For a couple of seasons, I had the pleasure of working at a living history museum. Most of the time, I could be found in the one-room schoolhouse, looking like I had sprung off the pages of Anne of Green Gables. Along with the joy of meeting new little ones each day, my favorite part was listening when the “old folks” started talking.
“My school was pretty much like this, except all of our desks faced this way.”
“When I was a one-room school teacher back in the ‘30s, my students each brought a potato for lunch, and we baked the potatoes in the stove during morning lessons.”
A particular visitor even testified that the tricks of schoolhouse lore, like dipping a girl’s braid in an inkwell or tying her apron strings to her seat, really did take place.
As much as I tried to convey my delight, I’m not sure these dear story-givers ever truly grasped how much I relished the glimpses they gave me into these bygone days. They were like pots of gold on my treasure hunt to uncover true stories to share with the 21st-century schoolchildren who visited my school. To the history-bearers, their schoolhouse days may have seemed just ordinary life, but to me and the boys and girls who came running as my bell rang, they were as beyond ordinary as fairy tales! You see, most of today’s children will never do farm chores before they head to school, much less ski to school – Little boys often burst out in exclamations of envy at that point! – or listen in on the lessons of their brothers and sisters or go ice skating with them at recess. And today’s generation of seniors are pretty much the last ones who can share these stories firsthand.
With that in mind, as often as I could (and when I remembered), I would encourage my students that their grandparents or another older person in their lives may, in fact, have attended a one-room school not so different from the one in which they were sitting. My hope was for the children to go on their own treasure hunts.
This is one of the beauties of living history museums: they make history tangible. Just like it’s one thing to read about Anne Shirley and quite another to wear ridiculously puffed sleeves yourself, so it’s one thing to read about a one-room school and quite another to sit at a desk where someone sat a hundred years ago and take a slate pencil in your hand to work arithmetic problems given by a teacher. And if you have someone with you who can tell you firsthand how it really was, that’s even better!
That’s why this spring, as you plan your outings or field trips, I encourage you to visit your local (or distant) living history museums and to take someone who is just a little bit older with you. Besides enjoying fresh air and learning history facts, you’ll have the opportunity to ask questions – Was your school anything like this? What was different about your farm? Did your mom bake bread like that? Did you really butcher the pigs? – and be a part of bringing history to life. Make it your own treasure hunt. Who knows what riches you’ll uncover along the way!