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Choice, MN
Fillmore County

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Choice School

by Richard Bruce Larson, c1990
based on reminiscences of Cy Larson and others

Imagine that it is January 1927. A cold day for most people unless you live in Minnesota and are used to winter. The snow makes a pleasant sound as it crunches under your boots. Your breath fogs the air. No box elder bugs today.

It is early in the morning and you can see smoke coming out of the chimney of the little white one-room schoolhouse. The teacher has started a fire in the school wood stove, a good thing too. The smoke is a sure sign that the daily migration of school children is about to start. Maybe the school will be a little warm when the children arrive. It is really never very warm but everyone has their scratchy long wool underwear on. It is likely just as warm as in their own house, they just don't know any better. The schoolhouse is already 55 years old, built by their grandparents, and will serve as a school for 25 more years for their children.

Soon they come, two or three here and there and then converging, like small streams into a river, until the valley is alive with children. Those who had to walk the longest have already stopped at a farm house along the way to warm up. From small first graders to older boys of an indeterminate grade. Several boys who are bigger than the teacher and almost as old.

These boys are not happy with school but they are required to attend at least so many days a year until they pass the eighth grade or they are fifteen years old. Since there is little farm work in the winter they might as well get their school days in. A few are likely thinking that they should have gone skunk hunting early this morning with the hope that the teacher would find them so objectionable that the she would send them home. Then, this has never worked before and, besides, it is too cold for the skunks to be out.

The girls have a better attendance as there is not as much important work for them on the farm. Unless you count the potato harvest time when everyone, young and old, stays home and works until all the potatoes are safely in the dirt floor basement.

I see the first signs that school has started, the flag is raised and the school bell is rung. Now an older boy is running to the pump at the farm across the road, bringing back a pail of water to fill the water crock. The water has to be drained every night or the crock would freeze solid. The crock has a dipper and the children are to fill their paper cups with the dipper. Woe to the student who the teacher catches drinking out of the dipper.

Inside, the school smells of many body odors but that too, along with the cold, is accepted as a normal condition. While most have a Saturday night bath, some never bath all winter, maybe not until the swimming season starts. It is the bed-wetters who have the most disagreeable odor but soon the nose ignores these smells too.

Soon the windows are frosted up with all the moisture from so many young bodies breathing. Frost forming beautiful patterns with endless variations on the glass. A pleasant distraction from school.

At least in the winter it is too cold for the school chicken. A confused hen who thinks that the schoolhouse is a good hen house. When it is warm and the door is open, she comes in the school, hops up into the woodbox and lays an egg. When this happens the teacher makes the children put their heads down on the desk and be real quiet. Maybe the teacher needs the eggs. Today the hen will be warm in a real hen house.

The weather is also too cold for the teacher to dress as she sometimes does in the warmer times, in a bathrobe and slippers. She is intelligent but not a very good teacher and a little lazy. She does like to read and will often have an older student do the teaching so she can read.

Now you can hear faint sounds of marching coming from the school. After sitting, some of the students have started to get cold. Not the older ones who sit three to a desk, at least not the one in the middle, but the younger students. When this happens, the teacher winds up the phonograph and plays a scratchy old Sousa march record. The students march up and down the small aisles and body heat warms them up again.

It must be the noon hour recess, a real big deal. A quick lunch and then it is play time. Everyone is outside burning off their excess energy. The few who have a nickel are at the store buying candy. One student said that he always had a big breakfast so he could play all noon. He didn't want to waste any time eating. Most have at least a sandwich and maybe their mother sent a jar of food to be heated up. Some also have an extra sandwich for that poor boy who only has a bread and lard sandwich. Along with instructions to be very careful how you offer him the food. You want to make sure that he eats good and doesn't let his pride get in the way. Just tell him that you have too much food and would he like an extra sandwich but don't let him know that the sandwich was made especially for him.

Today, apparently, the old sledding hill will get a good workout. They have their sleds and are headed up the hill on the highway to the south. About a quarter mile up, they will form a sled line, holding on to the sled ahead of them. With an older student in the lead, down they go, past the store with loud screams. If the lead sledder is good, they will coast almost to the school. Then it's back up the hill again for another run. Of course the sled line often breaks and people end up in the ditch but that is all part of the fun. They don't have time for more than two sled runs and then they have extended their recess a little. But children seem to instinctively know how to push adults to the limits. Besides, the teacher likely likes a little extra peace and quiet time.

If the river ice is good with not too much snow cover, they will be skating. A quick hockey game or if the ice is real good, simply seeing how far they can skate. They go well over a mile up the valley, somehow bypassing the open water of the rapids by skating on the thin ice on the side. They often get carried away by their adventures and find themselves way up the valley when recess is officially over. They are all sweaty by the time they come trudging back into the school.

Now a boy is running to the outhouse in the back of the school. The signal to the teacher that you "have to go" is simple. Just raise two fingers. He goes first to the "Boys" and comes right back out and glances around. After a quick look he heads for the "Girls" at the other corner of the school yard. Likely the holes at the boys are coated with a disgusting layer of yellow ice. Besides, there are no windows on this side of the school so he is safely out of sight.

School is finally over and the reverse migration back home starts. Some fathers have their team and sled at the store so it will be a pleasant ride home for all who live in that direction. Very few drive their cars in the winter. The roads are not plowed, horses are the preferred and easiest way to go. Soon the hungry students are safe at home.

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Last Updated 8/1/2008