Few Americans remember what it was like to learn in a one-room schoolhouse. One who does is Richard Willis, an 80-year-old New York actor and retired theater professor who played Asa Buchanan’s butler, Nigel, on the soap opera One Life to Live. He recalls the small white Aurora Schoolhouse in Long Gone (Greenpoint Press, 192 pp., $20, paperback), a new memoir of growing up on a farm in Marengo, Iowa, in the 1930s and ’40s. Here’s part of what he says about his education:
“Our school was heated by a big, jacketed stove placed a little off-center in the room. Midwest winter temperatures dropped to twenty, sometimes thirty, degrees below zero. A teacher’s quality was sternly tested when it came time to bank the fire so that it would hold the night. Only a real veteran could keep a fire going over the weekend. When the fire burned out, as it often did, kids coming to school after a freezing walk of a mile or two found the place icy cold. While the room warmed up – it seemed to take forever – the youngest of us sat with our feet up on a railing around the base of the stove, but older pupils had to endure (proudly) the chill at their desks. Ink froze solid, and all of the work had to be done in pencil until the schoolroom warmed up …
“Sanitary arrangements were primitive. Two outdoor privies were set at the edge of the schoolyard. They smelled bad. The older boys told me that if you carried any food into a privy (I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to do that) it would be poisoned.
“Regular toilet paper was a luxury our school district couldn’t afford. We made do with discarded mail order catalogs, the softer index pages much preferred over the stiff coated-paper pages. One of our neighbors stocked his privy with a crock full of clean corncobs instead of paper – I am not making this up – but things were never that bad at school.”
You can read other excerpts from Long Gone in the Summer 2005 and Summer 2006 issues of Ducts www.ducts.org, a webzine that specializes in personal stories. Greenpoint Press is a subsidiary of New York Writers Resources www.newyorkwritersworkshop.com.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.