Grade School

When I started school, I went to kindergarten at a little school house at the top of the hill on the main road, but I could already read and was pretty bored with the whole thing. Then a two-room school house was built on the town site next to the Church house that was just north of the Meetinghouse. The first four grades met in the South side and the next four in the North. We had a secession of teachers, sometimes the teacher would stay at Grandma’s house or at other places around the Valley. I had many relatives living there. Three of my Grandmother’s five sisters lived there. Dora Burnham and her children lived just Northwest of us and on the road to the schoolhouse. Her daughter, Jean, was my best friend for many years.

We didn’t have the best of teachers, but I always wanted to learn, and one of the things I learned well was spelling. Sometimes we stayed at my Grandmother’s. One year when the teacher stayed there, we found to my horror that her name was Flora. It happened that we had a Jersey cow named Flora. All the relatives warned me over and over never to mention that the coq was near. I lived in terror that I might have a slip of the tongue when the teacher was near and say something like, ”Oh, there comes Flora the cow down the lane.” But, I never did.

Ernest L. Boyer, author of Connections and President of the Carnegie Foundation, spoke at a graduation ceremony at BYU, March of 1987. After his talk I decided to recall the great teacher who had shaped my life. I first remember Miss Rice, my first grade teacher. About a hundred years ago, my mother and I walked to school together for my first day. I asked if I would learn to read on the first day of school. My mother said, “No, but you will before the year is out.” My mother didn’t know Miss Rice. My first grade teacher met me at the door and she stood there half human, half divine. In fact, for most of the year I just assumed that in the evening she ascended into heaven and the next morning came down to teach the class. Well, Miss Rice at 28 looked frightened, awestruck, anticipating children and then with a moment’s pause, she said, “Good morning class. Today we learn to read.” The first words I ever heard in school. We spent all day on four words. We traced them, we sang them and the Supreme Court forgive her, we even prayed them. (Incidentally, on that delicate subject, I heard recently that one prayer in school that is acceptable to all faiths is, “Dear God, don’t let her call on me today.” I also heard that as long as there are final exams in mathematics there will be prayer in the public schools.) Well, I ran home that night ten feel tall and whipped a crumpled piece of paper from my pocket and said to my mother, “Today I learned to read.” I recited firmly, “I go to school.” Well, I cheated a bit. I think had learned to memorize rather than recognize the symbols, but Miss Rice taught me the first day of school something much more fundamental. She taught me that language is the centerpiece of learning.

I remember Mr. Joseph Smith at the University of Southern California who taught literature to me and who used to read Shakespeare aloud in class even though he had read King Lear and Macbeth a hundred times before. I learned something about the elegance of words.

Learning is not a diversion. It is a staging ground for life.

Rachel Lindsay wrote on one occasion that, “Tis the world’s one crime it may grow dull. Not that they sow but that they seldom reap; Not that they serve, but have no God to serve; Not that they die, but that they die like sheep. The tragedy of life is not death. The tragedy is to die with commitments undefined, with convictions undeclared and with service unfulfilled.”

Another activity in grade school during the winder was to rush out to recess and noon–barely stopping to eat our lunch, wrapping to the teeth in heavy coats, boots, mittens, and will scarves around our necks, grabbing our sleds and rush over to the old Steel place where there was a long sloping hill. We would run to the top, jump on our sleds and go down and then repeat it all over again until it was time for the bell to ring. Where we got all our energy and why we didn’t fall asleep promptly after returning to the classroom I’ll never know. I think it was on this run that Vera one day ran into a barbed wire fence and got three deep slashes across one cheek. They didn’t have much in the way of cosmetic surgery then, so I suppose we just put salve on the cuts and let it go. She carries the scars today. They aren’t noticeable unless she is sick or very tired.

One of my early memories is of Vernon pulling up to the gate in the front and calling for me. One morning my Mother had put a bottle of wonderfully red plums in my lunch. We had lots of apples, but would become tired of them in our lunch and we didn’t have bananas or oranges and other fruits that we have now. So, often we took a small jar of our canned fruit. On this particular morning, Mother had given me plums and had no lid that fit tight. So, when I got on the ‘Schooner’ I told Uncle Vernon that he had to drive very carefully that day and not swing around the corners and toss me off as he often did because I had to keep my plums upright. He controlled his teasing, with my constant cautioning, until we reached the last turn by the school house. He couldn’t stand the careful gait any longer and whirled Ginger around the corner. Away went my lunch and I followed it into the heavy snow, which was heavier than usual that year. I can still remember the sight of those beautiful red plums all over that white snow, while I sprawled there and screamed at Vernon with all my might. I don’t think I spoke to him all day, but I still have a hard time staying angry with anyone.

