Before consolidated farming took over the American landscape, the countryside was full of small farms, and the farms were full of children like Ruth, Nick’s mother, and Alberta, her sister. The idea of going to school down the road a ways in so-and-so’s field where the men had gathered to erect a building is more than just quaint nostalgia. It was a system that worked. It may have lacked central heating and indoor plumbing, but what it lacked was also what it had to offer. Compared to a crowded, noisy, modern-day school with soft-drink machines and all the latest computer gadgetry, a one-room schoolhouse made every child feel significant.
Alberta was the school pianist, giving every farm child the opportunity to learn music and even dancing. One of Ruth’s jobs over the years was to divide and grow the daffodils in the grassy fields surrounding the schoolhouse, still blooming to this day. Classmate Lionel kept the firebox full. Tom braved every kind of storm to fetch drinking water from the outside hand pump.
Room Full of Possibilities
The American one-room-schoolhouse education was based upon the premise that if children learned how to read and write, they could be anyone they wanted to be, from groundbreaking to ground-tending. And they could pass that legacy on to their children and beyond.
Alberta Morton Phillips, nicknamed Bertie, took her one-room schoolhouse education and made a significant, ground-breaking contribution to the world of law. A local farm kid with an inquiring mind and a rebellion against being pigeonholed as a future teacher or secretary, Bertie went from a one-room schoolhouse to become the top student (and the only woman) at the University of Idaho College of Law in 1938 despite being told that she should be in the Home Economics Department, learning things that would make her a good wife. She was the first woman to earn an award from the Phi Alpha Delta legal fraternity in recognition of her superior academic achievement, even though she was denied membership in the fraternity because of her gender. Bertie became the first female faculty member at the College of Law, although she was not allowed to teach criminal law because it was viewed as “improper” for a woman to address male students about rape cases. She went on to private practice, where she was known for speaking out against the gender-specific language used to describe lawyers in the speeches and written materials of the state and in proposed legislation. During the Vietnam War, she became active in anti-war activities, including draft counseling and non-violent protests, and spent many years afterward working for peace and justice. All from her humble start in a one-room schoolhouse.
MaryJane met Bertie for the first time in the mid-’90s in Layton, Utah, where she had worked as a lawyer before retiring. After a 50-year career as a mother and lawyer, her health had begun to decline. Endlessly inquisitive, she became excited about the quick-prep organic foods MaryJane and Nick had recently begun to sell from their farm. Bertie told them that when she left home after the war, her mother had said, “Go now, and don’t you look back.” With her health in decline, she was having a recurring dream in which she saw herself walking home to Blaine, and asked if MaryJane and Nick would, along with her children, see to it that she came home for her burial and service. Bertie died in 1997, and came home for a celebration of her life, her children coming from as far away as London. MaryJane was in charge of food, making sure Bertie’s friends and family enjoyed an organic meal in her honor.
For the Community, By the Community
Although Nick has always said “we own it” (“we” meaning the surrounding neighbors and “it” being the schoolhouse), MaryJane wondered how the ownership showed up on county records. When she inquired, the county thought they probably owned it, but maybe the school district owned it, but the school district said they didn’t own it, the county did. MaryJane wasn’t sure what changes might occur down the road if it wasn’t clearly established on county records who owned the schoolhouse. So, Nick paid a visit to one of his elderly neighbors, who had kept records and minutes conducted by the official Blaine Community Association. Prior to easy travel and TV, entertainment meant getting together with your neighbors, and often in the minutes, they’d voted to “have a party.” There were, no doubt, plenty of good potlucks and poker games that took place. As destiny would have it, included with the records was a copy of the original deed, in which the school district had sold the schoolhouse in 1948 to the Blaine Community Association for the sum of $25, Ivan Ogle signing as its chairman. And so, Nick was right when he said “we own it.”
Presently, during the summers, the schoolhouse is used for birthday parties, weddings, contra dances, special gatherings, and drum circles. A few summers ago, the maker of Porsche automobiles “borrowed” the schoolhouse for a photo shoot. They put a temporary bell tower on top and built a “take-down” set of swings for the yard. It was quite a production. MaryJane never saw the advertisement, but was told that the schoolhouse made it into the ad. And, no, they weren’t offered a new Porsche.
Sometimes, when the schoolhouse is full of people do-si-do-ing and allemanding to the music of a band, MaryJane loves to sneak off in the dark, exploring the hillside behind the schoolhouse until she finds the perfect spot to lie back and listen. The side of a grassy, soft hillside is perfect for looking back on the comfort pouring from the mullioned schoolhouse windows—yellow, warm, and inviting like a campfire. It never fails; the distant sound of laughter and dancing feet gives her that hard-to-find, elusive human feeling that speaks wonder and inexplicable contentment. Sometimes, Nick comes along and they fall quiet together, taking that long, long, deep sigh that says everything is right in the world, in that moment, in that spot.