The Last Schoolhouse | People & Places | Smithsonian
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The Last Schoolhouse

When a handful of senior citizens revisit the school they attended years ago, they become children again

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There aren't many people around Wilton anymore who know who Miss Post was. But Nancy Cole does, and Sister Mary Jane Card, and Julia Monroe and Everett "Evy" Hurlbut, Jr., and my big brother Duba, and a few others like them. How could they forget? She was just about the most important person in town back then.

"Back then" was the 1930s, and Miss Post was the teacher of the Hurlbutt Street School, Wilton's last one-room schoolhouse. To write "the" teacher seems slightly absurd nowadays, especially in the context of Wilton, a leafy suburb in southwestern Connecticut with a 3,845-student school system that employs more than 300 teachers, aides, guidance counselors and other specialists. Yet only yesterday this was a tiny farm community with winding dirt roads where the kids walked to one-room schoolhouses.

It is a reminder of how much the United States has changed, and how astonishingly fast, to meet with some of those now rather more elderly kids, as I did the other day, in the Hurlbutt Street School. Built in 1834, it is still standing as a museum not much more than a stone's throw from the big white house on Sharp Hill Road where I was born.

The fall of 1934 was Duba's first year in school and the very last one before Wilton finished consolidating its entire educational system into the big brick, steel and concrete Center School, which was served by a brand-new bus company operated by John Disbrow, who doubled as the town's fire chief. Duba had only a year in the little schoolhouse, Nancy Cole had three and Mary Jane Card had seven, but Julia Monroe and Evy Hurlbut went through all eight grades there. Whether it was one year or eight, everyone who was lucky enough to have had Miss Post as a teacher remembers her vividly.

Angeline was her name — "Angie" for those who knew her well enough. She was a local girl whose father had the wonderful name of Washington Post. Right on through the 1940s, she was the closest thing Wilton had to a universally revered figure, because we all came alive to learning in the third-grade class she took over in the Center School. And if having her for one year was such a pivotal experience for us Center School youngsters, it was even more so for the big kids who came before us, the ones who had Miss Post all to themselves for as many as eight.

Rounding up a representative sampling of those lucky ones proved to be surprisingly easy. All it took was a couple of phone calls, and within hours Nancy and Julia and Evy had dropped everything to come and join me in the Hurlbutt School's classroom. They would do anything, it seemed, for Miss Post. Scrunched down behind little sloping desks similar to the ones they occupied 65 or more years earlier, they jabbered with infectious enthusiasm about their school days as a fire in the woodstove popped and crackled. In other hours of their lives, they may have been serious senior citizens, but now they joked and laughed and argued and carried on like ...well, like kids. No wonder psychologists have done studies on how place and architecture influence human moods.

Duba wasn't able to get away from work that afternoon, but he had filled me in earlier on his recollections. "You can't really be expected to remember much from first grade," he said apologetically, and of course he was right. (My only pertinent memory of first grade involves eating paste that tasted vaguely of mint.) "But I do remember Angie's teaching method very clearly. She would lean over your desk, or even squiggle onto part of your seat, and review your reading lesson with you. She would go through the kids one by one like that, then come back to you later to see how you were doing. I don't know if I can make any valid comparisons of this teaching method to more modern approaches, but I'm certain about one thing: if any of Angie's kids had a learning problem, she knew it right away."

In those early years, Miss Post would handle as many as 30 children at once, and as was customary for one-room schoolhouses, the little ones sat up front, with the bigger ones toward the rear in ascending order. "The little kids would hear what was going on in the lessons of the bigger ones behind them, so they already had an idea of what was coming up for them later," said Julia, an irrepressibly cheerful 81-year-old. "Knowing what was going on gave them a head start." The others nodded agreement.

Mary Jane Card — Sister Mary Jane, for she is a nun whose life had been so influenced by Miss Post that she became a teaching professional herself — remembers that Angie often deputized better students from the upper grades as teaching assistants, to help the little ones with the lessons they themselves had learned in earlier years. It must have been a disorderly kind of arrangement, with all the different subjects and levels and cross-currents and kaleidoscopic chatter, but apparently young minds must thrive on that sort of thing. Rather than breeding confusion, the intellectual ferment in that little room proved to be a creative compost, and the kids loved it. The school was more like an extension of the family than an institution. Little kids learn from big. How simple. How normal.

Wilton had nine little schoolhouses scattered around town in those days, and the kids made their way from home and back on foot. It was the Depression, after all, and there was no money for frivolities like transportation. For her $1,150 yearly salary, Miss Post was expected not only to instruct her charges in the three R's but to lead them into the ways of thrift and frugality. Each child had a bankbook, and each one put in 10 cents a week, solemnly noted and stamped.

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