Thoughts about Our One-Room School

I attended a rural one-room school in nothern Indiana from 1961 until its closing in May 1967. This post provides some information and reflections on that school generally and on my own experience in it.

The school, Zion Lutheran West Fairfield, covered grades 1 through 8. There was no kindergarten. Photos suggest that enrollment in some years was larger, but in my experience there tended to be around 25 students altogether, typically with two to four students per grade.

The school had been in existence since 1851. It was located next to, and supported by, a conservative (Missouri Synod) Lutheran church founded in 1846. Given the roots of Lutheranism, Sunday services were conducted in German until World War I (according to my mother), and apparently some special services were still conducted in German into the 1920s. This persisting Germanic flavor seemed to carry some risk of actual or perceived exclusion, for those of us of more mixed or non-Teutonic heritage. It did appear that people could spend years in that area without feeling that they really belonged or were even necessarily welcome. As my dad put it, our community included in-laws and outlaws — and as a Woodcock rather than a Martz or Mertz or Hartman or Hasselman, he felt like an outlaw.

The school building had been in its present location since at least 1925. During some parts of the school’s history, classes had apparently been conducted in at least two other buildings a short way to the east. One of those buildings, just one or two city blocks’ distance from the church, was later converted to a house. That’s where I grew up. At least during the school’s heyday, I thus had a fairly good antidote to exclusion: I simply lived too close by, and was too extensively involved in the school and church, to have any serious sense of overt rejection. At worst, I guess I was vaguely aware that some adults were not particularly warm toward me. It’s not something I explored, so I suppose it must have seemed normal.

The congregation supported the school financially and otherwise. The “otherwise” included active participation by church members in school functions. One such function was the monthly Ladies’ Aid Society meeting, with its typical potluck lunch serving the school kids, there in the full basement of the schoolhouse. The kids were reciprocally involved in the congregation — putting on an annual spring play for the congregation, for instance, and the annual Christmas Eve church service, and becoming “confirmed” as members of the church through confirmation classes, held for an hour or two per week in the seventh and eighth grades. Through such activities, the kids became acquainted with the various parents and other actively participating adults, and vice versa; and of course the kids all knew each other, having been in the same classroom with older and younger kids (and their siblings) for years on end.

My dad told me that the congregation decided to close the school in 1967 because of its cost. That decision was made, I believe, by the Voters. The Voters were the male adult members of the congregation. Dad characterized their (monthly?) meetings as sometimes confrontational affairs. There seemed to be multiple fault lines. One such fault line evidently juxtaposed the men who had kids in the school against those who chose to send their kids elsewhere (generally to public elementary school). It appeared that the latter were not necessarily in favor of spending Sunday morning church contributions on the teacher’s salary and such.

Another fault line had to do with the minister. My impression — again, that of a sixth-grader, informed predominantly by my dad’s perspective — was that my family tended to favor whoever the minister was. After all, he and his family were our next-door neighbors. Some others, not so closely situated, seemed to have a tendency to want to drive out ministers who didn’t satisfy them. This fault line seemed to be revived periodically, as the one group ran out of patience with the current minister just as the other group was starting to settle in. Sometimes I am impatient myself; and yet, realistically, ours was a small congregation. We would struggle to attract pastors who were gifted in either theology or hands-on ministry, much less both. As far as I ever knew, sermons were boring regardless, and never seemed to make much actual difference in anyone’s behavior. As long as ministers were tolerable, there didn’t appear to be much advantage in churning the barrel. Again, though, in this and other matters, I wasn’t necessarily getting exposed to both sides of the issues.

The congregation experienced a severe fracturing in, I think, the late 1970s. (I had moved away in 1973, at age 17, after two years of mostly attending a different church, and thus wasn’t too informed or interested in the details.) Protestantism is nothing if not fractious, so in the larger historical perspective it should probably not be surprising that schism would someday take take its turn in this congregation. Interestingly, the fault line appeared to be at least partially cultural: my vague impression was that those who departed seemed especially to include people with non-German surnames. Be that as it may, I do appreciate that mainstream Protestant denominations have generally had a hard time in recent decades. In social terms as well, the 1960s and 1970s formed a period of upheaval and confrontation.

Maybe it was inevitable that this congregation, like others, would undergo such a fundamental breakup, with many of its key families defecting to other churches. Not to overstate: the congregation does still endure. But, as of my most recent visit, it seemed to have significantly fewer members than it had 50 years ago. I’m not sure it has had a resident pastor since the 1980s. Sunday services have been conducted by seminary interns from Fort Wayne, 30 miles to the south.

