicting Miss Iola as I have would be unfair and incomplete if I did not mention something positive she did during her years at Cabbage Neck. She was a Baptist who could play a piano by ear. She persuaded the board to buy for a few dollars a piece of junk that passed as a piano, the only musical instrument the school ever had. Miss Iola loved to play it and teach us hymns and patriotic songs when weather kept us cooped up indoors during the lunch hour. She played and we sang- Baptist hymns, old slave songs, patriotic songs. Separation of church and state was a concept unfamiliar to rural Missouri. “Star Spangled Banner,” “Old Rugged Cross,” “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground.” We learned them all with Miss Iola at the keys.

Miss Iola boarded with a farm family who lived on a blurred line between two county districts.  Miss Iola paid the farm family a pittance to live with them and use Old Tater and her rig for transportation. The family had a daughter Wyona, an only child who got special favors at Cabbage Neck. She also rode in the horse-drawn cart to and from school. The poor old nag stood tied all day until Iola and Wyona got in the cart and headed home. I can still see it- Iola and Wyona in the cart with Iola at the reigns, yelling and screaming, “Whoa Tater” as they flew down the dirt road hitting every rut and bump. Tater was ready to get home!

I never saw Miss Iola again after she moved on from Cabbage Neck. I heard years later that she had married and had children. That was difficult for me to imagine, but surely she gained confidence and put aside the insecurities that had driven her to be a control freak. I can only hope so.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Randen Pederson on flickr.

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