I spent most of my grade school years up to eighth grade at Redmesa. However I must have had some fairly good teachers because I learned to spell like a demon. Probably this was because we periodically had spell-downs, in which we would stand up in lines all around the room and as soon as someone missed a word they sat down. I worked and worked so I would be the last one up and I quite often was. I can’t remember when I couldn’t read and have always been an avid reader.

When I was nine or ten (around those years) my parents occasionally move to Durango where we would stay either for the winter or for a year, but for a long time they always moved back to Redmesa; one of the times when we were living in Durango and I was going to grade school. We were having a program of some kind or other and I must have been about seven or maybe eight. All of us were on the program, but I had a small part on it. All the parents were invited, but of course, my Dad was working, but Mother was supposed to come. My mother was very conscientious about such things and I never doubted for a moment that she would appear. But the program began and she wasn’t there, but I figured something had delayed her and she would be late. However, I watched the door constantly and we began the program and still she wasn’t there. It went on and on. Finally, I knew that she was not going to show up and I was sick. Not literally, but psychologically. Finally I went over to the teacher and told her I was terrible sick (which I almost was) and that I would have to go home. She gave her consent, so I fled from the classroom and to home. I can’t remember now whether Mother had forgotten, or even if I mentioned it to her. I know, had she known how I felt she would have felt ten times worse than I did, but much of the time I didn’t ever tell Mother how I really felt about anything.

As children, my sister and I often took the beaten dirt path to the gate, took a swing or two on it, and then went on, jumping across the irrigation ditch and on over to Grandma’s. Whenever I thought back to my childhood and my grandparents, I always think of Grandma. My grandfather was a very quiet man and a good man who was frequently helping his friends and neighbors, and who played a ’mean’ fiddle for the dances all over the valley, but I was never close to him. I knew he loved us but he was never demonstrative with his love. Grandma was the typical fat grandma of a child’s dreams, with a big lap which she used frequently in loving us. She also had a crockery cookie jar which almost always had big round soft cookies in it. Grandma was the type of person that if you looked into her cupboards it would appear that there was nothing in the house to eat, but when company dropped in, within an hour she served a steaming hot meal which everyone enjoyed.

Grandma also made cheese and she always let me take the big butcher knife and cute the first wedges in the curd that was so beautifully smooth in the large, new galvanized tub which was used just for the cheese. After the first smooth cuts each way across the cheese, I would then hack it every which way until it was in small pieces and the whey began to separate from the cheese curds, which are delicious themselves. After the whey was squeezed out of the curds the cheese was put into a cheesecloth sack and put up on a board that ran along in the kitchen hung by a wire that was just below the ceiling to keep away mice, and there the cheese would ’cure.’ Our homemade cheese had a different flavor than any bought in a store, but was delicious.

In the summer my grandmother washed the clothes in washtubs at the back of the house by the kitchen door, and even the rinse water was used to water her garden since water was always in short supply. They had a cistern by the back door where drinking water was stored. People also dug wells around the valley to help with the water supply.

And so my life went along as a child, attending the two-room schoolhouse north of the meetinghouse, working in the garden, playing with my friends, going to church regularly and having a fairly ordinary childhood.

When I in about the 7th or 8th grade, times were harder than ever in the valley and our parents couldn’t afford to import a teacher for us so they got a woman there in Redmesa to teach our grades. She was a fairly large, florid skinned woman who wore the same gray dress every day of the world. She had a watch which she pinned to her bosom and which she consulted frequently. As I recall she really didn’t know very much about teaching and what we learned we pretty much did on our own. And we hated her. We didn’t feel that she was fair in her dealings with us, wasn’t teaching us much, and was pretty awful all around. SO, one day we decided to play hooky. Out on the Dryside at the little one-room schoolhouse there was a young man teacher from Indiana or somewhere in the mid-west that we girls had all been hearing about. As I recall it was his first year of teaching and he became the romantic person in our rather dull lives. One day in early spring the entire room of students decided we would play hooky and go visit him. At the last minute five of the students ‘chickened out’ and decided to stay in school, but the rest of us marched bravely off down the lane, laughing, singing and picking up large sticks with which we swished the sagebrush as we went along. When we got to the LaPlata River, we took off our shoes and stockings and waded across; a terrible ‘no no’ for that early in the year. Oh we were devils! Then began the long walk, pretty much uphill, to the little schools house. Actually, it was several miles even from the River and we were pretty tired when we reached there. The handsome young teacher took the onslaught calmly and invited us in. He had a spell-down between us and his class and at noon, we all sat in the shade of the schoolhouse and ate our lunches. He went to his cabin a few yards away and brought over cupcakes which he handed around, which were enough for all of us. How he just happened to have so many as always been a mystery to me, but he did. Never did cupcakes taste so good. As we sat there munching away without a care in the world.

