Growing Up Ranch Chapter 12 My School
Just as I had a ranch version of other things, I also had "ranch" school. (No escaping it, IT'S THE LAW!!) I had the good fortune to attend Fawcett School, one of the Rural District Nineteen public schools. From the name alone you may perhaps suspect that this was not your ordinary public school and you are right.
At six years old all children begin school. For ranch kids like us, this created some issues. First there just weren't enough students to warrant a school building and teacher unless you gathered them up from miles around. Solution: long bus routes and/or long parent drives for drop off and pickup. Upset over a forty minute cross town bus ride? Try an hour or even two hours rattling along country gravel roads every morning and afternoon.
Second; the ever present threat of extreme weather, hail, rain, snow, mud caused by the above, floods, blizzards, even the occasional forest or prairie fire all waited to waylay and delay the bus each day. In our case, the real problem was getting snowed in at least once a winter for one, two, or even three months.
Third, we lived way out in the sticks and up in the high mountains to boot. This meant everything got magnified. Longer rides, more weather problems and only one student, me, until Paul entered school. Our family needed every hand even young children and couldn't afford either the hours lost driving to and fro or the expense of a second residence.
Our family approached the school board and got permission to establish a new school IF we could get a teacher and IF we could provide a building. It just happened that my mother Miriam had her degree in elementary education from the University of Wyoming, and my two grandfathers and my dad got busy and put up a one room school house just up the hill from the cabin.
The little school house was made of "spare" parts. No windows matched, the heat was a small potbelly stove "borrowed" from a hunting camp cabin. Desks, chalk board etc. were scrounged items from other schools. Even many of our text books were hand me downs or recovered from closed schools. The lumber was unsold leftovers from our sawmill which meant it wasn't saleable at even low-grade standards. Still, it beat the dark cramped cabin and running a home school program.
The school house wasn't large only about fifteen x twenty feet if that. Think a large storage building with windows, electricity, and heating. It was built on a hill and provided with a high crawl space. That meant that a set of steps lead up to the small uncovered porch. This was the "mud room" where we knocked off snow and mud before entering.
The school was one open room but several book shelves segmented the room into a reading area and the regular class room where the desks, chalk board, a small easel, and the usual posters, wall maps etc. were located. The normal teacher's desk was as I recall simply a TV tray due to the already cramped spaces. The chalkboard dominated as it occupied the entire opposite wall as you entered the door.
Improvements came. A propane tank and stove the second year. An aquarium came along as well. This was a small ten-gallon model which was home to a catfish, a gourami, a fancy gold fish, and for a time five neon tetra.
A typical school day went something like this. Sometime around six-thirty am kids are waked up and while breakfast cooked, chores got done. Water buckets filled, horses fed, and depending on season firewood brought in, water hole ice chopped, paths swept/shoveled.
About seven-thirty to eight am a hearty breakfast, pancakes, eggs, and hot cereal. Who ever had wrangler duty ate faster and headed out to bring in the riding horse herd, who got fed when they were corralled.
Normally at ten am school took up and the day's studies began. (An hour late so the school day ran over an hour most days.}The days particular lesson schedule depended on what Mom (the school teacher) had in her lesson plans for the day. One caveat to this was how cooperative the student (that was me) was that day.
Lunch was from twelve noon to one pm. Nothing fancy but it was for the men folk as well so food was hearty.
Afternoon session for school ran from one pm. to four-forty five pm. I remember very clearly that we had fifteen minutes to leave school, grab a pony, gallop (absolutely full tilt) the mile to Grandma Ruth's, corral the ponies, and run down to the house to watch the afternoon cartoons from five pm. to five-thirty pm.
Being an accredited public school we followed the normal holiday schedule. During Christmas Break one year I was given charge of fish care for the two weeks school time off. Concerned about the possible drop in temperature, I turned the heater up about ten degrees. When we returned the reek of death greeted us as we opened the door. An inch of moldy slime floated on top of the water along with five dead tetras and the gourami. Somehow the catfish and the gold fish survived, but they carried the scars of scale molt and some brain damaged behavior for the rest of their lives.
