Dear Old Golden Rule Days
by Janet Farquhar
Chapter 1 - First Test
It was my first day of teaching rural school in the mountains of Colorado in the late forties. A pot bellied stove that had been converted to butane, warmed the room. My chunky desk stood in front of a stage, a blackboard took up the back wall. Sixteen pupils faced me from different sized desks, sitting with their backs straight, hands folded, glaring at me. They spoke only when they had to recite and never smiled. For the first week there was no giggling or whispering, no passing of notes. There was no laughing or shouting on the playground at recess or before I rang the hand bell in the morning.
It was not like that in the one room school I attended as a preteen or any other school I went to. I did not understand why my pupils were so wary and thought they hated me, that I was a miserable failure.
One morning I gathered the three first grade girls on the stage for a math lesson. I asked one of them to think of a secret number and then pinch Patty that many times. The two younger girls giggled, and Patty, a plump little Sioux, erupted in loud laughter. "Pinch!" she said. "You're not supposed to pinch!"
There was subdued laughter from pupils at their desks. At last, I thought, they're behaving like children. Come to think of it, they weren't glaring at me any more and no longer sat at their desks so rigidly. I felt much better.
The second week, Sam, a sixth grader, began blowing spit wads and making remarks to set them giggling and joining in the disruption. I was loosing control of the school. I lived on the farm of a parent, the president of the board of the Deer Creek School. The more Sam cut up, the more excited Hilda became. By the end of the week, she was practically screaming. "You will have to give him a good thrashing! It is the only thing he understands. Mrs. Day gave him a whipping when he misbehaved."
Mrs. Day taught them the year before. She was so elderly, tiny and soft-spoken, she could not possibly have whipped anyone. Hilda must have said that so I would think it the thing to do. I did not want to thrash him. I tried Mrs. Day's suggestion of standing him in the corner, or making him write, "I will not throw spit wads" 100 times. Nothing worked. One afternoon he poured paint water on the outside wall of the school. When I told him to stay after school and clean it off, he snorted. "That's no punishment! Mrs. Day would have whaled the tar out of me!"
Tiny, elderly Mrs. Day had whaled the tar out of him? That explained why he was putting me through hell. And those expressions on the children's faces hadn't been hate, they had been fear. I was surer than ever I did not want to thrash him. Thinking about all this, I reasoned he was probably put out with me because he was the only sixth grader and smart so I didn't spend much time with him. I was also afraid of him. Walking to school next morning on the rain soaked road, I vowed to give him more attention . It would be difficult. I was already trying to juggle 16 balls when I didn't even know how to juggle 2, but I would figure out a way. Nearing the white clapboard school with its steeple, I saw that it had been smeared with mud. I sighed. Sam again.
As I sat at my desk wondering what to do, Hilda's gangling, eighth grade son came in and stood at attention with his hands behind his back. From the expression on his face whenever Sam was acting up, I knew he disapproved of my inability to maintain discipline. "Yes, William?"
"Ma'am, did you see the school?" I nodded. "There's boot prints by where the mud was smeared. They're from Sam's."
My mouth fell open a bit. I hadn't expected help from a pupil. "Thank you, William. I'll take care of it."
Looking at me briefly as though unsure whether I could be trusted to do so, he turned smartly and marched out.
I glanced down at the gavel Day had used to demand quiet and recalled an article in Life Magazine about a fifth grade class that disciplined itself by means of jury trials, the pupils being judge and jury. So we had a trial. I was the judge, William the district attorney. Tommy, who spoke up loudly for Sam when I accused him of the crime, was attorney for the defense. After questioning the accused, William took him and the jury outside to compare boot prints. The jury came up with a verdict of guilty, and I sentenced Sam to a week without recess.
During his incarceration, he gradually warmed to me, and I no longer saw him as a monster. From then on, there were no more spit wads, there was no more cutting up, and class work moved along a bit faster. The rest of the children became more relaxed and seemed to begin to trust me. There was loud laughter and shouting outside during recess now. I had passed the first test of my first year of teaching.
To learn more about Janet's book, Taught to the Tune, click on: http://home.earthlink.net/~zenfive.
Chapter 2 - Creative Activities
Chapter 3 - Music
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Taught to the Tune