Memories of a One-Room School

The Name | The Classroom Complex | The Teachers | The Curriculum | The Extracurricular | Ingress and Egress | The Seven-Year Itch | The Restrooms | Special Assignments | A Miniature World | A Bois D’Arc Benediction

The Influence

The Bois D’Arc Baptist Church, with its one-room-frame-constructed building, was located one mile north of my childhood home. The Bois D’Arc Elementary School, with its three-room-frame-constructed building, was located two miles northwest of my home. I was past 70 years old before I came to fully realize the depth of the influence that those two totally-rural and unbelievably-simple institutions had on my life. Their never-dying influences came from the fact that they provided, and were the center of, the main social contacts we had outside our family.

The Name

“Bois D’Arc,” with its Frenchified sound, was the fancy name attached to two exceedingly plain and humble institutions. Etymologically, the origin of the word is always connected to the bois d’arc hardwood tree. The bois d’arc wood is variously referred to as:

  • Bow wood.
  • Burnt wood.
  • Hop hornbeam wood.
  • Osage orange wood.
  • Ironwood.
  • Singing wood.
  • Fiddlewood.
  • Faithful wood.
  • Trustworthy wood.
  • Immortal wood.

In our country and on our farm and in our home, we knew that the wood from the bois d’arc tree made the most durable fence posts and the smoothest grain-sack needles. “Bois D’Arc” is a dear word to me, not because of its Frenchified sound, but because it was the name of a humble church and a humble school that made a deep contribution to my life.

The Classroom Complex

Since the “classroom complex” consisted of only three rooms, it could more accurately be called a classroom simplex. We had the “little” room, the “big” room, and the “stage” room.

In the “little” room:

  • Four grades: Grades one, two, three, and four.
  • Grade one was located close to the inner wall, near the blackboard.
  • Grades two and three occupied the central portions of the room.
  • Grade four was situated near the outside wall, which consisted mainly of a long row of windows.
  • The never-silent babble and prattle of about 20 different class periods each day, all in the same classroom, and all within the hearing of every student in all four grades.

Since the seven-and-one-half-hour school day, minus one-and-one-half hours for recesses and dinner time, allowed a maximum of 360 minutes of teaching time, the length of each class recitation was confined to 18-or-less minutes. Pause, consider, and reflect on the following thought: One room, four grades, twenty different class periods, and one teacher!

In the “big” room:

  • Four grades: Grades five, six, seven, and eight.
  • Grade five was located close to the wall without windows.
  • Grades six and seven were in the center sections.
  • Grade eight, composed of the self-acclaimed “big shots,” was near the long row of outside windows.
  • Again: The never-silent sounds of 20-to-24 class periods.
  • Again: The 15-to-18 minute recitations of 20-to-24 class periods.
  • Again: One teacher!

The “stage” room:

The stage, with its colorfully-muraled backdrop and side panels, was located at one end. The folding doors between the “stage” room and the “big” room, when opened, transformed the two rooms into “The Auditorium.”

  • Here the sometimes-in-school events and activities were held.
  • Here the twice-a-year school plays were presented for the viewing pleasure of the entire community.
  • Here the community-wide Thanksgiving and Christmas program were held.
  • Here was the favorite location for political rallies and voting precincts.
  • Here the singing schools, conducted by an itinerant teacher who claimed to be a singer, were repeatedly held, beginning on Monday night and closing on Friday night with a community-wide singing session, which was enthusiastically attended by the young and the old and all ages in between, and which sometimes lasted until the midnight hour was nearing.

The Library, (or “Liberry”):

  • Location: Between the “stage” room and the “little” room.
  • Size: I would guess about 5 feet wide and 30 feet long.
  • Bookshelf space: Solid on both walls; surely several hundred linear feet.
  • Books in library: Enough, I would guess, to cover about 5 linear feet of bookshelves.
  • Doors, windows, skylights, peepholes, and air ducts: Doors = one. Windows = zilch. Skylights = zilch. Peepholes = zilch. Air ducts = zilch.
  • Heating system: A stately old four-legged, cast-iron, potbellied, barrel-chested, coal-burning, smoke-gushing heating stove in each of the three rooms.

