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Back to School on the Texas Frontier

Back To School On The Texas Frontier
By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn

In just a few weeks, Texas students will say a bittersweet goodbye to summer break and make the return to school – early morning wake-up calls, long days of back-to-back classes and often, after-school activities or sports. As Texas students begin the 2012-2013 school year, many will ride the bus to school or be driven by their parents or a carpool. They’ll sport new backpacks or lunch boxes and come ready with supplies like markers, folders and notebooks.

With the hustle and bustle of the back-to-school season, it’s probably safe to say most of these students have their sights set on the future – whether it’s the day ahead or even the year ahead – and not the distant past. Even so, it is worth a few moments to take a glimpse back in time, to see how much life has changed and how different the experience was for their predecessors – the students of the Texas frontier.

On the frontier, as settlements were founded, the demand for schools and teachers grew. Trustees—typically two or three male leaders from the settlement—were appointed in each community to manage everything from determining the location of the school to hiring and firing teachers. While a few concerned themselves with the minute details of school management, most were consumed with their day-jobs – farming – and did not have time to micro-manage school affairs.

In The Empty Schoolhouse, author Luther Bryan Clegg presents firsthand accounts of rural West Texas life, with a focus on experiences in one-room schools, from the first half of the 20th Century. One former teacher recalls the communication barrier that often arose between teachers and trustees: “Most trustees were farmers or ranchers and seemed embarrassed to do business with a woman….If I asked what or how they thought I should teach, they’d say ‘You just teach the school, we’ll do the plowing.’”

Trustees determined the size of their school districts – typically 36 square miles – and the location of the schoolhouse based on the distance students would have to travel to school. Most students traveled on foot, many times in groups with neighbor children. Depending on weather conditions, the distance to school could be nearly an hour for some students. Often, the hour-long walk to school posed a number of distractions. There were berries to be found or mesquite wax – the sap found on mesquite trees – which could be chewed much like chewing gum. As one former student put it, “It’s a wonder we ever got to school.”

There were three major requirements for the construction of one-room schoolhouses  - a well or cistern for drinking water, a wood-burning stove to keep the schoolhouse warm in the winter months, and outhouses. Teachers were responsible for arriving at school early to build a fire and maintain it throughout the day. Trustees often were charged with hauling the firewood to the school, where older male students would chop it down to size. Female students would help with keeping the schoolhouse clean – sweeping daily. In one Texas frontier school, an older student with good penmanship was tasked with writing signs that read “No smoking” and “No spitting on the floor.”

With only one school per settlement, the frontier school educated students of all ages together. Most frontier schools taught students from first to eighth grade. The students were seated according to age, but it was common for the best pupils in each grade to assist students who were not performing as well.

The basic curriculum of the frontier school focused on reading, writing and arithmetic. Most days centered around the recitation bench, where students would take turns reciting passages from their readers. Christian teaching was also included, with students reading passages from the Bible as part of their daily lessons.

The typical school year was scheduled around farming activities. School normally began in the fall when crops were harvested and ended in the spring when it was time to plant. If sickness fell on the community, school was “turned out,” or dismissed, until the epidemic had passed. Because of a lack of compulsory attendance, many parents kept their students at home arbitrarily to help with chores at the house or on the farm.

Though the school of the frontier faced many challenges, the teachers and trustees made an important investment in the children of their communities – the gift of education. They challenged students to set goals and accomplish them. As Mr. Gregg puts it, “The one-room school was a reflection of its time, the means by which a community could teach curricula, values and mores it deemed important. Although beset by limitations, it was a noble effort to provide instruction for the young.”

As the new school year begins, much has changed since the days of the one-room schoolhouse on the Texas frontier. But the focus remains the same – to invest in the youngest generation so that they may learn more, go farther and push past barriers. Our teachers and administrators deserve our heartfelt thanks for the positive difference they are making in the lives of today’s children and tomorrow’s generation of leaders.

Sources: The Empty Schoolhouse: Memories of One-Room Texas Schools by Luther B. Clegg.

Sen. Cornyn serves on the Finance, Judiciary, Armed Services, and Budget Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.