Judy O’Brien and her sisters, Joan and Rita, attended the Red Brick School northeast of Princeton.
O’Brien said she has clear memories of her first day of school, which was when she began the first grade as the school didn’t offer kindergarten.
“Joan, Rita and I were all dressed in matching outfits that Mom had made for us,” she said. “Gathered skirts, blouses and matching head scarves.”
O’Brien said their school supplies consisted of tiny note pads, a couple of brand new pencils and a tablet with a picture of a goldenrod flower on the front.
O’Brien said farm children were not able to attend school in a town like Princeton unless their parents paid tuition. She and most of her classmates were poor, the children of tenant farmers and hired hands.
“Even if they could afford it — which most of them couldn’t — we would have chosen not to go,” she said. “We thought the town kids were snobs who looked down on us, and, in our own way, we looked down on them.”
When O’Brien attended the Red Brick School, there were about 24 students spread over eight grades, and taught by a succession of teachers.
“The burnout rate was relatively high,” O’Brien said. “Some of these women were uniquely gifted and dedicated, but others were undereducated and not properly certified, or they were too fresh from college or too near retirement to be competitive in the more desirable school district.”
O’Brien said the teachers had no choice but to let the students teach themselves and tutor each other.
“We became proficient in the subjects that held our interest, and only semi-literate in those we found boring,” she said.
In addition, the education was often administered with what O’Brien called a “brutal hand.”
“Many a yardstick was broken over the head of a hapless child who failed to ‘wipe that grin off his face,’” she said.
O’Brien said reluctant first-graders arriving for the first day of classes were often greeted by a “200-pound mean machine.
“More than one child beat a hasty retreat, only to be plucked by one arm and flung back into her seat, as helpless as a baby chick snatched up by a red-tailed hawk,” she said.
O’Brien had many more vivid memories of her school days.
She remembers the old and musty textbooks, that sometimes had insects squished between the pages.
“They were pressed there like colorful autumn leaves by bored farm boys,” she said.
O’Brien remembers the smell of the classroom.
“The air within the school room is rich with the mingled odors of kid sweat, every conceivable variety of animal manure, chalk dust, library paste and cleaning compound,” she said.
Some of her fondest memories are of recess.
“We were outdoor animals, and we raced through the schoolhouse door like jungle cats freed from their cages by a merciful God,” she said.
The students played a variety of games, ranging from softball and steal-seven-sticks, to hopscotch and jacks.
“We would swing too high on the swings, or hang perilously by our feet from the trapeze and do back flips off the bar,” she said.
In the winter, the children slid down the steep slope behind the school.
“We soared over bumps that sent us air-borne like deranged penguins, scattering mittens and stocking caps along the way,” she said.
One of O’Brien’s most colorful memories is of the day her sister Rita said she couldn’t go to school because the soles of her shoes had fallen off.
Her father takes the shoes to the garage and staples them together with hog rings, small metal staples that are used to pierce a hog’s nose.
O’Brien said her sister loved the clicking noise they made when she walked.
“Dad had just invented cleats, and before you could say ‘Jimmy crack corn,’ hog ring fever swept through Red Brick School like a plague,” she said.
Soon other children had the rings in the shoes, and hands were constantly waving in the air for permission to use the bathroom or sharpen a pencil, any excuse to go clicking across the school’s linoleum floor.
“Thanks to Dad’s ingenuity, we had the sharpest pencils and the emptiest bladders in Bureau County!” O’Brien said.
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