The Teachers

Only two. Never more than two. Regardless of the number of pupils, only two teachers. My Bois D’Arc teachers:

  • Miss Annie, for the first grade.
  • Miss Smith, for the second, third and fourth grades.
  • Miss Bessie May, for the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

“Miss Annie” memories:

Miss Annie was my first public school teacher. She was loved then, and remembered across my entire life, as one who was kind and gentle and caring and helpful to me, a six-year-old lad, in my first extended social contacts outside the security and comfort of my family and home.

Background: I was born with what would later be diagnosed as a “congenital tremor” or a “familial tremor,” the type that skips every other generation. (My grandfather had it, none of his children did. My sister and I have it, none of our children do. One of my grandsons has it.) Results: Across my childhood years, I experienced some bad hours with my tremor.

My most vivid memory of Miss Annie: In my first days at school, my tremor and homesickness and fear combined to produce a trembling and shaking that made it almost impossible for me to hold a pencil. Miss Annie would sit beside me at my desk, hold my shaking hand in hers, guide my pencil across the paper, and whisper words of praise and encouragement to me.

A digression: (Allow me to digress long enough to make a brief tremor report: From late adolescence through my late fifties, my tremor all but disappeared. In the last 15 years, it has become somewhat more prominent. I now take three 4-cent pills each day, which totally control it.)

Benediction; God bless Miss Annie for being there in the days when there were no effective 4-cent pills.

“Miss Smith” memories:

Miss Smith was my most-loved schoolteacher of all time. She was my teacher through grades two, three, and four. My first day in the second grade was her first day as a schoolteacher. She was about twenty one years old, and I was seven. I can still remember the first time I saw her: She stood on the porch, above the line of “little” room students, stepped aside, followed us in, and sat down at her desk at 8:30 A.M.

  • At 8:31 A.M., I fell madly and incurably in love with her.
  • At 8:32 A.M., I firmly and confidently decided that immediately after my graduation from the eighth grade I was going to marry her!
  • At 10:01 A.M., during the first minute of our morning recess, I declared my love and told her how happy we were going to be after she became my wife.

About two or three years later, my marriage-and-graduation plans were shattered when she told me that she was going to marry Clyde. She broke my heart and ruined my graduation plans, but she didn’t destroy or dim my love. From grades two through eight, my love never once wavered. (12) From 1925 to 1994, her influence touched and blessed and strengthened my life. In 1994, as I sat through the melancholy moments of her funeral, I silently blessed her memory and thanked God for what she did for a seven-year-old child when she walked into my classroom and into my life on that faraway day in 1925.

“Miss Bessie May” memories:

Miss Bessie May was my teacher from grades five through eight. She was also many, many, many other things:

  • She was headmaster, headmistress, head superintendent, head principal, head honcho, headquarters, and “head” everything else.
  • She was headmost, headman, headwoman, head-waiter, headlighter, headliner, headhunter, headshrinker, headlocker and headknocker.
  • She was the all-seeing-eye, the number one crime fighter, the plaintiff, the detective in charge, the chief investigator, the arresting officer, the jailer, the grand jury, the trial judge, the bailiff, the court clerk, the executer, the undertaker, the hearse driver, the chief coroner, the gravedigger, the pallbearer, the sod shoveler, and the Pontifical Prayer Pronouncer.
  • She was the Municipal Court, the County Court, the District Court, the State Court, the Federal Court, the Appellate Court, and the Supreme Court.

Her scholastic edicts and decrees were mercilessly enforced by a nose pinch, an ear twist, a hair pull, a hand slap, a wooden slat-like paddle applied to the palm of the hand, or a leather strap cut from a horse-tug applied across the upper back and the more-inviting lower regions.

The Curriculum

“Curriculum” is a word that was never known, seen, heard, or spoken in the Bois D’Arc School. “Curriculum” is a word that I still don’t use every morning at breakfast, or have overconfidence when I try to spell it.

Our official curriculum was:

  • Readin’.
  • ‘Ritin’.
  • ‘Rithmetic.
  • Spellin’.
  • English.
  • Algebra.
  • History.
  • Geography, (or “Jogerfe”).

