An `inferior' education in a one-room schoolhouse

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BY most standards, I would be considered the product of an inferior education. I was born in the rural Midwest during World War II and attended a one-room country schoolhouse for four years. When the school eventually closed, I rode a school bus to town, 10 miles away, and ended up graduating from a high school with no science lab, with coaches who taught academic subjects as a sideline. We had a few bookcases for a library, and there were 20 kids in my senior class. My own children have grown up in a big city, attending a fine private school with many science labs and foreign language training from the third grade. They have studied English in high school with superb teachers who have shown them how to analyze literature and write papers in ways that would have been impossible for me at the same age. Their math education dances circles around mine. And yet, there are times when I wonder if their own experience is truly superior.

My parents were not well educated. My father was a farmer who had finished eighth grade. My mother completed high school and a few months of normal training before being assigned a one-room schoolhouse of her own. They did not read books, but they read the newspaper and the Bible, and my father faithfully read me the ``funny papers'' daily.

One day, when I was 5, he was too busy to read to me. And so, after supper, I related to him what Cookie had said and done in that day's installment of ``Blondie.'' My parents realized I had learned to read. That September, I started first grade in the Graham School. There were five students.

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In a one-room country school, you have a lot of free time. You recite your lessons, you do the next day's homework, and then you can either listen to the other recitations or ``go to the library.'' This consists of visiting a bookcase with a motley assortment of books. Some good. Many bad. I went there early and often. When it was discovered that I could understand the fifth-grade reader, the teacher sent it home with me so I could read as much as I liked.

In a one-room country school, you also work on your own a lot. Certain projects become open-ended by default. I recall a third-grade geography/history project in which the sole other third-grader and I wrote and bound ``books'' about as many countries of the world as we could.

Our mailman must have thought my parents were planning to become world travelers as he delivered packet after packet of the travel literature I had solicited through coupons in the National Geographic. Each arrival was a rare, exotic treasure that I regarded with awe and then cut up to provide the illustrations on ``food,'' ``clothes,'' ``customs,'' and ``geography'' for the country in question. My energy seemed boundless.

Nor was our bookbinding limited to history and geography. We pasted copies of Gainsborough's ``Blue Boy'' and other artworks on typing paper and wrote appreciative comments about them. We wrote poetry in both rhyme and free verse. We even learned about similes, and I wrote a very imagist poem about a red autumn leaf. With construction-paper covers and assorted decorations, ``My Poetry Book'' and ``My Book of Famous Paintings'' were complete.

When the student population dwindled to three, the school board decided the school was no longer viable, and off I went on the school bus to town.

State law mandated studying Kansas history, and so fifth grade found me the proud possessor of two beautiful textbooks, one pink, one blue. They included photographs of fossils of sea life from the time Kansas had been covered by water. Page after page described the many Indians who had later crossed its plains, and I lived with the sustaining hope that one day I would find an arrowhead. Other photos showed unusual rock formations in the farthest reaches of the state.

Today I wonder if there is such a thing as Illinois history, and does anybody study it? Certainly not my kids.

By eighth grade, the monthly book report had become a fixture of life, but my friends and I also read for fun. ``What are you reading?'' ``Is it good?'' ``Can I have it next?'' No one ever bought a book. There were no bookstores.

In my freshman year of high school, English was taught by the band director. He had a reputation as an ogre, but we were soon pleasantly surprised. Part of our regime was listening as he read stories aloud. ``The Speckled Band,'' a Sherlock Holmes story, captured our imaginations, even in the first hour after lunch.

Later that year, the principal indulged in a bit of culture and rented the film of ``War and Peace'' with Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer. It was one of the few movies I had ever seen, and I was enthralled. I could not have cared less that film critics consider it mediocre at best. The band/English teacher elaborated on the peculiarities of 18th-century warfare while I had fantasies of myself as Natasha. The next year I read the book and wrote a book report.

In my years at this inferior school, I read Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Balzac, and Austen on my own and considered such reading normal. My friends were doing it, too. In my circle, there was even a special cachet attached to reading ``a hard book.''

Today my children read what's assigned and do well, but if they read in their spare time, they choose drugstore romances and similar trash. They can write analytical papers on literature but have a hard time with personal opinion essays. Nor have they ever done a big research paper like the one I did as a sophomore on the Salem witch trials, a topic that was almost as enticing to me as the Napoleonic era. Their grammatical sense is shaky and sometimes shockingly bad, but then they never had to diagram countless sentences with relative clauses, accounting for every last word.

I wonder, who has the good education here? Are they exceptions? Am I? If not, what has changed, and is it progress?

I grew up in Clifton, Kan. My children grew up in Chicago and have had the best this city has to offer. And yet I can't help wondering why, with their superior education, they don't know more than I did.

Carolyn Ulrich teaches English as a second language to refugees and other immigrants in Chicago.

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