When I was 10 years old my family moved from the big, dirty, steel-mill city of Gary, Ind., to the sleepy little village of Rosebush, Mich. - population 2,000, if you counted every farm family in a 10-mile radius.
I was a city kid so I had no idea what to expect from country life. I was enthralled as we drove through the town - all two blocks of it. There was one stop light, a general store, a tiny restaurant called the White Wagon and a roadside produce stand. Besides houses and a couple of churches, the only other building in town was the school - a red brick box hardly larger than most of the houses.
We learned later that the school served kindergarten through eighth grade so it seemed that my sister and brother and I would all go to same school. We also learned that the school was so overcrowded that there was no library, no lunchroom and no gymnasium. Even the principal's office had been turned into a classroom and the principal worked in a converted closet.
In addition, Rosebush School had just consolidated with Bowen School, the last remaining independent, one-room school in the county. To ease the overcrowding they had decided to use Bowen School as a classroom for the fifth grade. I would be attending an old-fashioned, one-room school, exactly like my parents had when they were kids.
I had never ridden a school bus so the first day I was excited about the 30-minute ride to school. Once there, I had to change buses and ride another five miles to Bowen School. By the time we arrived at our final destination, I was seriously carsick from the bouncing over gravel roads laced with chatter bumps, while breathing the noxious odor of bus exhaust mixed with gravel dust in the steamy September heat.
The school was a white clapboard building no bigger than most garages. It had seven steps up to the door and a pointed belfry with a real bell used to call the students in. As we entered, there were "cloak rooms" on either side - one for boys and one for girls - with hooks for coats and shelves for lunch pails. Adjoining the cloak rooms were chemical pit toilets. I quickly learned that there are worse smells than bus exhaust.
The classroom was lined with steam radiators and green oilcloth shades topped the tall windows. Thirty desks were crowded in the tiny space facing a raised platform and slate blackboard. On the platform were an ancient upright piano and the teacher's desk, which was really more like a table with long carved legs and one shallow drawer.
The teacher, who had taught eight grades in that single room for the last 40 years, stood in front of her desk. Rhea O'Grady, all 4 feet 9 inches of her, stood silent and solemn. She was 74 years old, with gray hair fastened in a tight bun on the crown of her head. She held a ruler in one hand was resolutely tapping it in the palm of her other hand.
One look at her and I was terrified.
(More next week)