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Historically Speaking: Back to school in the old days

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Mountain View School; five miles southwest of Roswell — persons pictured and date unknown.

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily

Record

With the advent of a new school year and all students and faculty busy with new routines and schedules, I thought I would share a couple of school stories from Clarence Adam’s “Old Timer’s Review — The Good Old Days Of Yesterday.” The first story is by Marcella Clayton, a somewhat bittersweet, yet very descriptive story of her teaching days at Mountain View. The second is a story by Clarence Adams and his first grade at Tinnie, very entertaining and enjoyable. Here are the back-to-school stories from the old days:

“I Was A Mountain View School Teacher in the 1930s

“By Marcella Clayton

“It was the first day of school in the year 1930. At the two-teacher Mountain View School, a long awaited dream was coming true for me. It was my first day as a teacher.

“Mountain View School was located on S. Main St. about five miles from Roswell, and Mrs. Brasher was the County Superintendent of Schools. Mrs. Earnestine Strockton was the principal of our school and she taught the fourth through the eighth grades. I taught the first three grades.

Since I had always gone to school in Roswell where there had never been three grades in one room, my first problem was to decide how I could handle such a situation. Education courses I had taken in college did not give me any specific information in this respect. We had been taught to have our own rooms looking attractive on the first day of school, and this included having a bouquet of flowers on the teacher’s desk.

“I really don’t remember whether I had the flowers but I definitely remember that I didn’t have a desk. During that entire first year, I had only a small table with one small drawer which I used as a desk. When I did put a bouquet on it, the flowers usually toppled over, because we were so crowded. In fact, that room was too small for a classroom.

“At one side of the room was another small table. On it was the container for water, which was brought from Mrs. Haggerton’s home across the street by members of her family. Children would bring their own glasses from home. There was always a wash basin which completed the arrangement for drinking and keeping the children, and me, clean.

“There were also the usual two small out-buildings which didn’t seem far away during good weather, but which seemed a long, long way when it was raining or snowing, or when we were having raging sand storms.

“With Mrs. Stockton’s help, I soon got used to providing work for two grades while I was working with the other grade. I have never been a believer in the so-called ‘busy work,’ which I feel is devised just to keep the children busy, and is usually of little educational value.

“When January 1931 came, Mrs. Brasher’s term of office was over and Miss Thelma McCully, who had been elected to the office in a general election, became Superintendent of the Chaves County Schools.

“She provided us with a hectograph with which we could duplicate seat work material along with tests and other aids. The hectograph was a rectangular pan with a gelatin-like substance in it. We teachers made master copies with a purple pencil.

“As I was the first teacher to use it, I took it home and ran off a set of material, but when I tried to wash the purple off the hectograph it wouldn’t come off. I washed it so much it was a wonder that I didn’t ruin it.

“The children of Mountain View school came from large families who lived in the vicinity, some of which were poor. However, they did have their homes. The poorest of all were the migrant cotton pickers, the children of which usually did not come to school until after the harvest was over. When they did finally get back in school they were often thin and tanned, and their hands were sometimes chapped so bad they bled.

“Not only children from the migrant families, but often children from other homes would have toothaches. As one example when I looked into the mouth of a little boy named Bert I was shocked. It appeared that nearly all of his teeth were decayed. Many families were so poor they could not buy milk and other nutritious foods which the children needed, and they couldn’t afford to take the children to the dentist.

“Shoes were the biggest problem when it came to clothing. ‘Everybody’s,’ the dry goods store in the 200 block of North Main, gave us some assistance, Mr. Vanderwart, the operator and Mr. Willis, the shoe salesman were very considerate. When some of the people who were better off had to buy shoes for their children and the old ones were still somewhat wearable, now and then, some of them left their old shoes to be given to the less fortunate children.

“One fall day as we approached the school we unexpectedly discovered that the Hondo River had overflowed and the schoolyard was full of water. On that particular day the children had arrived at school before the teachers did. They were having a delightful time in the water. As the day was quite warm, we went ahead and had school anyway.

“Cold-weather was faced with another problem. I had been making fires in the coal stove for some time, but that stove was the most uncooperative thing that I have ever encountered. I attempted to have the room comfortable by the time school started, but of course the pupils that sit near the stove were often too warm and those who were farther from it were cold.

There was a section of stove pipe that went straight up, then there was an elbow and a horizontal piece of pipe that fit it into the flue. From time to time the horizontal piece pulled out of the flue letting smoke fill the room. When this happened, I usually grabbed the broom and gave the elbow a ‘wham.’

One time we had a severe cold spell and the temperature plunged below zero. It was a bad time for the pipe to pull loose, but it did. I gave the elbow a wham and I whammed too hard, knocking the horizontal piece of pipe off, and with it, the elbow. Smoke and soot began pouring out of the standing piece of pipe. Cold as it was, I had to open the outside door. Mrs. Stockton came in as I was standing on a chair juggling the two hot pieces of stove pipe, trying to reassemble them so I could get things under control and back to normal, I was a little embarrassed. I was very cautious about my ‘whamming’ when the stove pipe pulled loose after that.

