I reminded my 91-year-old mother today that it was the first day of classes for some school students. I asked her if she remembered her first day of teaching back in 1939 in the District 111 one-room schoolhouse. Not specifically, she said. But she sat and thought about it for a minute.
Then in a flash of unexplained brain synapses, she suddenly remembered one of her first graders, Charles Meyers.
In a one-room schoolhouse, the students—from first graders to eighth graders—all shared the same classroom. However, when it was time to work with the three first graders on reading or arithmetic, my mother would call them to the front of the room where they sat on little chairs made from apple crates in a semicircle around her teacher’s chair.
First-grader Charles Meyers was too husky to fit into a little apple-crate chair, so my mother pulled her “utility box” into the semicircle for Charles. The utility box had been made for her by her brother Elmer when she went to Moorhead State Teachers’ College and held all her teaching supplies and books.
Charles Meyers, third from the right, was a husky 1st grader, flanked in this picture by a 4th grader and a 6th grader.
Charles lived with an aunt and uncle a couple of miles from the school. His mother had been unmarried when Charles was born and had asked her sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Hard Olson, to raise Charles.
The brother-in-law, Hard, had been named after the difficult birth his own mother had experienced, but my mother said the name still fit him. When Charles started first grade, he had a tough time adjusting to the social aspects of school. My mother explained that he hadn’t been taught many manners at home, and he got attention by being mean to the other students. She often had to send a note home to his aunt that Charles had misbehaved in school. “I hope you don’t think I’m a bad mother,” the aunt had once said to my mother.
But Charles did like his teacher. One morning, he arrived at school smiling proudly. He carefully set his lunch pail on my mother’s desk and said, “Open it!” My mother lifted the lid off the lunch pail and found a pile of wilted dandelions. Charles’s round face fell and his lips quivered. The dandelions had been so beautiful in the sunshine when he picked them on his way to school. He had wanted to bring his teacher a present, but all that remained was a mass of drooping weeds.
Whatever happened to Charles, I asked? My mother didn’t know. She had only taught at District 111 for two years from 1939 to 1941. When she left in the spring of 1941 to get married, the families in the school gave a bridal shower for her. She remembers arriving at school one morning to find her desk all decorated and an invitation to the shower in the middle of the decorations. She was touched that even the children from the poorest family in the school excitedly brought gifts for their teacher’s new home. “A bedspread,” she remembers. “One of their gifts was a bedspread.”
My mother hopes Charles found a way past his tough childhood and made a good life for himself.