The Last Schoolhouse

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

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.

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.

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