“That was the week during which two of the days that I had only one pupil. It was Orvil Haggerton who lived across the street. Then the following day Claudine and Wilbur showed up, walking for quite a long distance. It was a wonder their feet or fingers weren’t frostbitten. Very few of the children had the heavy clothing and overshoes necessary for such bitter winter weather.

“However, when the spring season came, and we had not had much moisture, ground cover was very sparse. Sand blew unbelievably. When I’d sweep just a little spot, there would be a whole dustpan full of sand. All surfaces of the furniture had to be dusted. The room had white board walls which had to be swept down. During one windstorm, a little boy named Francisco (the children called him San Francisco) was sitting by the west window. When I happened to look at him, I was startled to see that his black hair seemed to have turned grey, caused by the sand and dust.

“The second year when school started, there were two improvements to my classroom. A cloak room that was between the two rooms had been taken out and a new one built on, making my classroom several feet longer. Best of all I had a new metal, dark green desk. I really enjoyed it during the two additional years I taught at Mountain View at that time.

“It seemed that the desk and I were destined to be together. I was teaching again at Mountain View the year the school was moved from its location on South Main to a new location, and when I went into my classroom, there was my green desk, but whenever I opened or shut the drawers, squeaking could be heard all over the room. I tried soap, paraffin, candle wax, and even a little oil on them, but they still squeaked.

“When I went back to Mountain View School the third time, the present building had been built. Lo and behold, when I entered my classroom, there was that same desk. Although it had been painted white, (which didn’t add anything to its appearance,) the drawers still squeaked.

During one year just before Thanksgiving, we spent some time learning about the American Indians. There were some little supplementary readers about Indians that the second and third graders could read.

“We decided to make a teepee. We got some gunny sacks and some pupils brought some poles. I taught the children how to draw some authentic-looking designs. With crayolas, they drew and colored some of them on the sacks. There wasn’t room for the teepee in the schoolroom so we had to put it in the yard. It was big enough so that several children could get in it at one time. They enjoyed it until a strong wind along with a snowstorm demolished it.

“On the Friday before Easter, we would have an Easter egg hunt and picnic. The children brought colored eggs. There were no school buses then, but pupils’ mothers were quite helpful, and took their cars and assisted Mrs. Stockton and me during the day.

“Twice during those years, we went up the Hondo where the old dam was. It was very sandy and the children had fun playing in the sand. As far as I can remember, there wasn’t much vegetation but we managed to have our Easter egg hunt anyway. There was one thing that bothered me however; I was afraid there might be snakes.

“Several of the Haggerton children who lived across the street, a large family, whose mother was a widow, attended our school. The first year I taught, I had Orval in the first grade and H.B. in the second. Mrs. Haggerton and the older sons and daughters worked very hard to make ends meet. During the harvest season, the family picked cotton. Most families who kept their children out of school did not do so by choice. It was a matter of their surviving.

“H.B. was an especially apt student. Both in the second and third grades, shortly after he was able to stay in school regularly, he was the top student in his class. Although most of the Haggerton children were not able to attend high school, H.B. had the opportunity to do so.

“During WWII, one Sunday morning my mother brought in the newspaper and laid it on the table. Just above the fold was a headline stating that a Roswell boy had been killed in action. A strange feeling came over me and I thought, ‘who is it this time?’ I hesitated to turn the paper over. It was H.B. Haggerton.

“My thoughts were, ‘We try so hard to teach children how to live, and then this is what happens! Please God, help us never to have another war!’”

“My little white lies

“By Clarence Adams

“There are always a few incidents which stand out in a person’s mind and perhaps become more vivid as the time goes on.

“My family lived in Tinnie in 1926 when my father worked for the Titsworth Company as a general ranch hand, and I began my school career in the first grade at the Tinnie school.

“The school was crowded that fall and Mrs. Todd Browning had all she could handle with all the grades in one room but she eventually found another teacher, Miss Tinnie Ramond, to take over the first and second grades. “However, before the first graders went over to the other room, something happened that I’ll always remember. “I was brought up in a strict home. My mother felt that telling even the whitest of white lies was bad — awful. But one day, I was caught in a situation that almost got me into a peck of trouble with my conscience.“As I stated, the room was full of bustling whispering children — first graders on up to the sixth (seventh grade and above went to Hondo).

“Mrs. Browning allowed a certain amount of this bustling and whispering and no more, she didn’t put up with much nonsense.

“I don’t know what made me do it. Maybe I thought I was calling my dog, (I was too young to whistle at the girls) but suddenly without thinking, I whistled — a loud shrill whistle. I’d never been able to learn how to whistle very well as hard as I had often tried but it worked this time, and it was shrill — too shrill!

“‘Who did that?’ was the question that came forth from Mrs. Browning immediately. She was looking over the entire room and I could almost feel her eyes burning through me. Again she called out, ‘who made that loud whistling noise?’

