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Tom Chaney: Tales from Kentucky One-RoomSchool Teachers

Of Writers and Their Books. No. 283. 6 February 2011. "Me growed from a pumpkin seed", a review of Lynwood Montell's Tales from Kentucky One-Room School Teachers
The next previous Of Writers and Their Books: Jim Lowe's suggested reading list

By Tom Chaney
Email: Tom Chaney

Professor Lynwood Montell has added another interesting volume to his rather lengthy shelf.

The latest book is Tales from Kentucky One-Room School Teachers, The University Press of Kentucky, 2011. And it is just what it promises to be. It is not a reasoned analysis of the history of elementary education in the Commonwealth; not a study of fairness and achievement in the drafty schools of yore. It is an attempt to preserve the stories of the diminishing cadre of the teachers who taught in those schools now gone for half a century and more.

Montell put out a call in a journal for retired teachers for stories and received responses from many of the state's 120 counties. The stories are arranged in various useful categories such as "Disciplining Students," "Teaching Methods and Philosophy," "Outhouses," and so forth.

As the author indicates in the introduction "the bulk of these stories are relevant to the personal involvement of the teacher who tells the story" making the teacher the focus. Unfortunately that focus reveals a great deal about the quality of education provided.

While having the stories provides a valuable folk record of education before the end of the one-room school, it tends to reveal the weakness of the educational content of the school day. It is clever to remember the response of the boy who could not identify his father, "Me growed from a pumpkin seed; me ain't got no daddy." It is uncomfortably revealing to see the unedited bad grammar of the former teachers.

Of course, that leads to a story about schools in Hart County.

No examples from Hart County are included, and that is just as well.

At the end of World War II this county had 101 one-room schools. In 1946 Mrs. Daisie Carter became county school superintendent vowing to improve the quality of education by consolidating the myriad one-roomers into four or five grade centers.

The tale she told had to do with educational quality: specifically the lack of certified teachers. That lack is echoed throughout Montell's book although it is not a central focus. Time and again his sources speak of the long struggle to get certificates and college degrees.

She told of visiting one school on a Monday to find it devoid of scholars. Cornering a student nearby she asked whether the teacher was ill. "Nome," the pupil replied, "we don't never go to school of a Monday. Teacher says that's her washday."

Mrs. Carter also spoke of the wretched condition of the actual buildings where education was intended to take place. Children shivered in their coats all the long day when winter winds blew down the hollers. Often unclean drinking water combined with inadequate outhouses made a perfect incubator for disease.

By 1954 all but two of the Hart County schools were closed. Roads were improved so that when pupils appeared at school in the fall expecting to find a teacher, they were met by a yellow school bus instead.

There were those among Montell's sources who regret the loss of the sense of community that accompanied the closing of the schools. But is not that a part of the necessary price to pay for better education? Those sources refer to the occasional superior student produced by the one-room schools. Few spoke of the many others who were left behind.

Tales from Kentucky One-Room School Teachers is a valuable book. It gives a glimpse of an era fading into a rose-colored rear view mirror. There is a danger, however, that nostalgia for a bygone, badly remembered day will lead away from necessary progress.

Shall we have a tea party?

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749 (270) 786-3084
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-02-06 04:02:39
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