Things have changed a lot in public education since the days when my grandmother Edna Towle — with only an eighth-grade education — was hired as a teacher for several years in the late 1890s for a one-room school in the Spenceville area of eastern Nevada County.
Barefoot kids don’t go to school. Central heat and air has replaced pot belly stoves. Teachers must have five years of post-secondary education and the eighth grade is no longer the highest pinnacle of formal education that most kids could hope to attain.
When my mom started school she and her twin sister Verlie would switch off riding a horse and walking — one going horseback in the morning and the other in the afternoon. It also was to a one-room school house.
I used to think her story about going four miles one way to school was a bit of an exaggeration until one day I was able to get her to let me drive back into the Spenceville area when I had a four-wheel drive Chevy S-10 Blazer to show me the former Towle ranch that was in a small V-shaped valley reminiscent of a West Virginia hollow. My mom, it turns out, was wrong. From their home that had no running water or inside facilities it was 4.4 miles one way to the school house site.
My grandmother’s strictest rule — even after she was abandoned by her husband who left her with seven kids and a ranch to run at the height of the Great Depression — was that her children had to graduate high school. That was no easy feat. Before she sold the ranch and moved into Lincoln in adjoining Placer County that meant the oldest children had to board in Grass Valley in order to go to Nevada Union High given there was no rural bus service the 52-mile round trip from the ranch was out of reach by other means. In order to make that happen each of the Towle children that went to Nevada Union High in the 1930s had to work their way through high school to pay for room and board as well as clothes and school expenses.
My elementary days were a piece of cake compared to my mom’s. The farthest I walked was 2 miles one way and the worst classroom was one of two old Quonset huts that were once Air Force barracks Western Placer Unified had procured for use as fourth grade classrooms at Mary Beermann School. The saving grace was the Quonset hut classrooms had air conditioning — the only two to have it in the entire district.
I didn’t realize the air conditioning was a necessity until one day in April when we returned from a field trip to Coloma and our teacher Mildred Hayward forgot to turn on the air conditioning when we left. It was an 80-degree day but when we returned shortly before 3 p.m. we couldn’t go into the classroom. The mercury thermometer was all the way at the top reaching 120 degrees.
Today the worst school in California has standards, facilities, educated staff, material and equipment that are light years away from what my grandmother and mother had while pushing my experience back to almost the Stone Age.
That is not to say schools weren’t good back 120, 80 or 50 years ago. But to compare the “good old days” with education challenges in 2018 is akin to arguing somehow that the 1908 Model T Ford is a superior car to a 2019 Ford Focus.
The Model T got the solid basics down. However, if you brought a mechanic from 1908 to life and told him to troubleshoot a 2018 vehicle equipped with voice activated radio and Bluetooth phone along with everything stuffed under the hood and built into the frame he would be completely lost. He could probably figure out the basics but other than that it would be like a kindergartener being handed a trigonometry textbook.
It seems at times too many people take our public school system for granted. They really shouldn’t if for no other reason by the time a California youth passes through 13 years of public schools the taxpayers of this state will have invested in excess of $150,000 in providing an education.
Education back in the 1890s wasn’t something that was left to just teachers, ended at the classroom door, or ceased to be a pursuit once you earned your last diploma.
Today teachers not only have to make sense of a changing and expanding world of knowledge, but as a society we’ve burdened them with all sorts of ancillary duties that once was expected of families and/or society to handle ranging from civilized behavior to being para-social workers.
That’s not to say some of that wasn’t going on in the past in an era where the paddle helped drive home respect and standards of conduct parents failed to instill or teachers going out of their way to help kids who were struggling with things that weren’t associated with the proverbial Three R’s.
With all of its faults and perceived shortcomings, I’d wager if someone from 1890, 1926 or even 1968 were to step into a California public school classroom today and observed for a day what transpires, they would be thoroughly amazed.
For too many, however, when school starts this upcoming week in districts across the Valley we will take for granted what goes on in the classroom. Perhaps it is because we’ve come to expect certain things.
It wasn’t all that long ago, however, that even being able to go to high school was considered an unattainable dream for many.