Our unofficial curriculum was:

  • Poise. (With book on head.)
  • Elocution.
  • Memorization.
  • Recitation.

It was a “curriculum” that was officiously extracted from books that were sometimes old, worn, shaky and ragged. It was also a never-changing curriculum: Year after year, it was routinely and repeatedly delivered by Miss Bessie May at the same hour of the day, in the same tone of voice, in the same terrapin tempo, with the same aura of DUTY, and from the same ragged set of notes.

Example: I have meticulously calculated that during the four years, or the 36 months, or the 144 weeks, or the 720 days, or the 4320 hours, or the 259,200 minutes, or the up-toward 16 million seconds I spent in the “big” room trying to get through the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades, I heard Miss Bessie May deliver the eighth-grade “curriculum” 6 times each day, 30 times each week, 120 times each month, and 1080 times each year, for a four-year total of 4320 times!


Memorization by perpetual-motion repetition.

  • “A, b, c, d,” and all the way to “x, y, z,” with a metronomic monotone; over, and over, and over.
  • “One times one equals one, and two times two equals four,” and all the way to “twelve times twelve equals . . .;” again, and again, and again.
  • States and capitols: “Texas, Austin; Louisiana, Baton Rouge; Arkansas, Little Rock; Oklahoma, Oklahoma City; New Mexico, Albuquerque;” and on around the corners, from California to Washington to Maine and Florida. (I was almost ready to retire before I learned how to spell Albuquerque.)
  • The Bible: “Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers . . . Matthew, Mark, Luke and John . . .,” until I could flawlessly recite my way from Genesis to Revelation, or wake up at midnight and go backward from Revelation to Genesis.
  • Presidents: “Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe . . .” and all the way to Hoover and Roosevelt, until a long line of presidents romped and cavorted.
  • The fabulous formula for figuring the gallon-capacity of a bucket, or a barrel, or a swimming pool, or a silo.

It has been 63 years since I graduated from Bois D’Arc, and no one has ever asked me to recite the list of states and capitols, or to repeat the names of the presidents, or to help them determine the gallon-capacity of a bucket, or a barrel, or a swimming pool, or a grain silo.

The Extracurricular

Webster defines “extracurricular” as:

  • “Not a part of the regular curriculum.”
  • “Outside the regular course of study.”
  • “Under the supervision of school authorities.”

The Bois D’Arc extracurricular:

Harmonized with the first two sections of Webster’s definition, but sang off-key with the third one. It was not a part of the regular curriculum, and it was outside the regular course of study. But much of it was never under the supervision of school authorities.

The milder forms:

  • Regularly and repeatedly playing hooky by hiding under the schoolhouse, or in a nearby cornfield, or under a bridge, or behind the privy. (The boy’s restroom was never called, by the boys, anything except a privy.)
  • Running away from school with machoistic bravada after having failed a written test, or after having been humiliated by Miss Bessie May, and, cowed and disgraced, being escorted back to school on the same day by a firm and persistent parent.
  • Throwing rocks at the girl’s restroom when the teachers were not looking. (The girl’s restroom was never referred to as a “privy,” not even by the boys, it was always a “restroom.”)
    Catapulting a slingshot rock through a school-house windowpane as a protest against the treatment someone had received from Miss Bessie May.

The wilder forms:

  • Mostly (and most dangerously) connected with the old potbellied stove.
  • Tripping the damper, which filled the room with acrid coal smoke.
  • Smearing the red-hot sides of Old Potbelly with anything that would burn and stink.
  • Throwing gunpowder, firecrackers, .22-caliber rifle shells, and shotgun shells into the firebox of Old Potbelly.
  • It was always difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between curriculum, extracurricular, and pure devilment.

