Rural school provided life lessons for young students

Editor’s Note: The following is the second in a three part series about Bernice Johnson’s experience at Hill School.

Bernice Johnson

Special to the Dispatch

Everything about school was exciting to me, even the cloakroom, though it smelled of barn and unwashed bodies. The farmers in Pine Lake Township did not have running water. Cleanliness was hard work: pumping buckets full of water, lugging them inside, heating them on wood-burning stoves, and filling tin tubs for bathing. In our house, bathing was a Saturday night ritual. The foul-smelling cloakroom was evidence that it was not so for everyone.

Coats on hangers, we stashed our hats, scarves, and mittens on a shelf over our heads and set our lunch pails next to them. Mine was a round metal syrup pail, which on lucky days might hold a jelly sandwich and oatmeal cookie. After we took our seats, we sang: Good morning to you, good morning to you/ Good morning everybody/Good morning to you. 

Next, we stood and faced the flag in the northeast corner of the room and chanted the pledge of allegiance. In those days, it held no reference to God. God found his omnipotent way into the pledge in 1954, during the virulent anti-Communist McCarthy era, when many Americans were accused of disloyalty to the government, tried, and imprisoned.

Miss Tolppi sent us home with homework. My mother sputtered when she saw me bring home stacks of books. Farm work was heavy and unending. My parents thought children should complete their schoolwork at school, so they could help on the farm when they got home. I liked homework. It gave me an excuse to have my “nose in a book,” a phrase my father would mutter under his breath when he saw me reading. 

Miss Tolppi left after the spring of 1941. That year she had blessed every subject on my report card with an“A.” Then she told my parents I could skip fourth grade and move into fifth the next year. 

I did not love Miss Tolppi the way I had loved Miss Brunko, but I missed her when she was gone. I do not think I learned much after she left. 

This is what I learned at Hill School: how to sound out words and add them to my vocabulary and how to make overlapping circles and a series of overlapping lines that formed the basis for Palmer penmanship. I also learned that George Washington, our first president, cut down a cherry tree and confessed to his father, which I doubted—the confession, that is—and that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, which seemed noble. 

A teacher I no longer recall impressed on us that memorizing the multiplication tables was essential to our future. I would repeat them in my head on the way to and from school. Two miles in the morning, two miles at night. The nines did not fall easily into place.

I also learned brother Norman was just as smart as I was. He could also  throw a ball straighter and harder than I. Another thing I learned was how to hold tight to the schoolhouse wall when playing Pom Pom Pull Away, no matter how red and sore my arm got from other players pulling at me.  

    In fifth grade, I learned about shame, the kind of shame you bring on yourself. Miss Fuller was our teacher that year, when the entire class staged a rebellion. One of the big boys, Gordy’s older brother, Leonard, or a Plautz boy maybe, organized a rebellion. Against what? I do not recall. Boredom, perhaps. All fifteen of us hid in the woods at recess-time and did not return to school when Miss Fuller rang the recess-over bell. One of the big boys sneaked back and peaked into a window at her. He ran back to us laughing, said Miss Fuller had her head in her hands and was crying. 

I felt guilty and sad, wanted to go back to school, but I stayed with the other kids in a senseless wish to please the other kids, an act of treachery toward my better self.

Miss Fuller never reported us; parents might have blamed her for our rebellion. We returned to school the next day, acting as though nothing had happened. So did Miss Fuller.

By that time, I was a back row student, not because I was so much taller than when I had started school, but because I was “good.” Good meant I was not noisy, and that I looked like I was studying. In reality, I was reading a Tarzan book secreted inside a big geography book. 

There were only a few geography books, so Carlene Hermann sometimes shared one with me. 

Carlene did not raid the library every day, as I did, but the year I turned ten, she would find a book she liked as much as I did.

Every year at Christmas I asked my mother for a book, imagining hours of pleasure, sitting on the floor with my book next to the small window in my room. Every year, I tore the wrappings off my packages, looking for the book. 

Clothes were what I got: mittens from Grandma, hand-knitted ones, except for the year she bought them at the store. They were whiter than white, with puffy white circles that looked like popcorn knitted into the backs; my mother would give me something to wear. One year she gave me a dress she had sewn while I was at school; another year she gave me a swishy red and green wool plaid coat from Sears Roebuck.  But what I always hoped for was a book. 

With ribbons, wrappings, and boxes of clothing at my feet, I swallowed my disappointment and consoled myself with thoughts of the Tarzan book I had brought home from school and would read in bed that night. Still, every year when my mother asked me, I said, “I want a book.” 

I was ten years old the year I got one. It was book filled with poetry, stories, riddles, and recipes. The world’s best book. I was so proud of it that, when Christmas vacation was over, before I had memorized the recipes or poems or stories, I brought it to school to show to Carlene Hermann. She begged to take it home. I gave it to her, expecting to get it back the next day. I did not. Every day I asked Carlene Hermann for my book. She never brought it back. 

Then one day I backed her into a corner of the schoolhouse, where the cloakroom jutted out into the yard. Carlene cowered in the corner while I pressed in on her and threatened her, the way brother Norman would threaten me. “You bring back my book, or you’ll really get it!” The undefined “it” was what made it scary, for you never knew what “it” might be: a snake in your bed, a snowball to your head. She looked scared, and I was glad. 

That evening, I was in the kitchen when I heard a car pull into the yard. Looking out the east window, I saw a big black car I did not recognize. 

“Car here,” I said. My father came to the window and looked out. His face looked like it did when we saw Oscar Ganzel’s car coming down the road and hid in the living room to avoid his endless stories. “Carl Herrman,” he said. Carlene’s father. 

I got a scary feeling in my chest as I watched through the window while my dad walked outside and up to the car. 