For the first few years, my attitude toward school was at the worst neutral and normally positive. (From my perspective only. Mother Miriam was driven to despair as she tried to guide her highly intelligent but totally self-directed pupil to something approaching the standard curriculum.) I learned to read and a whole new world opened up to me. I learned to write and found that while I could write well, it wasn't my favorite thing to do. The only thing worse than writing was Math. I detested this so much I actually dreamed up ways to get credit for doing Math, through activities that weren't purely Math.
An excellent example was the project to determine how much hay had been put up that year. I had to first measure each hay stack, then calculate the volume accurately. I researched the weight by volume to find a formula that translated volume to tonnage.
Mom tried to stimulate me to take more of an interest in writing many ways. One was the Mountain Reporter. The Mountain Reporter was a real news paper published by the staff at Fawcett School. As the teacher, Mom had the final say but Paul and I did the writing, hand drew art for cartoons, and story illustrations. I was the editor and a most outspoken one at that. As I was going through grade school our family was heavily involved in environmental issues and this frequently found its way into my column.
One special story was that of an interview with our neighbor Guy Newell Sr. He was stricken with lung cancer and became one of the first patients in our area to receive what was then a new treatment, Chemotherapy. The Mountain Reporter story including the interview was picked up by the Douglas Budget our nearest regular newspaper, a weekly published in Douglas Wyo. This was a noteworthy enough accomplishment that I received a special certificate from the Rural School Superintendent for outstanding accomplishment in writing and communication. While this taught me to write more correctly and meet deadlines, I still didn't like it.
The hay project along with the Mountain Reporter School News Paper led the rural school evaluation team to conclude that not only was Fawcett School legitimate, our education was both enriched and very practical. We were not only learning we were already applying our learning to real life.
My positive attitude was expressed as the eager absorption of knowledge and new skills which allowed me to be even more independent than before. Unfortunately, this eager absorption was totally at my own whim not when offered or even ordered. If I was in the mood I would read for hours neglecting Math, Spelling or anything else. On the other hand, today's fascination could be Math and all else suffered.
I was also a real pain just to be around since I loved to interject extreme sarcasm into my truculent refusal to cooperate. For her part, Mom did her best to ignore this and would try method after method to get me on task until at last, she either gave up, the school day ran out, or she decided to have Dad "Make YOUR son mind me!!!"
Paul and I were separated enough in school grades that we seldom interacted much in classes. The exception being that I got bored easily and aggravating him also aggravated the Teacher Mom, so I did my best to drive him up the wall. It might be as simple as him working on spelling and I would start tapping my pencil. He would ask me to stop and I just kept on. He would ask Mom and that might stop me for a minute or two but then I started again. Now it was her turn so she told me to stop and I wouldn't along with some remark like "It helps me to think. You want me to think don't you?!"
This back and forth went on until at last something physical had to be done and I "won". This was just one of many issues which led to serious conflicts between Mom and I. Having the same authority figure twenty-four, seven, three-sixty five, provided the foundation for some truly monstrous abusiveness "games". My natural inclination toward defiance and a real talent for pushing buttons would bring Teacher Mom to the end of her rope day after day. Having reached the edge I could never resist pushing just that little bit more to be sure I had reached the end of the line.
Mom was highly dedicated to teaching and mothering so my stubborn defiance was over the top frustrating. She tried to resist letting me push buttons but eventually that little "ENOUGH" light would start flashing red and at that point, the abuse game flipped. Out of sheer frustration, her anger broke out in fly swatters, pointers, once even breaking a yard stick over my head.
A typical over the top incident was the calf shed rebellion. Over the weekend I had begun a conversion of mine and Paul's club house into a calf shed. All was finished except the roof when the school bell rang. I reluctantly dragged myself up the hill to school.
I began a campaign of teasing and terror immediately, first bringing my brother Paul to tears, then began pushing Mom closer and closer to the edge. At last her emotional dam broke and she literally ejected me from school. She picked me up desk and all. carried the whole load to the door and it all down the steps and into the irrigation ditch.
I calmly got up, walked down to the incomplete shed and began happily to cut, nail and otherwise finish building out the new shelter. I was finished by lunch time. Lunch was eaten in ice cold silence. I happily headed back to school, moved my desk back inside and sat down relaxed and ready to learn. I was most puzzled as to why no one else was either happy or ready to learn.