Penalties and Punishments

The penalties and punishments were not a part of the regular curriculum. And they were outside the regular course of study. But they were definitely under the supervision of a school AUTHORITY! In addition to Miss Bessie May’s nose tweakings and ear twistings and hair pullings and hand slappings and palm paddlings, the penalties and punishments sometimes assumed more subtle and ingenious forms, such as:

  • Being consigned to go outside and pull weeds. (Which was comparable to Brer Rabbit being thrown into the brier patch, because any respectable schoolboy had rather be outside pulling weeds than inside ponderously parsing paragraphs.)
  • Being placed in a chair facing a front corner of a room until Miss Bessie May said, “Enough.”
  • Being ordered to stand on tiptoes, with your nose in a chalk-drawn ring on the blackboard, for a vindictively-chosen amount of time.

The Ultimate Punishment

Miss Bessie May’s horse-tug strap! The strap was cut from the reinforced section of a leather tug which ran from the harness hames to a singletree, by which horses or mule pulled buggies, wagons or plows, and in which some of the copper brads were still intact. There was gross sex discrimination in the Bois D’Arc Educational Complex, because the horse-tug strap was applied only to boys; and never, absolutely never, to girls.

The direct and most-demeaning punishment was being forced to stand facing the student body while Miss Bessie May sadistically applied resounding whacks with her horse-tug strap to the you-know-where location. The indirect and most-tortuous application of the strap came disguised in a more-devious approach. On one occasion, with the strap in her hand, she stealthily sneaked up behind a boy and whacked him across his unsuspecting back, causing him to tear his desk and seat completely free of their moorings. On another occasion she repeated her stealth performance and whacked another unsuspecting boy across his back, which resulted in a torn shirt, a bleeding laceration, and a parental protest to teacher and trustees. (The reason I am so familiar with this episode is because it was my back, my torn shirt, and my bleeding laceration.)

If a modern “Miss-Bessie-May” schoolteacher treated her students as our Miss Bessie May treated us, she would be instantly arrested, forcibly handcuffed, firmly restrained with ankle chains and straight-jacket, placed inside an escape-proof armored car which was protected by armed guards who were surrounded by an armed armada which was escorted by a fleet of armed aircraft as they whisked her away to solitary confinement in the deepest “hole” in Sing Sing or Alcatraz.

But those days were different days, and yesterdays, and long-gone days. They were days in which protesting parents had no recourse beyond their protests to teachers and trustees; protests which always fell on deaf ears, because Miss Bessie May always had the students under one thumb and the trustees under the other.

Ingress and Egress

“Ingress” and “egress” also belonged to the list of words that were never known or spoken or heard on the Bois D’Arc Campus, by students or teachers. In Bois D’Arc speakese, these words would have come out as, “goin’ in” and “comin’ out.” In later years, when post-Bois D’Arc sophistication began to erode simplicity, a few of the Bois D’Arc alumni not only learned to call dinner “lunch,” and supper “dinner,” but they also learned that “ingress” and “egress” meant “entering” and “exiting.” In the Bois D’Arc Educational Complex, these words would have been thought of as;

  • “Going in to study, memorize, and recite.”

The goings-in:

  • 8:30 = Begin the school day.
  • 10:15 = End the morning recess
  • 1:00 = End of dinner time.
  • :45 = End of afternoon recess

The goings-out:

  • 10:00 = Begin morning recess.
  • 12:00 = Begin dinner time.
  • 2:30 = Begin afternoon recess.
  • 4:00 = END OF SCHOOL DAY!

The ritualistic routine of “ingress”:

The routine, four times each day, was as follows:

  • The authoritative tolling of Old Ding Dong!
  • The moaning and groaning of reluctant students.
  • Miss 4-Star Generalette Bessie May’s curt orders: “Line up!” “Silence!” “Straight line!” “Straight line!”
  • The seemingly-never-ceasing repetitions of “Straight line!” “Straight line!”
  • Finally: “March!” “Stand at desk!” “Be seated!”
  • Yuck! Time to study, memorize, and recite!

The ritualistic routine of “egress”:

Again: Four times each day, with no variation:

  • The anticipation and eagerness that gripped the classroom: Time for another jailbreak!
  • Time for going out to another recess, or dinner time, or end of school day!
  • Again: Miss-Four-Star’s clipped commandments: “Clear desks!” “Turn!” “Rise!” “March!” “Straight line!” “Straight line!”
  • Then: Miss Four-Star would strike her Statue-of-Liberty pose, bedevil us with a series of hesitations and a final repetition of: “Straight line!” “Straight line!”
  • Finally: The long-sought-and-eagerly-awaited, “Dismiss!”