I offer these remarks about the minister and the congregation for two reasons. First, such remarks raise questions of governance. I have to ask whether the bullheadedness of the Voters meetings, in the version conveyed by my dad, would have been beneficially moderated if women and children had been more involved and informed. I, myself, may or may not have been entitled to attend such meetings, once confirmed into the congregation, but in point of fact there was no way I intended to be caught dead in such a place. The congregation had already grown somewhat alien to me, after two years in public junior high school, and it became more so as I proceeded to become involved with pentecostal Christianity elsewhere. In other words, at that time of the notorious Generation Gap, people like me needed a degree of welcome and engagement that many of my father’s generation were simply not prepared to offer. As a fallback, the accuracy of my impressions about the congregation might also have been enhanced if the congregation’s adult women — my mom, in particular, and my friends’ moms — had been able to acquire and share their own firsthand perspectives on developments in Voters meetings.

My second reason for going on about the minister and the congregation is that I think the termination of the school was the first moment of derailment in a long, slow train wreck. In fairness, I’m not sure it was avoidable. Those were years of school district consolidation. Some may have considered the one-room schoolhouse obsolete. It may have seemed that it was only a matter of time before this, reportedly the last one-room school in Indiana, would close. Maybe the fading of the Baby Boom necessitated some shrinkage, even though the school had been running for more than a century (and a 1967 closing would surely have been premature where the Baby Boom was concerned). Maybe the problem was ultimately economic, deriving from consolidation in farming and/or in manufacturing employment: maybe the school was a working-class phenomenon, vulnerable to changes in that demographic. Maybe LBJ’s Higher Education Act of 1965 was a signal of a new era in which young people were already more inclined to abandon home and farm.

I cannot say that the school could have survived even if the congregation had really dug in and made a persistent, determined effort to that end. But I can say that they didn’t do their best to perpetuate this gift that their elders had built up and bequeathed to them. I do think the congregation might have been wiser to hang on and keep that little educational institution running somehow. I am biased — I loved the school — but it did seem to be a central beacon of that community, comprising a point of reference for hundreds of present and former students, their family members, and affiliated others in and beyond the congregation. With kids in the school, or with other forms of investment in the project, adults had to cooperate to a considerable extent; they had something to lose from being too difficult or irresponsible. As I say, there was a symbiosis: the church supported the school, but the school also supported the church.

I would think that a school of that nature, with a good teacher, could profoundly enhance the stability and permanence of a community, especially but perhaps not only in a rural setting. While some may imagine that Christian virtues should overcome evil, in my experience neither religion nor mere congregational membership is a panacea. By contrast, commitment to the institution, extending beyond one’s own kids, does seem essential. If a community does want to try running such a school, experience with this one might suggest a requirement that adults wishing to have a voice in its governanceshould undergo regular continuing education and practice in arts of dispute resolution, teamwork, and consensus-building. It may also be that, in culturally diverse times, it simply won’t work to rely on shared cultural heritage and family ties to keep such a place running. Insiders can take such a place for granted; as hinted here, they can intentionally or unwittingly leave others feeling unwelcome. Outsiders may sometimes have a better perspective on how special such an entity is, and a stronger sense of empathy for those who are not certain of whether or how they might fit.

It may have been socially advantageous for the kids to leave that world, when the school closed, and cope instead with public schools. But I am not convinced of that. There was quite a bit of social and academic dysfunctionality and underperformance in those places. In some ways I was more prepared for college after Mr. Gemmer’s sixth grade than after DeKalb High School’s twelfth. We wasted a lot of time at Ashley and DeKalb; we learned some academic bad habits and attitudes; we were at risk of getting into trouble, with kids and behaviors that just were not part of the Zion Lutheran picture. Meanwhile, the kids who completed eight grades at Zion seem to have done OK in adult life, for the most part. A number of them have done quite well. There may be some sex difference there, consistent with the community’s conservatism — it seems that the Zion boys may have tended toward more notable careers than the Zion girls — but there, again, I’m not sure things were much better in public school.

These, at any rate, are background considerations informing what appears in the video I shot when alumni of the Zion elementary school convened for a reunion in July 2005, nearly 40 years after the school closed. That video may communicate some sense of the ambiance of that school. I cannot speak for the immediate postwar years in which Mr. Voelker taught. That was before my time. But Mr. Gemmer (teacher from 1952 to 1967) was an agreeable, relatively dynamic individual, dominant but not domineering. Students were well-behaved and respectful.

