An Old Schoolhouse

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Way off in a large field of scrubby bushes a herd of pronghorn antelope are grazing. One looks up suddenly at the sound of children playing. It’s a rag tag bunch of boys with bowl cut hair and girls in pigtails. Some are very young and some are almost teenagers.

There’s a woman standing on the porch ringing a bell for the children to come in. Her hair is pulled back in a severe bun and her wire rimmed spectacles sit on her nose. Her prim white blouse is buttoned up to her chin and her feet are clad in sensible shoes. She has a kindly but stern countenance.

Ding dong! It’s time for school!

The old Berenda school house. Berenda is the anglicized version of “verrendo” which is Spanish for pronghorn of which many were found in the area .

Such was the image that conjured up in my mind as we stood before the old Berenda School just north of Madera in the middle of California’s Central Valley. It was a cold and rainy day but we had gotten a break in the weather. The green grass bespoke of a kinder, gentler time. Soon all the grass would be dried up and the summer heat of the Central Valley would be oppressive.

How did these people do it? Furnace heat and air conditioning wasn’t even a glimmer in an inventor’s mind. Heat came from a wood stove in the middle of the room. On a cold rainy day would the teacher rotate the kids, in back of the room freezing to the front of the room where they were roasting? Or did she let them all gather round the stove?

Imagine the community of a one or two room school. You certainly knew everyone. Did everyone treat you with respect? Were there bullies and if there were how was the victim expected to react?

What did the children bring to eat? It had to be something that would travel well and not go bad before it was eaten. There were iceboxes but did the school have that luxury? Did the children get to bathe on a regular basis? Did they have to endure a bit or a lot of body odor from each other? Hopefully lice was not a big problem but if it was what was the remedy?

What kind of things did they learn? How did they use what they learned in life? Did they have “attitude” or did they knuckle-down?

The row of lilacs stands as testimony to happy times.

The school, as I learned, was not just a place of learning. Sometimes it was a place where church services, Christmas parties, hoe-downs, community suppers, lectures, and spelling bees were held.

In the beginning school attendance was voluntary and varied from day to day depending on the weather and need for labor at home. Often children were sent to school before the age of six not only to get them out of the house, but because it was thought that school was a better place for children.

The school had both male (schoolmaster) and female (schoolmarm) teachers. It was the rule that if a female teacher married, she had to quit teaching because her most important job then became taking care of the household for her husband.

Many country schools were ungraded and in the beginning Berenda school was not an exception. Students were seated according to their level of ability. The youngest students sat in front and older ones in the back. Students were promoted to the next level when the teacher believed they were ready. Also children were exposed to lessons many times. Therefore, the younger children would know the lesson well when it came time for them to study it. Older students would sometimes help the younger ones.

Reading, good penmanship, and arithmetic, were stressed more than the other subjects. These subjects were known as the “Three R’s” — Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic. By adding recitation, an important element of the reading lesson, teachers would sometimes call it the “Four R’s”. Because books and paper were scarce, much memorization and oral drilling took place. Students would learn by “‘Rote,” which meant to memorize and recite. To “cipher” was to do arithmetic problems, either orally or on slate boards. To “parse sentences” was to explain the meaning and function of each word in a sentence.

From the diary of Mrs. Woods:

School is where my Aunt Mary’s memories began, a memory of the older kids going to the school and leaving her at home:

“I cried because I missed the older kids so much, so Mom would let me visit school with them. I was so thin. Mom put *pluma mooss in a jar for my lunch, and somehow it dropped and broke and I was brokenhearted. It happened in a sort of sandy creek, and the older kids helped me cover it up so no one would know.”

*Pluma Mooss — A sweet, cold, pudding-like soup made from dried fruit.

From the diary of Jacob “Jack” Willems:

As a little boy, second or third grade, I stayed back one year and the next year was put back. I was so embarrassed I would just freeze up when they talked to me. Nothing went in and nothing came out but Miss Garbedian, she was an Armenian, and she was a sweetheart, and she stayed with Pete Walls, had a room there, and she would teach and she could sing pretty good.”

“And I could sing like the dickens. We had an annual play, and I was Jack Frost. I had little shorts on: ‘I’m Jack Frost as you can see. I make the cold wind blow. I cover all the hills and dales with a lot of frosty snow.'”

“I sang that song as a solo, then the next year they wanted me again! And I had to play cupid. And I had these little wings and stuff like that, and a little wooden sword. ‘Cupid then will teach you. You’ll understand, oh, you shall understand.’ I still remember that.”

As it sometimes happens the proximity to a convenient supply of customers dried up when the railroad was built and bypassed Berenda. The town disappeared as the people went elsewhere. But the school building still stands to remind us of what went before. Here’s the monument the good folks of E Clampus Vitus put up.

Information courtesy of the California History Room at the Madera County Library. Images courtesy of Renée Benoit.