“No one said a thing. Deep down I knew that I should raise my hand and admit that I had whistled — and take my punishment. I had already seen that big old long paddle Mrs. Browning kept in her desk and I just knew that if I owned up to the whistling thing, I’d get a real dose of that paddle. I knew what that meant, too. Papa had already laid down the law to me. ‘If you ever get a whippin’ at school, and that’s if you get it for fightin’, you get it at home, too. Except if you get it for fightin’ to take up for yourself.’ “Well, I sure hadn’t been fightin’. I was just plain ornery. I whistled and now I wasn’t man enough to own up to it. I just buried my head in my Dick and Jane book — or whatever book beginning first graders started out with in 1926. “But the thing kept nagging at me. Mama had often told me that if I told a lie, my conscience would really work on me. Well, I figured it was really startin’ to get my goat already. But what the heck! The teacher had gone back to whatever she had been doing. She probably had forgotten about the episode by now. All I had to do was just forget about the whole thing myself. But I couldn’t forget it. The more the bad voice told me to let it blow over — forget about it, the more another little voice kept sayin’ ‘You told a lie — and it was wrong! You’d better own up to it while you have the chance.’

“‘But I’ll get a whippin’, and I’m only a first grader — just startin’ out,’ I kept rationalizing. ‘Besides I’ll get busted at home. Papa will whip me with a razor strop!’

“It didn’t get better. In fact, it got worse. The more I fought, the more my conscience — or whatever it was that kept houndin’ me — fought. “Finally I could take it no more. I was near tears, but I had made up my mind not to bawl. ‘I don’t care if I do get a lickin,’ I said to myself. ‘I’m going up there, tell her I did it and take my whippin’ like I ought to, and if Papa wants to strop me, I can take that, too.’ Anything to get that conscience thing off my back.

“I didn’t quite know how to do it, but I figured that whoever it was that kept houndin’ me would stick by me and get me over the hump. So I very sheepishly made my way up the aisle to Mrs. Browning’s desk, where she was very busy. ‘She’s too busy to listen to you,’ something whispered. ‘Besides it’s really not that bad.’ I kinda held back, almost turning around and going back to my seat. ‘But you told a lie’ the other voice said. ‘and that’s awful, your Mama and Papa will be hurt if they know about it and if you don’t square it up.’“‘Yeah, and you’ll get a whippin’ if you do,’ the loud mouth kept hollerin’. But before I could realize it, I was standin’ beside Mrs. Browning’s desk waitin’ for her to look up. She didn’t look mean — like a lot of teachers I have since known. In fact, I couldn’t see how a kindly lookin’ person like Mrs. Browning could beat on a little 6-year-old like me. Then I thought again. What I had done was so mean that I just knew I’d have to be punished.

“‘What do you need, young man?’ Mrs. Browning’s voice immediately put a stop to all those other voices that had been telling me what to do.

“‘I want to tell you somethin’,’ I told her, almost in a whisper. I looked around. Surely all the other kids were watchin’, maybe laughin’ at me. But I had come this far. There’s no backin’ out now, I thought. I cupped my hand around Mrs. Browning’s ear and whispered, ‘I done it, teacher, I done that whistlin’ while ago, I told a fib — and I’m sorry!’ “There: I had done it. I was free. No more naggin’ voices, and I was glad. But maybe the worst was yet to come, and I’d have to take my medicine. “Mrs. Browning opened up her desk drawer — that desk drawer! And she was lookin’ at me all the while. I didn’t know whether that was a serious frown on her face, or could I detect a slight smile in her eyes? “Finally the teacher pushed the drawer shut. For a moment I thought I could see a tear or two in her eyes. I knew I had some in mine. But I stood there mute — not knowin’ what else to say. She turned her head for a moment and I figured she was thinkin’ up a better punishment for me, somethin’ that would ‘fit the crime.’ “After ‘bout a year she turned back toward me, and in not too unkindly a voice, she said, ‘You did the right thing by telling me, son. Let me think this over and I’ll talk to you later.’“I quickly walked back to my desk but by that time that big old load I had been carryin’ had disappeared — gone. No more smart-aleck voices! But what would she think up for my punishment? Well, I’d made up my mind that no matter what, I’d take my medicine when she decided to take that paddle to me. Then I’d go home and tell Papa and then he’d work me over, too — but it would all be over and soon forgotten. “Well, I don’t know what happened. It’s been more than a half-century since that event took place in the little schoolhouse in Tinnie. Mrs. Browning never did call me back up — never did talk to me about the incident. In fact, she never mentioned it to me. I reckon — her havin’ so much on her mind and bein’ overworked, what with all those kids in there, she just decided to let it go. But the punishment that I finally received — just waitin’ it out — waitin’ to see what she was goin’ to do to me was bad enough. That and them naggin’ voices, which I was glad to get shut up after I had straightened up my ‘little white lie.’“And you know what? Ever since that time, I reckon I have been a little more cautious about listenin’ to those voices. I have found out throughout the years that it just doesn’t pay to get them to fussin’ — tellin’ you what is right and what is wrong, what to do and what not to do. And I reckon it’s made a better person out of me. But it’s good to know, too, that the voices are still there if I get in a jam, and now and then, they remind me of their existence in one way or another.”

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.