The Last Schoolhouse

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

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Thrift counted. People around Wilton tilled vegetable gardens, and kept chickens and often pigs too. To overwinter carrots, our parents buried them in the cellar, and they preserved cabbages by digging a ditch in the ground and covering them with straw. Mothers made soap from lard; fathers mended shoes with old bits of saddle leather, and when the kids walked they went squeak-squeak. When Nancy recounted how her mom would make dresses for her out of chicken feed sacks, the other women erupted in laughter of instant recognition: everyone did that back then.

There was almost never any homework with Miss Post, Evy explained, because she knew the kids were too busy with their chores in the afternoon. Youngsters were expected to pitch in at the school too. "Danny Sturges would come in early and get the fire started in the morning," said Evy. "Shake 'er down, open up the draft and let 'er go. Julia's brother Leonard and I were water boys. We'd take a bucket to Leonard's mom's house, or walk to the corner to Percy Knapp's place and fill it from the well. Then we'd bring the bucket to school and empty it in the big earthen crock near Miss Post's desk."

Each kid had his or her tin cup hanging on a nail, and anyone who wanted a drink would hold up a hand for permission. Same thing for going to the outhouses, the two two-holers, one for boys and one for girls, back behind the school.

The school days repeated themselves in immutable routine, beginning with a standing Pledge of Allegiance, then the Lord's Prayer and then on to the assignments. Over the stove hung the standard portrait of George Washington, the one with the facial expression as enigmatic as Mona Lisa's. The ABC Primary Reading Chart stood near the blackboard, and on the blackboard was Angie's favorite slogan: Busy people are happy people.Julia's mom, Mrs. Carvutto, lived across the street from the schoolhouse, and at noontime she often gave the kids fresh, hot bread of her own baking, slicing it thickly, the big loaf held firmly against her chest as she cut sideways. Soon Nancy's mom and Mrs. Shipman, a retired teacher who lived down the road, went a step further by delivering soup to the school, in a big kettle placed ceremoniously on the stove to keep warm until 12:00, when the kids would drink it from their tin cups. Thus was born a precursor of Wilton's hot-lunch program.

The rustic ways changed yet again when one of the town's citizens, an electrical engineer, donated a radio. Miss Post's brood first sensed the magic world of multimedia when they listened to Herbert Hoover's inauguration in 1929.

Angie Post never married. She was wedded first to her schoolhouse and then to her third-graders, and she hung around in the school system as long as she possibly could. After she reluctantly took her retirement, growing white-haired and frail as the years passed, she remained a familiar personage in and around Wilton center, always smiling and almost always remembering the kid names of the huge adults who frequently came up to greet her.

For years, Wiltonians smiled indulgently at the spectacle of Angie and her sister, also a teacher and also a maiden lady, two white heads barely visible over the dashboard of their big old black Chevrolet, cruising down Route 7 at a stately 25 miles per hour while a huge line of cars stacked up behind them.

I was gone from Wilton by the time Miss Post died, so I don't know what her funeral was like, but for a while the grateful town remembered her by naming the new elementary school off Grumman Hill Road after her. Then more years passed and priorities changed and new people arrived and eventually the place got sold and was turned into a private school with a different name.

There's no point, of course, in bemoaning the passing of an earlier, simpler time when kids walked to school, when the naughtiest thing they did was to smoke corn silk and when the houses didn't even have locks on the doors. The world is what human ingenuity has made it, and maybe the schoolchildren today are better off and smarter with their cellular phones and computers and video games. Still it would be nice if Wilton could find a way to remember Angie Post just a little bit longer. I'll bet the town could afford to put a brass plaque somewhere in that one-room schoolhouse on Hurlbutt Street.

By Rudolph Chelminski


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