The One Room School House
by Helga Ross
Growing up on the farm in southwestern Manitoba in the fifties, I spent my entire elementary school days at a small red- brick, one- room school house in Lena, Manitoba on the prairie. People often joked that Lena was so small they didn’t allow electric razors, otherwise the street lights would go dim!
The school itself was established in 1906 and eventually closed in 1970. We had one teacher to cover eight grades and the highest enrollment at any one time that I recall was around twenty. Some of the older kids went there to take grade nine correspondence courses under the teacher’s supervision. The school was well built with a cement basement and a furnace. We would play in the basement on rainy days but never went down there on cold days, always playing outside. We would bring our skates in the winter to skate in the ditches or on the schoolyard pond before school started.
The school had a sturdy barn nearby that could accommodate up to half a dozen horses. In Spring as soon as the snow melted we would hook up our horse ‘George’ to a small wagon similar to a Red River Cart with two high spoked wheels which would then take us the two miles or so to the school which was built near the CN Wakopa subdivision railroad line and its adjacent railway station and two grain elevator (Poole and Patterson-now long abandoned). We would always bring a bale of hay and big bucket of chop to school to feed George either in the morning or at lunchtime. George seemed to know every turn to and from school and the closer we got to our farmhouse the faster he would go.
In winter on extreme cold days we had two horses to take us to school in a covered sleigh sort of like in the movie “Doctor Shivago”. We even snuggled under a warm buffalo robe to keep warm just like in the movie. Once the sleigh went off the road into the ditch and we tipped over in the deep snow thinking it was a fun but Dad who was driving the sleigh didn’t think so. One of my sister’s classmates rode bareback in warm weather to school galloping into the school yard on a large white horse with her long blonde braids flying in the wind. She couldn’t have been more than seven years old at the time. Most of us stayed at school for lunch. Our Mom made us the best lunches complete with hot home- made soup in a thermos with Spam or baloney sandwiches.
I’ve often wondered how our teachers managed to teach so many kids so many different curricula every day of the week. I can’t imagine the preparation that was involved for eight grades. I got the highest marks every year for seven years as I was the only student in my grade! Discipline in those days was seldom a problem because beside the register in the teacher’s drawer at the front of room was the dreaded strap. It was seldom used but because of its frightening availability in that wretched drawer, law and order was almost always maintained within the classroom. Keeping lively country kids in line who were used to the freedom of an uninhibited prairie lifestyle could be a challenge. For four years I was petrified with fear – so scared that I don’t recall answering one question that the teacher asked. My older brother on the other hand who was usually very well behaved got the strap one day for being sarcastic to the teacher and he had to march up to the front and hold his hand out rather stoically for his punishment while the rest of us watched in awe and disbelief. After his chastisement he just walked back to his desk unbroken, with a smirk on his face. We were proud of him.
Nevertheless, in spite of the threat of this medieval instrument we had fun at this school with see-saws and the tallest swings on the playground you could imagine. I recall spelling bees, and crokinole tournaments and baseball games in which we competed against other prairie schools. We even competed with other schools in marching bands and we seemed to win every year wearing white outfits with red sashes. We attributed our marching skills to a teacher who had once been a soldier who taught us how to march.
Everyday we sang “Oh Canada” followed by the Lord’s Prayer and the British Union Jack was raised (until I was in grade twelve when the Canadian flag was legislated). And at the end of the day we honoured our sovereign by singing “God Save the Queen”. Every Friday the CBC radio broadcast a music hour in the afternoon for Manitoba schools and we would sing along, learning music as we sang. Our library in retrospect was comprehensive and it was often replenished with new books to enhance our learning. I recall first reading Laura Ingalls “Little House on the Prairie” from that library. Our teacher would read a chapter from the ‘Hardy Boys’ or ‘Nancy Drew’ every day at one o’clock to start the afternoon. We would hang in suspense until the following day for the next chapter.
Each year, regardless of how many students were in the school, we would be required to put on a Christmas concert in the United Church building, which was situated on the same yard as the school. We would be required to learn to tap dance, sing, learn lines for countless plays and then practice endlessly in the church building. Our mothers would sew amazing costumes. The entire community would come out to see the concert, packing out the church which always had to open the annex in order to accommodate the audience. A local business man, who had a penchant for having a few too many, was conscripted to be Santa. One year, when he had been particularly injudicious about the amount he imbibed before making a late appearance as Santa, chased the teacher around the stage in an attempt to get a kiss! The audience and students roared with laughter. We were rewarded for the long wait with generous bags of candy, oranges, nuts and chocolate bars that our tipsy Santa handed out to the students.
And we weren’t all a bunch of country hicks either. For example, one of our classmates became involved at the Manitoba legislature, another became a veterinarian and his older brother became a bank manager. Many others went on to lead successful lives in engineering and education and farming thanks to the impact of the little prairie schoolhouse in Lena, Manitoba. I managed to acquire several university degrees after high school so I suppose we all got off to a good footing in our education. And we learned that education wasn’t all about sitting in a classroom. The older kids often took the younger kids under their wing, helping them with their lessons and teaching them how to play baseball and volleyball at recess. Of course if you didn’t teach the younger kids how to play then we wouldn’t have anyone to play with. But we learned the value of ‘community’ in microcosm in that little school that later on in life enabled us to get along with others and become helpful citizens in the larger community. For that I am thankful for the blessings I received from that one-room brick schoolhouse in Lena, Manitoba.