Then came the spontaneous combustion of babbling voices as each of us rushed to our “thirteen minutes of glory” before Old Ding Dong pealed again, summoning us to return to our prison cells of incarceration, slavery and forced labor in the murky mines and backbreaking rock piles of education.

One memory I retained from the egress: The goings-out formed the foundation for the only unanimous agreement that the Bois D’Arc student body ever achieved.

The number one lesson I learned from the ingress and egress: Miss Bessie May was a stickler for a straight line!

The Seven-Year Itch

If judged solely by the constancy of its presence among the students, the seven-year itch could justifiably be classified as a part of the regular curriculum. But if one judged it by the odor of sulfur and grease, (which was the theoretical cure), one would be justified in calling it an extracurricular, because even a school AUTHORITY, with a horse-tug strap in her hand, couldn’t control the itch! The omnipresence of the itch, and the maleficent odor of sulfur and grease, may not have been technically worthy of the regular curriculum, but they were almost permanent residents of the extracurricular. The memory of itching and scratching, and the odor of sulfur and grease lingered long after the “disease” had subsided and the body and clothes had been washed, and washed, and rewashed.

It was at Bois D’Arc that I truly learned how to pray: “Lord, eventually deliver me from sin and shame and sorrow and suffering and pride and conceit and anger and hatred and jealousy and envy and covetousness and greed and avarice . . . but, first, deliver me from the seven-year itch.”

The Restrooms

The restrooms, for two understandable reasons, were the most-widely used and frequently-visited rooms on the Bois D’Arc campus. The uses and visits fell into two categories: One = necessity. Two = escape. Escape from a six-hour-per-day confinement in an unairconditioned school room, escape from Four-Star-Generalette Bessie May, and escape from the ceaseless recitations of 24 class periods per day, of which only six were your own.

The girls’ restroom was located northwest of the schoolhouse. The boys’ “privy” was located northeast of the schoolhouse. It would be entirely accurate to call them the no-restrooms; because they had no water, no flush commodes, no toilet-paper dispensers (which was not an inconvenience because there was no toilet paper), no lavatories, no bathtubs or showers, no windows, no locks or perfume deodorizers attached to the door, and, absolutely, no privacy! The only restroom furnishings were the three-holer bench seats, the Sears and Roebuck catalog, and the ever-present sack of lime that substituted for the nonexistent flush commode.

A wooden walk, the boards of which were almost-always loose and floppy, led from the front porch of the schoolhouse to each of the restrooms. Permission to “go to the restroom” was acquired by raising one hand, with one finger pointed toward the ceiling, and holding it up until the teacher nodded her silent sign of approval.

Then, there were two basic choices of action:

  • One = most of the boys, and all of the girls, quietly and sedately proceeded to and from the restroom with an orderly and befitting dignity.
  • Two = some of the boys sneakily detoured past Old Potbelly, tripped her damper, smeared some stinking substance on her red-hot sides, threw a firecracker or shotgun shell into her glowing firebox, and ran along the floppy-wooden walk with the speed of a hungry panther and the clumsiness of an ox, which produced a floppy-flappy repercussion that echoed and reechoed through all of the rooms inside the schoolhouse.

Among the more-callous male students, the standard directions to the boys’ privy included: “Even if you are blind, or if you have to go at midnight, go to the southeast corner of the schoolhouse, point your nose toward the northeast, and follow the aroma.”

Special Assignments

In the course of a school year, several arbitrary assignments were made by the school AUTHORITY. Some of the assignments were about as welcome as a triple contraction of whooping cough, risings, and the seven-year itch, but a few of them were desired and sought after.

Among the undesirables:

  • Pop quizzes.
  • Written exams.
  • Bringing in coal.
  • Taking out ashes.
  • Sweeping classrooms.
  • Cleaning restrooms.
  • Homework.
  • Schoolwork.
  • Yardwork.
  • Any kind of work.