Any childhood experience has its clouds. But I know that, even at the time, I felt it was good, sometimes wonderful, to be there. Often, it was fun. We had morning and afternoon recess. In good weather, we played softball at lunch and again in the afternoon. In bad weather, we took recess in the basement. We also played before and sometimes after school: softball, again, but also hide-and-seek and other games around the church and school. Mr. Gemmer cooked up a paper airplane contest, a caroms contest — always something. Zion alumni, entering high school, became members of a church youth organization they called the Walther League, though apparently there was some uncertainty as to whether they were legally allowed to call themselves that. They had their own summertime softball tournaments involving similar groups from other Lutheran churches. Often the parents and/or the little kids got to tag along. At the school, there was a lot of joking around. It was a very safe environment. Instances in which one student deliberately tried to hurt another seemed exceptionally rare.

The learning environment was very good. Kids had a lot of freedom and encouragement to pursue their interests. I read every book in the school except the encyclopedias and the dictionary. Mr. Gemmer kept us loosely in our grades but, for example, I got my start in reading before the first grade. My sister Janice taught me how. So then, during what would have been my kindergarten year, sometimes I would walk down the road and sit on the laps of the big girls as they did their reading. Other kids were doing chemistry experiments, studying college algebra, and otherwise getting an education at their own speed, with peers who might be several years older or younger.

Mr. Gemmer was pretty good at keeping it interesting. He would take us out with paper and charcoal sticks to do sketches, in black and white, of the stark late-autumn branches of the trees behind our house next door. He would take us on expeditions into a neighboring woods. He brought in a TV for educational TV, in the early 1960s. Nobody else had that, out there in the countryside. That’s where we got the news that President Kennedy had been shot. Years later, I dated a Chinese woman who was impressed that I had actually heard of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward; it was because of these thin books on China that Mr. Gemmer got for us when Mao was grabbing headlines in the 1960s. Altogether, it was a great place to be a kid.

From Zion Lutheran, I went on to public school. Years later, in June 2012, I went back to Zion and shot some more video. The basic layout had changed in, I think, the 1980s, when they built an addition connecting the church and the school building. Before that, it had changed in the late 1960s, when they divided up the main schoolroom. This video was just a walk-through, reacting to and reporting on various things that came to my attention along the way. By this point, as demonstrated in a 2007 Christmas Eve excerpt in that video, the congregation had shrunk considerably. One thing not shown in that excerpt is the extent to which attendees at that Christmas service seemed bored. Blame it on the absence of a children’s performance; blame it on the overselling of Christmas; blame it on decades of resistance if not hostility toward those who might have added color — dare I say heterodoxy — to the congregational ambiance. For whatever reason, it appeared (notwithstanding some apparently deep funding by a few relatively wealthy farmers) that the congregation’s sociocultural liabilities had come due. Perhaps, at last, these remnants had formed the kind of congregation that would satisfy them, right up to its eventual demise.

Yet while I am critical, I must admit that there were too many variables afoot to permit a simple formula for the construction and maintenance of a successful school-based community, rural or otherwise. Among other things, commitment to future generations is not the Baby Boomers’ strong suit. I don’t know what happens to rural congregations in an economy of ever fewer and larger landowners and ever more low-income workers. I guess the latter probably tend to defect in favor of pentecostalist denominations not known for their support of education. Maybe a one-room rural schoolhouse nowadays would be best advised to opt for an elitist approach, offering a superior education that would draw children from wealthier families, perhaps with an outreach component bringing in a smattering of disadvantaged kids to fill a few more seats. I can’t say.

I am very grateful that I got the opportunity to attend that school, and to experience that community from a child’s perspective, for as long as I did. I wish I could have stayed longer. It was special. I’m sorry that so few kids have that sort of opportunity anymore; and when kids do finish whatever form of schooling may be available to them, I’m sorry that more don’t have a chance to become participants in a stable, relatively self-renewing community. I know that a closed environment can breed the sorts of dysfunctionality noted here. Fresh air is essential. Yet there is much to be said for having a place where you feel that, at least to some imperfect extent, you have always belonged. I do hope to see (even better, to participate in) something like Mr. Gemmer’s school somewhere else, someday. But where and how that could happen is unknown at present.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Thoughts about Our One-Room School

  1. I have a friend who photographs One Room Schoolhouses all over the United States. Her name is Gloria Karl Hawkins. She would enjoy this essay as much as I did!

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