In the summer of 1950, my family moved into a large white house just a few hundred yards from a one-room schoolhouse in the small village of Longwoods in Maryland. It was just one more move in my short life, just another temporary stop for a struggling, unhappy family.
When school opened, I ventured into the building, which, though so close, had remained a mystery. The desks in the classroom, I learned, were arranged according to class rank. The first grade children were closest to the window wall, where huge casement windows overlooked the playground. I was in the second grade and so, upon direction, I took my seat in the second row on a fold-down seat which was attached to the desk of the student behind me. We faced the back of the classroom where there was a big pot-bellied stove and a door which led into the coal room. There were two small blackboards on the rear wall, flanking the chimney and door to the coal room, and there was a long blackboard on the wall opposite the windows. The fifth grade, the highest grade, sat on this side of the room. Above the blackboards, the letters of the alphabet, in print and in cursive, marched in solemn order.
In later years, I would come to understand the profound effect that Ruth Stewart Orrell, our teacher, and her classroom had on me. I can’t be sure to what degree it was the force of the teacher, the environment of the one room school, or a combination, but in any case, the spirit of Longwoods has always remained with me. I don’t doubt that the same is true for many of children that passed through her classroom during the twenty-three years she taught there.
Mrs. Orrell was a tall woman with permed gray hair and a face that could switch from approval to disapproval in a flash. When she talked to the students, she would pull her glasses off, and when she listened to student recitations or responses, she would tap her pursed lips with one earpiece as she considered the worthiness of an answer. My mother wore glasses, but she never took them off; I had never known anyone who listened with her glasses.
Each morning we participated in opening exercises which included the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, and the “Good Morning” song:
Good morning to you; Good morning to you; Good morning dear teacher; Good morning to you.
Mrs. Orrell would set the older children to work right away while she brought her attention to the younger classes. My class—all three of us—might work on a specific page in our workbooks, while she worked with the first graders who were just learning to read. Then she would ask them to practice writing letters in their workbooks while she came to us, for our turn with Dick and Jane.
As she progressed through the grades to the older children, they would be ready to discuss the social studies assignment or consider the geography they had been learning. When I finished my seat work, I would often listen to the older children’s lesson. Many times, I was tempted raise my hand and answer a question, but I knew I shouldn’t. So instead, I might get a book to read from the shelf.
We were not allowed to get up and roam around the room without permission (and you didn’t dare interrupt her when she was with another group except to quietly hold up one finger or two fingers for permission to be excused to one of the small outhouses behind the school). She kept books in convenient locations, so I was usually able get a book without attracting unnecessary attention. I was surrounded by books at all levels, and I was curious about what was in them.
I knew she expected me to learn, and when it came to reading, I was a star. Arithmetic, on the other hand, generally resulted in a pitched battle of wills, in which each of us finally acknowledged defeat. But words? I fell in love with words, with the idea that letters made words and that words told us things. I could read words and I could read books. I devoured words wherever they might be found, even the words on the cereal box, where I sounded out words like niacin and riboflavin. I read cans of vegetables, flour sacks, road signs, books and magazines. There were always books and magazines in our house, along with comic books of all kinds, and I read them all.
Because I lived so close to the school, I often stayed after dismissal to help Mrs. Orrell clean up and prepare for the next day. When I collected and stacked the books for her, I’d page through them looking at pictures and reading what I could, pushing myself to make sense of words that were new and exotic. If I was slow in finishing my work, Mrs. Orrell never criticized me.
Learning to write the words that I had learned to read presented even more exciting horizons. If I could read books, I reasoned, then I could surely write them, too. And I did. I was focused and determined. I took an empty composition notebook and I filled it with writing. Every day, after school, l would climb up into the dining room window seat and write.
At that time, still in the second grade, my idea of a book was not well-developed. If all of the pages were covered with words, it must be a book. So as I filled a composition book with words,whatever sense it might have made, if any at all, was purely accidental. I remember my feeling of achievement and pride when I had filled the final page. Once it was done, though, it was done. I had written a book and that was that. It seemed less important as a finished product than it had seemed when I was writing it. Even then, I apparently subscribed to the notion that the most important aspect of writing is the journey on the page.
In some regards, my memory fails to distinguish one grade from the other in that one-room situation. It was as if all three years are blended as one rich and deeply significant experience, with time marked only by the progression across the room into the desks of the next grade. Learning in that classroom was a coherent series of experiences over three years’ time: there was always reinforcement of learning when Mrs. Orrell worked with the younger students and then anticipation of new and more challenging material as she worked with the older ones. There was a comfortable flow of learning and instruction, with all of us having the opportunity to advance at our own pace.
Might this have happened for me in a different school setting? Maybe. Maybe not. Whether it was fate, dumb luck, or circumstance that brought me to Longwoods in 1950, and into the one room school classroom of a gifted and dedicated teacher, I don’t know, but I will be forever grateful for that defining experience.
To the community, the school was its heart and its social center, but for me it was a sanctuary. It taught me hope, and, arithmetic notwithstanding, it helped me to believe in myself. And when, after three years in that friendly, comfortable environment, my family was uprooted yet again, I took the spirit of that place with me; no matter where I was, school could and would be a place where I could define myself differently than I did at home.
Throughout subsequent years at school, reading and writing characterized my most successful experiences with learning, and when I finally had a vision for myself and my future, it was as an English teacher. I continued to enjoy the physical act of writing, and I encouraged my students to focus on the journey from thought to page, building time into my lessons for composing and drafting and examining their writing. Even then, long before I knew of Donald Graves and Donald Murray and the National Writing Project, I remained committed to the process approach–or, perhaps more accurately a process approach.
In the early eighties, I discovered the research on the teaching of writing as a process. Suddenly I had the language that made clear what I was trying to do both as a writer and a teacher, and I acquired the tools and methods that I needed to work more effectively with my students.
And so the journey had come full circle; it seemed that once again I was sitting in that window seat, glancing over my shoulder from time to time at that small schoolhouse behind me, and then at the students before me, bent over their pages writing, beginning their own journeys.