Mr. Herrman rolled down his car window and said something. My father cocked his head to listen, then nodded and walked back into the house. He said Mr. Herrman told him I had threatened Carlene. She was afraid of me, he said. I cannot remember what else my dad said about Mr. Hermann, but I remember telling him, “She stole my book!” 

My dad’s mouth turned down at the corners and he shook his headin disgust. And, although I knew he did not condone my love of reading, I could tell his disgust was with that tattler, Mr. Herrmann. 

He went into the living room and sat next to my mother. I knew they would talk about it that night after I went to bed, knew they would not tell me what they said, and I knew I would never get another book.

Never again did I see my wonderful book, the book that even now, at age eighty-nine, I know I would like. In our house, mistakes were to be learned from, not repeated. Next Christmas, when my mother asked me what I wanted, I said “clothes.” 

Carlene and I remained playmates of a sort at school, but she was no longer my trustworthy friend. After the book incident, I preferred to play with Mildred Martin.

Mildred was six years older than I and my favorite playmate during those early years. Her grandparents, Louise and Ed Martin, lived in a small house on a steep embankment next to Pine Lake. Sometimes I would walk to their house with Mildred and we would scramble down the embankment and through the woods to a tree with a large, low branch that extended over the water. We inched onto the branch, arms spread for balance at right angles to our bodies; then we sat with our legs hanging down and watched squiggly little creatures swimming in the water at our feet.

Mildred left school when I was in the fifth grade and that was the end of tree-branch walking after school. The only time I could duplicate anything like those joyous hours at the lake with Mildred was during recess, playing in the schoolyard circle of pine trees.

A new girl had started Hill School: Renzee Atkinson. For a short time, her family rented the Rungee farm, which was just a two-mile walk across the fields.  

At home, at my house or hers, Renzee and I made rosehip and macaroni necklaces. During school recess, we played house in the circle of pines, eating our lunches while sipping imaginary coffee from imaginary cups. Then we braided dandelions into bracelets and garlands for our hair. I loved sitting with Renzee in our pine tree playhouse, listening to the wind stir the needles overhead. Playing games with the rest of the students was more trying. 

A favorite was Anti-I-Over. We lined up in teams on either side of the schoolhouse. One side had a ball and would yell, “Anti, Anti-I-Over,” then toss the ball up and over the schoolhouse roof. The team on the other side would try to catch it. Ball in hand, the person who caught it dashed to the other side of the building and tagged as many members of the opposite team as they could. Tagged players had to switch teams.

Another game we played in teams was Pom, Pom, Pull Away. All I remember of that game is taking a firm stance and pressing myself against the schoolhouse wall while other students tried to pull me away: tugging  at my free arm and turning it bright red. I did not mind the redness or the tugging, but I hated being dragged away from the wall. Three other popular team sports were Prisoners’ Base, Blind Man’s Bluff, and softball.

When captains chose teams for the games, they called my name near the middle. Logically, it should have been called at the end, for I was small and not very strong. But I had one good game-playing quality: determination. There was just one time when I did not get up and try again. 

We were playing softball. I was batting. Norman was pitching. One of his fast pitches hit me in the stomach. Everything turned black; I folded up and woke up curled on the ground. That day I did not reclaim the bat. As with most things that happened in our childhood, Norman has no recollection of the knockout pitch, nor does he remember the time he punched me in the nose. That time there was no question: It was deliberate.

One of the big boys had told Norman about a shortcut to school through the swamp that lay behind the Schmidt farm, where Bob and Babe Otto lived. And he was bound to try it.

On a cold winter day, he handed me his heavy black lunch bucket and said, “Carry this. I’m going to take the shortcut.” I said I was going, too, but he insisted I was “too small.” “You couldn’t make it,” he said.

He pushed the bucket toward me. I stood with my free hand clenched into a fist and my lunch pail in the other hand. Again and again pushed his lunch bucket toward me. Again and again I refused to take it. 

Then he socked me in the nose and headed off into the swamp, leaving his lunch pail on the ground beside me.

I fell down and just sat there, bleeding all over the snow. I cannot remember if I was the shock of being hit that kept me sitting there, watching my blood decorate the snow, or if I was trying to get Norman into trouble. No doubt it crossed my mind that someone might see the blood and tell our parents. It was minutes before I pressed snow against my nose and got the bleeding to stop. Then I got up and trudged through the heavy snowdrifts to Hill School, carrying two lunch pails, snuffling blood up my nose, and tasting the snotty red stuff as it trickled down my throat.

That evening it was obvious our dad had heard about the bloody snowbank from our neighbors, Bob and Babe. I remember Norman cowering under a table, while daddy whipped a razor strop against his butt. I hated it, wished I had not bled on the snow. But it worked―sort of. I never had to carry Norman’s lunch pail to school again. 

He found other ways to harass me. 

He made me march ahead of him while he shot BBs at my snowsuit-clad bottom. “Don’t turn around,” he yelled. “You might get a bullet in the eye.” In the summer, he told me to be careful when I got into bed. There might be a snake in it. 

Every night before bed, I pulled my bed covers down to make sure it was snake-free before I crawled into bed. 

Norman cannot remember tormenting me. He grew into a kind man, and as I look at early childhood photos, it’s difficult to believe he was such a devilish youth. 

Rummaging through a drawer of old photos, the first three I came upon were of Norman and me, he with his arm around my shoulders. We were friends until I started school. That was when he began tormenting me, although he never tried to stop me when I walked on rubber ice. 

Rubber ice was a short-lived springtime phenomenon when the ice-covered coating on ditch water turned rubbery. The challenge was to walk across the ice without breaking it and plunging into icy water. I failed more than once and arrived home wet and cold, ready for harsh words from my mother.