Phyllis McFadden, 91, of Streator, wrote in response to my Teacher Appreciation Week column to share memories of her own educational experience.
It’s a privilege to present these reflections — I only wish I could do so in the flawless cursive of her handwritten letter. She writes:
“No doubt you have been inundated with Teacher Appreciation responses. All teachers are deserving.
“Living outside the city limits I did not have the privilege of kindergarten. All eight years of my elementary education were spent in a one-room country school. In my opinion those teachers deserve special recognition.
“Coalville School was just a mile from our home, but in Livingston County. Presume my family had to pay tuition to be accepted for first grade. It had a large bright classroom and a pleasant library/activity room. There was no playground equipment. Mrs. Vera Duder was the teacher.
“For seven years I attended Moon School, located 1 3/4 miles west of Streator, on the north side of what was then Illinois State Route 17. Almost to the Kangley Road.
“Our teacher’s name was Augusta Hasenkamper Carsten. She was married and drove late model Chevrolet coaches from their farm home near Flanagan. I do not recall our school ever being closed due to weather or ‘snow days.’
“She taught all eight grades and all subjects. Class by class we were called to the front of the room to the ‘Recitation Bench.’ The school compromised of approximately 20 to 25. My class had two students, oddly, both named Phyllis: Gilbert and Longnecker. Since my last name was alphabetically first, I was Phyllis No. 1. With classes so small you had better know the answers.
“On Friday afternoons we had either art or penmanship. We never did print. Imagine, learning cursive writing in first grade.
“Once a year the county superintendent, W.R. Foster or Mr. Spickerman, would visit the schools unannounced.
“Mrs. Carsten also put together a Christmas program each year and invited our parents and school ‘neighbors.’ She presented each of us with an age-appropriate book as a gift. Quite an expenditure considering how little teachers were paid in those days. Mine were usually ‘Nancy Drew.’ How I treasured them. I still have a few of them.
“We always had a picnic at Marilla Park at the end of the school year. Wives of the school board provided the food and Coppins Dairy delivered Ice Cream Dixie Cups for dessert.
“I so admired her that I decided I would be a teacher when I grew up. That ambition continued into high school and I chose a college prep curriculum. However, after graduation, my father informed me that it was a waste of money to send a young woman to college. Disappointed? You bet.
“I read in The Times-Press that a civil service recruiter would be in Streator to administer tests for government positions. This was 1945 and World War II. I took the test, passed, and at the age of 17 was assigned to the Adjutant General’s Office at The Pentagon. While it wasn’t Eureka College … it was an education.
“Each time I pass the spot where that little school stood I become a little wistful. How fortunate I was to experience that significant chapter of my educational culture.
“Though few remain I express my gratitude to all of those rural school teachers.”
McFadden also added several other recollections about one-room school life, such as the three school board members — Frank Barron Sr., Mr. Benckendorf and Bart Wolfe — who took turns coming in each morning to light the stove fire with corn cobs and coal.
“The older boys were responsible for keeping the corn cob and coal buckets filled. Also, for pumping the outside pump and filling the portable water fountain,” she wrote. “The older girls took turns sweeping the floor after lunch and cleaning the blackboards when instructed.”
A large dishpan simmered on the stove, providing humidity for the classroom and heating students’ lunches inside glass jars brought from home. Students requested a break by raising fingers: one for a drink of water, two to sharpen a pencil and three for the restroom.
These are more than just personal memories and gratitude, they’re a living testament to a bygone lifestyle and a reminder of the ways children are forever shaped by their experiences with school, classmates and influential teachers.
Again: please take time to thank a teacher who mattered. And reach out to those like Phyllis McFadden, who have so many wonderful memories to share.
SCOTT T. HOLLAND is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749.