This pattern of acting out lead to the local school board consisting of Mom and Dad, giving me a two-week suspension in seventh grade, No vacation, I became a ranch hand and put in eight to ten hour (at least it seemed that long) days. I came back to school and was at least livable now. In eighth grade, the suspension had no effect and so a two-week expulsion followed. Again I came back at least tolerable but this time had earned an extra two weeks of school to make up for my missed time.
The tumultuous seventh and eighth grades meant that I never even opened my eighth-grade Math book, I was still completing the seventh-grade book. I did read the Compton's Encyclopedia volumes A-Z over and over. Needless to say this lead to some doubt as to how I would relate to other kids my own age.
In order to try and "socialize" me, Fawcett School went twenty miles down the road to the White School whenever we could make it on a Friday. This was a mixed blessing. Academically I was fine but there was this small event called "recess" when adults were generally not present. This is where real socialization takes place.
My first friend was Davy B. who became my friend after he dared me to take him on and I just about killed him with one head butt. Unfortunately (or not) he was also a semi-outcast so being his friend didn't raise your social status much.
My main rival turned out to be CB, the playground bully, who was about a foot shorter than me and half my weight. Without fail he would start some kind of fight. His favorite tactic was the "nut cracker" in which he ran up grabbed your scrotum, yanked as hard as he could then said, "Thank You!"
I tried the head butt routine but being wise to that he stayed out of range. I finally slugged him a couple times and he quit, but slugs even to the body leave marks. I got in big trouble. Next time I decided to just tackle him and wrap him up into a strangling pretzel. Great tactic, no marks, a win every time and no trouble, except for once when we were rolling over and over and I got bashed into the school house wall so hard the phone fell off the wall inside the school. Big trouble again.
Since I never failed to win you would think this would be the highlight of a Friday. It wasn't. I knew that nothing had been resolved, CB would just start another fight, I would win, He would start... etc. Normally I wound up in tears, an outcome that no one else understood.
The other playground disaster was any type of team game. Football, Softball, all multi player games.
A. Never knew the rules
B Had never played the games so I had no skills
C. Had depth perception so bad I couldn't catch any ball properly. A few face catches and my instinct was to duck rather than try to catch. Other games like Treasure Hunt were also an issue since even a simple item like a paper clip was easy for them to find and nearly impossible to me. More tears.
I also had some very odd reactions to other events. As a group, we would sometimes have foot races. This was mostly in preparation for Rural Day (more on that later). I was tall and lanky, not the sprinter type at all, but we always ran the one-hundred-yard dash. I knew ahead of time that I would lose to the shorter speed buggy types but always took the challenge.
Ready! Set! Go! And they're off!! In about twenty yards I was already ten feet behind. At fifty yards the gap was about fifty feet and at that point, I started walking. Yes, walking. Not quitting completely just walking to the finish. Without fail, I got asked, "Why did you quit?".
What I couldn't or most likely wouldn't tell them was that to me I hadn't quit; I was clearly beaten and though I didn't totally quit there just wasn't any point in killing myself so I just walked. I remember this happening a number of times.
There was another distasteful aspect of White School days academically. That was Citizenship Club. This was a device invented to teach us Robert's Rules and participate in an organized meeting. This was actually a required activity and you had to at least make a motion, second a motion, and make some pertinent comments during motion discussion. I was actually pretty shy when it came to new things so this was a time of personal terror for me.
The entire Rural School system also participated in some annual events. Spring was normally the time for these extra fun events. The biggest was Rural Day.
Rural Day was a big deal event. All the rural schools, between fifty and one-hundred kids, met in Douglas for a sort of Olympics. As I recall the events were Punt, Pass, and Kick, Softball Throw, The Hundred Yard Dash, Broad Jump, and the High Jump. I never entered PPandK, (I had no foot ball skills and I throw like a girl). I also avoided the softball throw, the same girl throwing problem. All the rest I entered every year. Ribbons went out to the first three places and I went home with a fist full every year. However to my bitter disappointment they were never all blue ones for first place.