About 2:00 p.m. we decided (or else he suggested) that we start back, and somehow when we trudged a half a mile or so, our consciences began to nag a little. And besides, our backs ached. By the time we got to the river, we were beginning to regret our rash actions and besides that, we were so tired we could hardly drag one foot in front of the other. It was no fun wading across the River, in fact, I’m not sure we didn’t take the bridge. The rest of the way was torture for our tired feet and we began to wonder at the consequences of our little caper. We knew there would be some.

We drug out weary bodies to our various homes. When I reached mine, Mother calmly said that we were all expelled and would have to go to the head of the school board and ask for permission to get back into school. My heart hit the boards of our living room floor. That was UNCLE WILL DAVENPORT my great uncle and the one I was mortally afraid of. This was the proverbial fate worse than death.

I didn’t sleep much that night and the next morning got cleaned up and slowly walked down the long lane, past the cemetery and under the fences until I reached the Davenport home. I was only one of a long succession of weary and chastened students that morning. Actually, he was very kind. He talked about how the valley had received no water the summer before nod how hard they had tried to have a better teacher for us and that they felt bad that they couldn’t do better. He said he hoped now that we would all cooperate and learn as much as we could. As I looked into his sad, dark eyes all the fear evaporated and I felt terrible ashamed that I had been so thoughtless, along with about 27 others. I told him that I was sorry and that I’d go back to school and really study if he’d just let me back in. And he did. I suppose I did study. I always liked school. This was my one and only attempt at playing ‘hooky.’ I never was very good at rebellion.

One of the most out of the ordinary areas of my life as a child was my love for music. By the time I could walk, I stood at the piano (because I couldn’t climb up on the stool by myself) and pick out tunes on it. All my life I knew I want to be a musician. A few years later I was sitting at the piano playing everything and anything ‘by ear.’ My parents were concerned that I wouldn’t want to take lessons and learn to play by notes, but they needn’t have worried because I couldn’t wait to learn what all those little black marks were on the staff. When I was about six or seven, they started me on piano lessons. A few years later I took piano from a teacher who lived to the East across our property quite some distance, and through the hills wooded with pines and cedar trees. This trip to the teacher was quite a distance and most of the time I rode a horse. And I rode a good deal as a child and youngster, but for some reason I didn’t turn out to be a horse lover and many times just walked the distance to my music teacher rather than ride. Now I wouldn’t dare let one of my grandchildren take this trip alone, but times were different then and I felt perfectly safe.

My piano teacher was fairly good and soon I was playing prolifically and played for most programs in our community. But, I have always played by ear a great deal. This has been such a blessing to me all my life because when there was no accompanist around or no music, I could always be depended upon, if I knew the melody.

I should tell about where we kept our milk and other perishables. We didn’t have refrigerators or freezers. We didn’t even have an ice box and there would be no ice even if we did. So, our whole family went down to the LaPlata River and made adobes and put them in the sun to dry. Then we carried them to the wagon and hauled them to our home. My Dad built a ‘milk house’ back of our house and there we stored the milk, cheese, and other perishables. The fruit, potatoes, apples, carrots and other vegetables would be kept in cellars dug into the ground and covered with several feet of dirt, straw, etc. Sometimes there were snakes in these cellars and I lived in terror of seeing one every time I went down, although this didn’t happen often.

When the cows were milked, we strained it, and put it into large round tin pans and when the cream had risen; it was skimmed off with a metal skimmer and made into butter or used for whipping cream, cereal, etc. Sometimes we took a slice of bread, went to the milk house and dipped the bread into the cream on top of the milk. Onto this we sprinkled sugar and ate it–a real treat. Before the stake conference, the milk house was filled with pies, cakes, ham, cheese, and other ‘goodies’ for the meals for our guests.