Part 2: One-room School Mother

Remember, she walked a mile to school and back, and one summer afternoon, we clocked it. Then, because my sister and I wanted to know, we drove from our current house to our elementary school. Oh my, not even a quarter of a mile.

Come to think of it, mom walked home for lunch, too. Another mile back and forth. I remember her saying most children ate packed lunches and had time for recess. But she had to hurry. The situation reversed when she went to high school in town. There, the students went home for an hour’s lunch, and only the “country kids” packed and ate in the lunchroom. I wonder if she had someone to eat with.

I wonder how she got to school! It was a couple of miles. No, no, no horses. Was there school busing? Did she hitch rides? I wish I had thought of these questions earlier because now, I’m the oldest in the family and have no one else to ask. I will assume she did not walk, and the township had buses for high school. Let’s go from there.

Mom was such good student at that one-room school that she was advanced a grade, something I never knew about until she told me that my elementary school principal wanted me to skip a grade, too. Mom wouldn’t allow it. She was thrust into an older group of kids who not only made fun of her for being a country bumpkin, but a younger one at that, and as time went on, there were always things they were allowed to do (wear lipstick, drive, date) that Mom was left out of. I may not have had the same problems that she had in an older group, but I would have missed my friends, and many teachers didn’t realize how hard I had to work to get the grades I did. Like mom, I was great at English and languages, but math was a mountain that didn’t want to move or be climbed. That was one good thing mom did for me at school. I stayed with my friends. (But I wonder, damn! I could’ve skipped a grade, smarty pants!)

Back at country school, mom struggled with penmanship. Her writing always was a barely legible scrawl, and this was an important skill in the forties. Printing was one thing, but people prided themselves on beautiful handwriting. My great aunt could do it. There was one man at church whose writing was so exquisite, people saved his envelopes. But Mom must have spent hours copying and writing, trying to stay within those dotted and solid lines. I imagine she missed recesses and stayed after school trying to improve the impossible rounds and long loops. I feel sad for her now, and I wonder if she would be amused that cursive writing has nearly disappeared from most school curricula. We type, we text, and we can print. But can we sign our names? I can imagine mom shaking her head and thinking, “It’s a lost art.” No, she’d probably be furious, thinking about all the time she worked. I think about all the kids who literally cannot sign their names!

In high school, mom excelled. She could speak Spanish, French, some Russian, and of course, Pennsylvania German. In fact, she and her whole family were fluent in this lost dialect of German. It wasn’t a second language for them; it was a dual language, one my sister and I grew up hearing all around us, and not just from family. It was not taught, not really. Either you knew it, or you didn’t, and most of us kids didn’t like it. We said it sounded “jakey” which meant our peers would make fun of us if we spoke it. But as I remember, I was not encouraged to speak it; in fact, if I were around my grandparents, they would immediately switch to English so I could understand them. Now, I wish they hadn’t. I grew up believing they spoke “Dutch,” as it was called, to keep us younguns from knowing what going on. It was a sort of secret language, like Pig Latin. I would listen for my name and watch their faces. Sadly, I only picked up a few words, and when I had the pick of foreign languages in high school, I grabbed French, because I thought it was so exotic.

Here’s the truth about French. I visited France twice. the first time I was too intimidated to speak, especially as I watched our French teacher being berated for her poor French by a desk clerk. Seriously! The second trip, I decided to Speak. With. A. Vengeance. Loudly! It worked. Anyway, I should have stuck with Spanish.

Hokay. Back to penmanship.

I wonder what Mom thought when her first two daughters turned out to be dreaded–lefties! Mom’s half-brother was a lefty, but grandpa made him write right-handed, a pretty common practice back then. He didn’t say a work about us girls, but I but he shook his head and wondered what Mom would do.

She did this:

Mom ended up becoming a high school English teacher and being one of the only people on her side of the family to graduate from college. So, when I got to third grade, Miss D. complained about my cursive writing with little snarky notes at the top of my penmanship papers: “Sonya, refuses to hold her paper at the correct angle.”

I didn’t dare hide these notes from Mom, but she didn’t say much, just frowned a bit. But one day, she marched into my elementary school, nodded at the principal who had gone to college with her, and holding a fistful of these notes, Mom read Miss D. the proverbial riot act about paper angles for lefties. I can hear the tone she used: very profession and very scary.

“My daughter is left-handed, which is not a crime. You will not make her turn the handwriting paper to the angle for a right-handed child. Do you understand me?”

And then, not waiting for Miss D. to nod or open her mouth, mom would have continued:

“Look at this!” She’d pull out an old envelope addressed to the phone company or something. “That’s my writing, and I’m right-handed.”

I’m sure Miss D stared at the envelope in order not to have to look at Mom.

“My daughter’s writing is better than mine, so leave her alone!”

Without waiting for a reply, my mother, college graduate and high school teacher, would have stuffed the envelope back into her bag, snapped it closed, repositioned her sheer green head scarf and walked out of the classroom. The children, including me, were all at music class, and therefore, no one was the wiser.

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