I was born in rural Michigan in 1892. I started my educational career in a one-room country school when I was six years old. Grades were from one to eight and were taught by one teacher. The school was about a mile from our house and while it was a rather pleasant walk when the weather was good and the roads were dry, it was at times very unpleasant, like when it was raining, the snow blowing or the roads ankle-deep in mud. There were no paved roads or sidewalks so at times it was very difficult to walk.
Classes would begin at 9am and were dismissed at 4pm. There was a 15-minute recess in both the morning and afternoon for the first three grades. There was a one-hour intermission at noon. Nearly all the pupils carried lunch pails as there were no hot lunches. Each class lasted fifteen minutes and while one class was reciting the others were supposed to prepare themselves for their own recitation. While the above procedure had its drawbacks, it provided an excellent opportunity for reviewing the work of the lower grades, and for the lower grades to become acquainted with the higher-grade material. I found this very interesting.
Since we lived in a farming community, and since most of the boys expected to stay on the farm, there wasn’t a great deal of interest in ‘book larnin’. Nearly all the boys dropped out before they reached the eighth grade (13-14 years old). There was a library of about 100 volumes. It had a good selection of books: several of the English classics, a series of ten or 12 volumes of ‘Peoples of Other Lands’ which I enjoyed a great deal, and several books of fiction. We were permitted to read these books whenever we had completed our preparation for our next class.
To qualify for high school the pupils had to pass the county eighth-grade examination. This was given each year in May. Those who passed would be accepted in any high school in the county. It was my great ambition to pass this exam and I began preparing for it while still in the seventh grade. As I said previously, there wasn’t a great deal of interest in education in our area so no one had passed this exam from our school since it was instituted.
I remember walking the three miles to Monroe to take this exam. It included all elementary school subjects and was quite comprehensive. When I arrived at the high school, I found there were about 75 students from all over the county. It was supervised by one of the high school teachers who walked around the room, stopping now and then to see how the pupils were doing. I noticed her standing near me and when I looked up, she said, ‘You’re doing very well’. Then came several weeks of anxious waiting. Finally, I received a letter saying I had passed, and the certificate was also enclosed.
I was terribly disappointed that I could not go to high school, but there were several reasons why this was impossible. My father has been an invalid for several years, my older brothers had gone to Detroit to work, and it was three miles to Monroe, and to walk there in all kinds of weather was not practical. My parents could not afford to pay for my board in town. Therefore, I spent four discouraging years doing work I detested, and I’m quite sure I did it poorly.
A chance encounter with a very special bookcase
When I was 16 I went to town one day to get some flour. After threshing, we would take some wheat to the flour mill to be ground into enough flour to last until the next threshing time. Since we could not store so much flour, we were permitted to leave it there and to get some as needed. The bran and middling were brought home and fed to the pigs. We would also bring corn to be ground for mush, johnnycake, muffins etc. On the way home through the city, I passed a house that was having a sidewalk sale of household goods. I stopped and noticed a bookcase full of books and upon examination, I found there were mostly high school textbooks. The woman holding the sale had been a high school teacher who had retired and wanted to move out of town.
The bookcase was a fine piece of furniture. It really was a combination bookcase and desk. The right side was a writing desk with pigeonholes and small drawers, the left side had several shelves. I had some money of my own and bought the bookcase for $3, and thus started my high school education. It was very hard work, at times, terribly discouraging, but I kept at it and I got along fairly well.
Becoming a teacher
I had always wanted to teach but did not know how it could be done with my limited education. In the fall of my 17th year, I went to Monroe and called on the County Commissioner of Education. I told him I was interested in teaching and asked him what I could do. He told me I had to be 18 years of age and that I had to pass the Michigan Third Grade Teachers’ Examination. He also said there was a shortage of male teachers in the County and that if I passed the exam, he was sure I would get a school contract. I told my parents about it and decided I would go back to our school and review the elementary school subjects if the present teacher would allow be to do so. She was agreeable so I attended for several months and did a lot of cramming for the exam. It included the elementary school subjects and a few questions regarding Michigan School Law. The teacher let me use her copy of School Law and I took the exams the following May. I passed and since I was eighteen in a few weeks I was qualified to teach. I was hired to teach in a school about 10 miles from home and began my teaching career which lasted 60 years.
* This reflection was written in 1980 by Enos A. Roberts (1892-1982).
This mini-essay is part of the ‘childhood experiences of work’ series. As we prepared to launch ACHA we asked partners to reflect on their own childhood experiences of work. The prompt was simple and open: approach it in however you like; write as little or as much as you like, in whatever form you like; try to put yourself back into your frame of mind as a child; use 18 years old as a rough cut-off age, and think about harm.
Eighteen reflections were received from ten women and eight men aged from 29 to 70 years, who grew up in the UK (7), Ghana (3), Netherlands (2), Canada (2), Argentina (1), Brazil (1), Denmark (1) and US (1).
If you would like to share your childhood experiences of work please send a short narrative (under 1,000 words) to ACHA (ACHA-Enquiries@ids.ac.uk). All narratives that are published on the ACHA website will be anonymised.
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