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Story Behind the Story #41: The Secret School

The Secret School

The way The Secret School begins, with four­teen-year-old Ida dri­ving a Mod­el T Ford, but being so short her broth­er need­ed to be on the floor work­ing the clutch and brakes, is a true tale, told to me by a book­store own­er who had gone to a one-room school house. Though very young she had a spe­cial dri­ver’s license which allowed her to drive—but only back and forth to her one-room school house.

I think it was hear­ing that sto­ry that led me to write The Secret School

 “Con­sol­i­dat­ed School Dis­trict,” is a term com­mon across the land­scape of Amer­i­can schools. What is not always real­ized is that in many cas­es the con­sol­i­da­tion was of one-room school hous­es into large school sys­tems. It hap­pened fol­low­ing World War Two, when there were mas­sive pop­u­la­tion shifts, and car trans­porta­tion became tru­ly mass trans­porta­tion. But pri­or to this time there were thou­sands of one-room school hous­es in rur­al areas. In my Col­orado home area, I can iden­ti­fy at least sev­en build­ings that were once one-room school hous­es. Though great­ly reduced in num­ber they still exist. When you learn about their archi­tec­ture you can spot them everywhere.

Some years ago I vis­it­ed a small cam­pus of The Uni­ver­si­ty of Mon­tana which had the only pro­gram in the coun­try for would-be teach­ers in one-room school hous­es. Aside from stan­dard edu­ca­tion cours­es, you were required to take class­es in plumb­ing, account­ing, and oth­er such prac­ti­cal skills.

one room schoolhouse

One-room schools pop up every­where in mem­oirs, and those who went through the sys­tems are fierce­ly loy­al to their schools and edu­ca­tors. Their strength lay in com­mu­ni­ty, ded­i­cat­ed teach­ers and that stu­dents taught one anoth­er. Their weak­ness lay in their iso­la­tion, (phys­i­cal, cul­tur­al, racial) and cours­es of study beyond the strength of indi­vid­ual teach­ers, more often than not, sci­ence. This kind of prob­lem was reme­died, in one case, by the State of Wis­con­sin that broad­cast (radio) class­es for the scat­tered students.

In any case, I was fas­ci­nat­ed by these schools and was able to inter­view folks who had been stu­dents in such schools. I also was able to vis­it some still-exist­ing schools. There are any num­ber of books about these schools, too.

The Secret School was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten and seri­al­ized in news­pa­pers for Break­fast Seri­als.

It can be still read in its orig­i­nal for­mat (with illus­tra­tions by Bri­an Flo­ca) via the inter­net at Instant Seri­als. A slight­ly expand­ed ver­sion was pub­lished and is still in print.

 One of the plea­sures of pub­lish­ing the sto­ry has come from read­ers who shared mem­o­ries of their (or their grand­par­ents’) one-room school expe­ri­ences, includ­ing the nine­ty-year-old news­pa­per read­er who cor­rect­ed my place­ment of those Mod­el T clutch pedals.

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