A Country Schoolhouse

My grandparents attended a one room schoolhouse in northeastern Nebraska. My mother attended the same country school for her elementary schooling. My brother’s mother-in-law met her husband while she was teaching in a one room country schoolhouse in western Nebraska. A dear friend of the family who I’ve known for all my life sat on the school board for a country schoolhouse just outside of Lincoln–the school he’d attended as a child, the school he’d sent his own children too, the school that now served some of the children in my church congregation.

I attended one of their school programs held in one of the three rooms within the little schoolhouse. Desks, tables, shelves, and learning materials were pushed aside to make room for guests and for a makeshift stage. It was an ordinary sort of program, with each of the thirty or so students performing multiple parts.

I was reminded of this school, of these schools, as I read Lynne Barasch’s A Country Schoolhouse.

A Country Schoolhouse bookA little girl asks her Grandpa, the professor, to tell her the story of how he became so smart. The grandpa narrates the rest of the story, telling of the three room country school house he attended. He tells how their school was a working class school–how all the kids had to help their parents with the family work after they got done with school. He tells how they had spelling bees and geography bees and history bees. He tells of the games that they played in an open field. He tells of how they used an outhouse and had to be taught how to flush a toilet when the school got indoor plumbing.

And he talks about how they learned. How they memorized and recited all sorts of facts. How they learned new information from what the other grades ahead of you in the room were learning–or reviewed what you’d already learned while the younger grades were learning it for the first time.

Then he describes how his family moved to the city and he started going to a city school with only one grade in each room. The school was huge and overwhelming–“But the biggest surprise of all was what those kids didn’t know.”

The grandpa in the story was the smartest kid in the new city school. As we learned at the beginning of the story, he went on to be professor–a professor who attributed his smarts to the learning he received in a country school.

Less than a year after I’d attended the Christmas program at the country school outside of Lincoln, the state board of education removed the school boards of all the “Class I” schools in Nebraska–all the small public country schools–forcing the schools to close.

They did it because they figured it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that Nebraska’s primarily-white rural students should receive an education so superior to the rest of the state’s students. It wasn’t fair that some schools could be run by boards from their immediate community–by average Joes who care about kids–when the rest of the state had to have schools run by board members most of the students and parents had never met. It wasn’t fair that some of Nebraska–the part with the country schools–was spending less money to give their children an elementary education.

It clearly had to be stopped.

Despite petitions to the contrary and the best efforts of small school advocates, the forced closure of Class I schools proceeded.

Today the empty country schoolhouses dot Nebraska’s landscape, boarded up reminders of a closed chapter in Nebraska history.

Books like Barasch’s A Country Schoolhouse remind Nebraska’s readers of just what they’ve lost.

Reading My LibraryFor more comments on children’s books, see the rest of my Reading My Library posts or check out Carrie’s blog Reading My Library, which chronicles her and her children’s trip through the children’s section of their local library.

Two Views of Nebraska

It had been a while since I last read something about my native state, so I figured I’d pick up some quick reading from my local library.

As I’ve mentioned before, I use children’s books as a “Cliff’s Notes” to introduce me to a topic before reading about it more in depth. Of course, having grown up in Nebraska and lived here all my life, I probably didn’t need a Cliff’s Notes, but I chose to read some children’s books anyway.

The two books I picked up–Ann Heinrichs’ Nebraska (part of Scholastic’s “America the Beautiful” series”) and Ruth Bjorklund’s Nebraska (part of Benchmark Books’ “Celebrate the States” series)–couldn’t have been more different.

Nebraska by BjorklandI read Bjorkland’s book first. By halfway through the book, I had to figure out who this author was. Surely, she had to be a native Nebraskan, I thought. She described Nebraska so accurately, so fully. The back cover informed me that she was not a Nebraskan.

Nevertheless, she did a fantastic job of laying out Nebraska’s history AND present. The first chapter gives a quick tour of Nebraska’s geography, from the Missouri River Valley to the Panhandle. From there, we take a look at Nebraska history, from ancient days to modern times. Then we learn of the government and economics, the cultural components of Nebraska cities and towns, and famous people from Nebraska. The book comes back to a full circle, ending with the “touristy” components of Nebraska geography. Appendices list the typical state report fare: state bird and motto, flag and major rivers, basic history and brief bios of famous people. Overall, the book provides a comprehensive look at Nebraska for the elementary-school audience.

But it isn’t the main topics that set this book apart. It’s the attention the author pays to details, the journalistic accuracy in portraying real Nebraskans. The book regularly quotes Nebraskans talking about themselves, their state, their history. And it doesn’t just quote “famous” Nebraskans. It quotes everyday people. Rather than just summarizing the same old Department of Tourism schlep, Bjorkland finds out what real Nebraskans think about things. She discusses the divide between the relatively prosperous, densely populated Southeastern corner of the state and the much more rural rest of the state–the tensions over taxation and how many rural Nebraskans feel that too much money is funneled to the Southeast corner, the feeling that some in the Panhandle have that they have more in common with the ranching Colorado or Wyoming than the rest of farming Nebraska. Bjorkland doesn’t dwell on these topics or hype them into a drama that isn’t there, but she honestly addresses issues like these–issues that real Nebraskans are interested in.

Nebraska by HeinrichsHeinrichs’ Nebraska, on the other hand, reads as though it came straight from the Nebraska government website, giving the facts and the nicely sanitized details specifically designed to sell our state rather than accurately portray it. What’s more, unlike Bjorkland’s book, this book patronizes students, talking with the “twaddle” tone Charlotte Mason devotees so abhor.

Furthermore, whenever Heinrichs’ attempts to add some “real Nebraska” flavor to her writing, she gets it wrong. She writes that “when the stadium is at capacity, its population is higher than Nebraska’s second-largest city”, attempting to share one of the factoids Nebraskans love to gloat about. The problem is, there isn’t a single Nebraskan who wouldn’t catch the error here. When the stadium is at capacity (in other words, during every home game), the Husker stadium DOESN’T hold more people than Nebraska’s second largest city (Lincoln). It holds more people than Nebraska’s THIRD largest city. Nebraska’s second largest city, Lincoln, has a population of over 200,000–while the stadium contains something a little less than 100,000. HUGE error.

Then there’s the little blurb about Nebraska’s state hero, former Husker football coach (and current Husker athletic director) Tom Osborne. According to Heinrichs, Tom Osborne “ran for Nebraska governor in 2006, capturing 45 percent of the vote.” Except that he didn’t. He did run for governor, but lost in the primaries, capturing 45% of the vote IN THE REPUBLICAN PRIMARIES. BIG difference.

Heinrichs’ Nebraska is more colorful, more graph-filled, more “teacher-friendly” than Bjorkland’s Nebraska–but it also completely fails as a source of information about Nebraska. If you’re a mother traveling with her children through the 50 states, take my advice and use Bjorkland’s book to introduce your children to the REAL Nebraska–decidedly less flashy, but ultimately much more attractive.