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Enduring lessons learned in a country school
roger branch

I began my education in a two-room, seven-grade country school, Marietta School, in Toombs County. There were hundreds of others similar to it in rural Georgia at the time, 1940. The first three grades met in one room with one teacher and grades four through seven were taught in another room by a second teacher. There were still a few one-room schools, one teacher for seven grades.

From a contemporary perspective, this arrangement would appear to be a poor foundation for education. In fact, I learned a lot, including lessons that are still valuable.

The teachers had their hands full managing instruction for three or four grades in the same room. They had to juggle their time at lunch and recess for bathroom breaks and a little rest. They had housekeeping duties — buckets of drinking water to be filled from the well, raising and lowering the flag to start and end the day, tending to scrapes and bruises that came with outdoor play. Older boys were assigned the tasks of drawing water and taking care of the flag. Teachers took care of 

When students from one grade were not being instructed directly, they were assigned desk work while another grade was being taught. For example, we copied onto writing tablets letters of the alphabet from a streamer above the blackboard, first capital letters and then non-capital letters, until they fit acceptably on lines. Numbers and the writing thereof were done similarly. In the second year, we were required to work on cursive letters and were expected to master cursive writing.

I had two problems with these exercises. First was eye-hand coordination. I was clumsy, concentrating so hard on the task that I sometimes ripped the paper or broke pencil points. Second, I was easily distracted by what students in higher grades were doing, learning their arithmetic, reading and spelling, instead of perfecting my writing skills. Getting a step ahead in these subjects was valuable in later years.

The spelling bees conducted by teachers were good teaching tools. I learned how to spell words being spelled or misspelled by students in higher classes.

Lunch time and recess were mostly unsupervised. We learned to get along with others. Any bullying usually was stopped by older students. One who came to the attention of teachers was introduced to the board of education and hoped that parents did not learn of the incident because they were apt to do more of the same. In addition to games of catch, tag and marbles, the youngsters invented diversions of their own.

During my first year, Mother packed lunches for me composed of things like ham biscuits and baked sweet potatoes. Imagine my surprise years later to learn that ham biscuits were a breakfast favorite at restaurants in Raleigh when Annette, the children and I lived there.

Something new came to Marietta during my second year, a rectangular building housing a lunchroom. The fare was simple, lots of black-eyed peas and rice, but now and then huckleberry cobbler when youngsters from down on the river paid for their meals with berries. Mother insisted that I tell the lunchroom lady that I had enjoyed the meal. Rarely true. Most often, I preferred the lunches she packed.

Marietta School was a relatively modern facility. In addition to two classrooms, it had a small auditorium with a small stage, drop-down curtain, piano and benches with backs. It was used for “assembly” events with singing, the pledge of allegiance, etc. One teacher knew music. Actually, there were two teachers, both named Miss Moore and sisters. One left for greener pastures and was succeeded by her sister. From them, we learned some music, at least how to sing enthusiastically.

At least twice a year our teachers prepared us for "programs" for our parents but open to the community. We demonstrated our new skills with recitations, even poems. We acted out skits complete with individual parts recited from memory. Songs were sung, including solos. Some youngsters experienced stage fright, but the teachers were insistent. Most of us got over the jitters and performed confidently if not always well at "school closing" programs.

No doubt Marietta School helped to prepare me to "stand and deliver" as minister and professor. Later in high school, a male quartet was organized and three of the four were "Marietta boys."

The next four years of my education took place in two different schools and were marked by marginal instruction at best. That which I had learned in my country school, especially the Three R's, carried me through until other teachers opened new vistas for the mind. However, my penmanship never became very good.

Although I received valuable preparation at my country school, those attended by African-American children were abysmally inadequate. The one in the community where I grew up was conducted in a small one-room church. The school year was shortened and interrupted as students had to do farm work. Fortunately, the number of such youngsters in the community was small.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused near hysteria about the impact of missed or unconventional schooling upon students. Some people seem certain that children cannot recover if they miss particular pieces of instruction at some "right" time. We can and do learn things sooner rather than later, as I did at Marietta. We also learn things later rather than sooner, as I did certain mathematical principles in graduate school instead of high school. My father could not begin first grade at age 6 because of serious illness, but the next year he quickly caught up and surged ahead. Forced to end school after seven grades, he was a good mathematician, an expert at measuring land for tobacco patches.

The challenge is for educators to rework curricula. Facing up to the child care functions of schools will lead to finding solutions that fit that problem. However, the children are not doomed. They can and will learn what they need to learn when it is presented to them. Think of the successes of teachers in country schools measured by their graduates. Two cousins, one a rocket scientist, the other a renowned physician, come to mind.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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