I never won the hundred yard dash until eighth grade. I always won the broad jump and most of the time the high jump, but to me second or third just didn't count. My brother Paul was in a different age group so he would likewise cleanup but was much more realistic in his personal expectations. Looking back I now realize that just being able to place top three every year was a real accomplishment and I wonder why I never thought of it that way.
The follow-up event was a picnic/party usually at the only skating rink in town. It took me three years to learn skate one day at a time once each year.
A more major even actually state wide event was the Wyoming State Fair. Douglas hosts this event each year and it includes a full rodeo, fair rides, and midway plus exhibits from all over the state of livestock, art, floral and more. The school districts all submitted their best exhibits sent in from their respective schools. It was not at all unusual for either Paul or I or even both to bring home a ribbon, first place was not unheard of.
During the years of my elementary schooling, the rural schools were known for having an excellent academic achievement. Fawcett School was no exception. My personal advanced skills set could backfire though.
My reading ability was so good my Aunt Mable asked to have me come and spend a day in her 1st-grade class at the Douglas Elementary School. All went well enough until it came to reading time. As Aunt Mabel had me stand and read I discovered that the Dick and Jane book they were using was newer than the one I was used to. While I could see the print easily enough, the vocabulary didn't match and I couldn't read it. Aunt Mabel coaxed me to try, but that just started the tears (which also started the other kids laughing) and I went into a full fledged melt down.
Being an official school and yet being essentially home schooled had its ups and downs but they were mostly ups. Teacher to student ratio; one to one and then one to two. Flexible school hours (Ranch chores had to be done first), Field trips were often special tours in which we got a private show and tell for just the two of us. It could also work against you when they lumped you in with two or three other schools and it was nearly impossible to see or hear anything. We also got more trips than usual since a much-needed trip to Casper would be a counted school day if we visited Fort Casper and wrote a report on the visit.
We visited the Dave Johnson Power plant, a large coal fired electrical power plant near Glenrock, the sugar beet plant in Torrington, the Sunrise Iron Mine, the uranium strip mine, the state capitol buildings in Cheyenne.
Out of state we went to Denver Colorado where we toured the botanical gardens, saw my first movie in a theater, rented paddle boats at the park, spent a whirlwind night of fun at Elitch's amusement park, toured the Denver capitol buildings, and made both my first airplane flight and first train ride.
I also devoured library books and sought out special books. Like the short story collection of war stories which included works by Earnest Hemingway, early historians from Greece, Rome, etc. These were factual stories based on real events and in no way soft played the ugly side of waging war.
I became enthralled with history in general and World War I and II in particular. I acquired a volume entitled "The Official US Army History of World War Two". This college level text was well beyond the understanding of even many adults but I gulped it down like a tall glass of cold milk. It also made for some awkward question's, like "Mommy, what's rape?" I was told to look it up and got my first taste of adult run around double speak that ended with me knowing no more than before.
Despite all the conflicts and difficulty keeping me on a task, I did excel academically. According to the standard measure of Stanford Achievement Exams at the end of each year. I was normally in the ninety-fifth percentile or higher on all tests still my strong willed rebellious temperament lead to a huge question mark as to whether I would manage well in a normal school or not.
Hanging over all this was an unspoken dread, the elephant in the room that no one talks about. Growing up ranch meant an eventual graduation to High School in Douglas. There we were treated rather poorly by those who "Grew Up Town." While we rural students excelled academically, we also constituted a resented minority who caught all the harassment town kids could dish out. This was most likely an exaggeration of some isolated incidents magnified by over active imaginations. That didn't mean I felt any better about the transfer. This event line of entering ninth grade was also the jumping off point which started my "Growing Up Town" and marks the end of our story of "Growing Up Ranch"
As a sort of postlude, I would like to add the following. My mother and I have grown closer and closer over the years since and are now more than parent and child, we are dear friends. We call at least once a week and it is not uncommon for us to talk an hour or even two.
Writing this piece has made me examine our relationship and fully appreciate the two-way street that the cycle of dysfunction was. I have finally had to realize and admit that I too was abusive, and ask forgiveness for my part in this.