Reflections of a Rural Schoolteacher

Driving along the back roads of the Finger Lakes region today and passing by a one-room schoolhouse set along the edge of a farm field, travelers might think they had gone back in time and were experiencing a scene commonplace 100 years ago. A horse and buggy are hitched to a rail, bicycles are propped along a fence and children are playing games in a dusty schoolyard.

Mendon Rural School 7 in Mendon Center was such a place. It was also part of the proud heritage and lasting legacy of Josephine Howe Howland. Josephine’s father, William Howe, attended Rural School 7 in the 1880s, and her mother, Gertrude Henehan, came there from Victor to teach from 1910 to 1912. Growing up in Mendon Center, Josephine also attended the school from 1920 to 1928. After earning her teaching credentials, she returned to teach in that same one room during its final decade in operation, 1936 to 1946. Her family’s 70-year association with Mendon Rural School 7 ended when voters approved centralization and the school was closed.

In many ways, the hamlet of Mendon Center has not changed much since Josephine’s days there. It’s still a cluster of just 20 or 30 homes and farms with a population of perhaps 125 neighbors. The school once stood on the corner of the Bushman family farm near the triangle of roads intersecting at Mendon Center.

Josephine would walk the short distance from her home to the white clapboard schoolhouse every morning at 7:30, across the schoolyard with its water pump, swing set and makeshift basketball hoop. The side entry led past the woodshed and the boys’ and girls’ outhouses. Her classroom was simple, furnished with merely her desk and piano, two bookshelves, an exhibit table, the class bench in front of the black board, and 32 desks arranged in five straight rows. The smallest desks for the youngest children lined the center, and the larger desks for the older students formed the outside rows. The younger children were always eager to graduate to the outer rows. Coats were hung along the inside wall to keep them warm, but Josephine always made sure that muddy boots were left at the entrance.

By 9 o’clock her students were at their seats. Each day began with the Pledge of Allegiance, after which Josephine would accompany the children on piano while they sang “America the Beautiful” or other songs from The Golden Book of Songs, still available today.

Then it was time for learning. Children of all ages through eighth grade were educated simultaneously in one room by one teacher. Josephine had 27 students in her first year. She kept an orderly but caring classroom, and her students helped her make it work by paying attention and learning from one another. Grouped by grade level, the children came up to the front bench in turn for their lessons. This process was repeated until all of the 20 to 30 students in eight grade levels had lessons in each of the seven or eight subjects – reading, math, English, history, geography, science, and a little health and art. While some children were at the bench, others were busy with workbook assignments. The free time between each grade’s lessons made the workbooks essential. At the end of each day, students took turns washing the blackboard and tidying up the room.

Even then, twice a year, all students from fourth grade up were given tests in all subjects from the State Board of Regents. These were not simple fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice tests; all the answers had to be written in complete sentences!

Though she relied on paper-and-pencil, drill-and-practice workbooks and state tests, Josephine’s teaching was hands-on whenever possible. Her science kit contained magnets, iron filings, prisms, test tubes, a microscope, and her field guides to insects, birds, mammals, wildflowers and trees. Students explored the geodetic maps that were charted at the turn of the last century and were fascinated to be able to locate their homes. Through excursions to a nearby geological survey marker, students learned that they were 462 feet above sea level.

Josephine was always fond of Arbor Day, which meant her lucky students got some extra time outdoors. All the children pitched in to rake up leaves and pick up downed branches and windblown litter from the schoolyard. Once the chores were completed, they would walk to White’s woods to identify violets, trillium, skunk cabbage, frogs and last year’s birds’ nests. A little stream flowing through this woodland was always good for at least one wet foot.

When spring finally arrived, fresh flowers appeared on Josephine’s desk – lilacs, daffodils, roses – all from the students’ homes. A beautiful lilac bush, a huge locust tree and a black walnut tree were on the school grounds. Their identification, no doubt, was part of her lesson plan.

Art took a back seat in those busy days, but there was always time to decorate for holidays. The Weekly Reader covering current events was helpful, especially for the older grades. The Monroe County Traveling Library, a huge van lined with shelves of books, stopped by every three weeks and delivered lots of books. Annually, a physician and dental hygienist came and set up shop in a corner of the classroom to perform the state-required exams and talk about healthy habits.

The Monroe County Extension agent came to teach lessons on raising small livestock and planting gardens. One time, trying to motivate the children, he told them about the prizes they could win at the Monroe County Fair. Then, he asked one student if he would like to grow a garden. The student answered, “Nope. My dad does that already, and I only get to pull the weeds!” Noting the lesson didn’t go over too well, Josephine was well aware that her students came to school each day after handling plenty of farm chores.

Many of Josephine’s pupils were excellent students, but always three or four were, sadly, lost. Because teacher’s aides and special education teachers back in the 1930s and ’40s were unheard of, the children helped each other when one of them had a hard time or got behind due to illness. Every winter, there was a wave of chicken pox, measles, bad colds and long-lasting coughs.

During World War II, all 23 of Josephine’s students collected scrap metal for recycling to help the war effort. Over 2,000 pounds of scrap were piled on the school grounds, all in a two-week period. When the metal was sold, the proceeds were divided among the students for their U.S. Savings Stamp books.

Wartime sugar and gasoline rationing was also handled through the schools – one more job for the busy schoolteachers. All members of the district applied to Josephine for their rations, whether they had school-aged children or not. Josephine determined each family’s monthly allotment based on their occupation and family size. Many families shared their rations, and considered the sacrifice a small price to pay for their security.

All of this for $22 a week! Josephine recalled a time when she encouraged a student to be teacher for a day. At the end of the day, she asked the young boy how it went. He answered, “Well, I know now I’ve got to do something easier for a living.” With her understated pride, she added, “He’s a doctor now.”

She always had a knack of keeping track of her students, not only in their daily lessons, but long after their graduations. She kept an old autograph book, bearing many of their signatures, where she folded away yellowed newspaper clippings announcing their graduations, engagements, marriages, promotions, ordinations and even deaths. She kept boxes of class photographs, and she proudly saved quite a few notes of appreciation written to her by former students, decades after her one-room school was closed. Just days before her death at age 94, she was still reminiscing about her teaching, naming students she’d had at Mendon Rural School 7 more than 70 years earlier.

In the end, she lamented that she and others had not been proactive, soon enough to preserve more of this past. By the mid-1990s, 50 years after the doors of Mendon Rural School 7 were closed for the last time, no physical evidence of the old schoolhouse remained.

However, this schoolteacher had one thing wrong. “Now extinct,” she once noted, referring to the disappearance of the one-room rural schools. Pleasantly surprised, she rediscovered them when she moved to Yates County in 2003 to be closer to her family. During the last few years of her life, she enjoyed many car rides on back roads throughout the Finger Lakes, discovering one-room Amish and Mennonite schoolhouses, one after another, which brought back fond memories. Today, the rural roads through most of the Finger Lakes’ counties are home to many one-room schoolhouses, so much like Josephine’s in Mendon Center.


by Michele Howland Banaszewski