In the olden days, teachers were considered among the chosen, and they were respected and treated with honor. For a variety of reasons, the life of a teacher was deserving of every bit of respect, as the teacher was not always available in small communities, and might have to share her time with more than one schoolhouse. Also, schoolhouse might have been just that: an unused house turned into a schoolhouse.
My mother and one of her sisters were teachers in the late 1880s and early 1900s. They both took the state test and my aunt scored higher and got the older students, while my mother did not do well enough at math so she got the younger students. They did always have the same meeting times and places, and sometimes they had to spend the night in the home of one or another of the students. Sometimes one of their brothers could take them on a wagon, and sometimes they might have to ride horseback. My mother didn’t really like having to ride a horse, so she most often was taken by wagon and left with a nearby family for a week or more. It was not unusual that payday might include a live chicken or other edibles.
At the schoolhouse, winters were hard, and because school was not always held during the farming and harvesting season winter school was easier to attend, for teachers and students. Often both the older and younger classes were taught by both sisters and there might be only a few of any age. Mom and her sister followed the family, as they were sharecroppers or workers at one of their more prosperous relatives’ farms. Everyone worked at whatever was available, but teachers did not have many alternatives as to where the schoolhouses were, and took what they could find. Their best reward was when they were valued for what they were doing to make the future somewhat better, as not everyone in the rural areas of Texas was near enough to a school to attend, and reading was a gift of great price to those children who really wanted to learn. In those days, reading and writing at a fourth grade level was pretty special, and doing simple math meant that someone in the family was able to cipher, doing arithmetic, and could help with family finances, if there were any.
And so it went for a time for my mother and aunt, and at one point the family from the piney woods of East Texas followed the family workers with railroad jobs out to the wild and wooly West Texas. It was there that my mom and my aunt met their husbands, and because the teaching positions were held for a privileged class, they married and put down their teaching tools.
Why did they have to quit? It was a simple rule of survival. The women who were not married and did not want to be married, or could not attract a husband were spinsters or old maids or widows and had no other means of support than to be teachers. My aunt went on to college later and did keep a teaching job as times began to change. Towns were growing, farms were still in need of workers and my mom became a wife and eventually a mother of three, one son and two daughters. The three of us, proud of what our mother had done, in our turns became teachers.
For all of the years, forty three in all, I kept my mother’s old hand ringing school bell somewhere in my classroom, and as I write, it is on a shelf in the room where I am writing this tribute to her, for it was her life, her story, that led the family to do whatever it took to provide with honor for those who loved us or needed us, and to serve as beacons to light someone’s eyes with new dreams of their own.