Schooling in Rural 20th Century USA

Schooling in the Rural

Early 20th Century South


By Elton Camp

(This is a continuation of description of life in rural Alabama.)

            Milas, like most rural Alabama family heads, saw value in education. He wanted his children to attend school as long as it didn’t unduly take them from their work in the field. They could learn or not as they chose and need not expect help from him. 

            Schools of that time were far different from today. Boys always sat on one side of the room and girls on the other. Punishments were immediate and for various reasons. The teacher used a small, flat stick to hit the palms or knuckles of any student who didn’t listen, answered incorrectly or misbehaved. More severe misconduct brought whacks of a heavy, wooden paddle across the rear. As a punishment for talking during lessons, a boy might be forced to sit on the girls’ side or a girl on the boys’ side. It was a significant embarrassment.

            “Paw, th’ teach’r whopped me t’day ’n’ I warn’t doin’ nothin,’ complained a scholar when he reached home.

            The usual reaction was “No dou’t y’u needed hit. Heer’s ’nother un t’ go wif hit.” 

            The parent took the complainer to the woodshed for more whacks. The punished child was in trouble, not the teacher. Although they were poorly paid, the parents generally respected the teachers and their decisions went unquestioned.

            Lessons included reading, spelling, math and science. Penmanship was emphasized. Slates with chalk were reusable and so substituted for costly paper and pencil. Homework was seldom assigned. Children had chores to do when they got home.

            Friday afternoon usually brought a spelling bee. Competing teams, often boys against girls, stood at opposite sides of the room. Anyone who misspelled a word had to sit down. Finally it got down to one on a side. Back and forth flew the words until one student emerged victorious.

            Only Albert had failed to learn. His schooling ended during Miranda’s lifetime. With little comprehension and increasing frustration, he attended through the third grade. He never managed to read or write. Mathematics also eluded his grasp.

            He came to love western adventure novels, but had to depend upon someone else to read them to him. Howard recalled, “When I read to him from Zane Grey, his face showed the most intense excitement. It was completely real to him. Albert never got enough and would’ve listened for hours if I’d been willing.”

            “Mr. Milas,” the teacher at the one-room school had explained, “Somethin’s not jest right wif’ Albert. I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything I kin do t’ help.”

            “Special education” might have benefited him, but such provision lay decades in the future. He had little prospect beyond a lifetime of manual labor and poverty. So it proved to be.

            As an adult, Albert developed a different explanation that spared him humiliation. He related it with anger anytime he could get a family member to listen.  

            “Paw made me drap outer school so’s he could do fer th’ y’nger uns. I never got a chanct t’ get a education. Hit ain’t my fault. Hit ain’t fare.”

            Bertha and Mamie, both capable learners, went through the sixth grade which adequately equipped them with the necessary skills of “readin’, ’ritin’, an’ ’rithmetic.”  Bertha had inherited her father’s business ability. Mamie was a hard worker at home.

            As long as the family lived in the country and farmed, the day began shortly after dawn. The children “did th’ thangs,” as chores were described, attended school, and returned for more work around home.

            “Git on t’ school every day lest I tell y’u different,” Milas ordered.

            No school bus came for the students. A few years after Belle came into the family, Milas began to buy cars, but not to drive children to school. Youngsters walked, hot or cold, rain, or shine. As we will see, the buildings and learning conditions were in keeping with simpler times.

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Life in earlier times.