The most-coveted assignments:

  • Cleaning and shining the blackboard.
  • Dusting the erasers.
  • Tidying up the library.
  • Serving as curtain raiser.

Cleaning and shining the blackboard involved rubbing an eraser over the entire area, following the eraser with a damp cloth, and following the damp cloth with a dry cloth. Everybody loved this job because it allowed the “chosen” to strut and perform before the captive audience of envious students of grades 5, 6, 7, and 8. Dusting the erasers involved removing them from their trough, placing them in a carrying box, going outside with a dusting partner, sitting on the seesaw, and beating the bejabbers out of the erasers as the two “chosen” ones ceaselessly seesawed up and down. The best thing about this job was the half-hour reprieve that the dusters enjoyed away from the babble of their constantly-reciting schoolmates. Tidying up the library involved dusting and moving the 5-linear feet of books to another 5-linear feet of bookshelves and dusting the remaining (and empty) 195-linear feet of bookshelves with a damp rag, and then with a dry rag. The best thing about this job paralleled the best thing about the job of dusting the erasers: It provided a half-hour furlough from the dungeons and rock piles of education.

The curtain-raising job involved sitting on a stool behind one of the stage side panels and raising and lowering the roll-up-and-down curtain during the Thanksgiving program, the Christmas program, the Valentine program, the midterm school play, the Easter Program, and the end-of-school festivities. This was the most desired, coveted, sought-after and schemed-for assignment of all assignments. This job has social status! And it filled the “chosen” with unimaginable amounts of haughty pride and naughty arrogance. But, alas and alack! It was all-but-impossible for a “commoner” to be chosen for one of these cushy assignments.

During the 4 years I spent in the “big” room, I think I got to dust the erasers one time; but I never, never, never got to sit on that sacred stool and raise and lower that hallowed curtain one single time. The coveted assignments were automatically reserved for the teacher’s pets, and the children of the trustees. And how could a lowly “commoner” ever hope to compete with such royal competition as that?

A Miniature World

More than five decades would pass away before I came to realize that Bois D’Arc was a miniature world in which childish microcosms of every social, political, economical, racial, cultural, moralistic, educational and religious philosophy could be found in the “little” room and the “big” room and the “stage” room and the restroom.

We had socialism and capitalism, Democrats and Republicans, Tories and Whigs, Conservatives and Liberals, Religious Rights and Religious Lefts, Fundamentalists and Moderates, know-nothings and know-it-alls, smart alecks and dumbbells, idealists and realists, dreamers and doers, talkers and performers, teacher’s pets and teacher’s pests, wits and nitwits, sects and insects, believers and skeptics, saints and sinners, ecologists and polluters, Unionists and Rebels, patriots and anarchists . . . and commingled with all of these were faultfinders, foul-mouthers, and flimflammers who stirred up fusses and falling-outs and four-letter words and faceoffs and fist fights.

Bois D’Arc was a miniature world in which the students had never heard of blue-blood births, royal genes, a superior race, an aristocracy, a privileged elite, the upper class . . . or Lord High Chancellors, noblemen, dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts and barons. After having finally graduated from the 8th grade at the age of 14, and after 7 years of another type of education, and with my microcosmic and miniature education that I received from the microcosmic and miniature world of Bois D’Arc, and with my “I-can-conquer-the-universe” attitude, I went out into the larger world where, for the past 56 years, I have been a never-graduating student in the “School of Experience.”

A Bois D’Arc Benediction

I close with a warm and loving benediction upon Bois D’Arc, for within her walls my budding childhood knowledge of the true basics of life was honed and enlarged by two philosophies of education: The philosophy of love and kindness, and the philosophy of the horse-tug strap. I’m not sure what the voting results would be if the modern doctors and experts of education, with their self-acclaimed expertise, held an election to nominate one of the two above-mentioned philosophies of education to be enthroned as king in every school in the nation. But I am sure of this: If I had a chance to stuff the ballot box, without the slightest twinge of conscience, the final vote tally would be: Love and kindness = One Zillion! The horse-tug strap = Zero!

Hal Upchurch, 1995