My brief experience of three years as a rural school teacher was
commonplace. It merely conformed to the status quo, conditions which our present generation of
school children and our younger teachers would find difficult to comprehend. The little red
schoolhouse had out-door plumbing. Drinking water was kept in a pail and ladled out with a long
handled dipper to all. Individual drinking cups had not yet become the rage! Schoolyard wells were
a mixed blessing. During summer holidays they became stagnant and often polluted with drowned
gophers and field mice. In winter the pumps froze. Hence, water was carried from nearby homes.
Noonday lunches were brought in disused lard pails by the pupils and in winter had to be thawed out beside the heater. There were no school cafeterias dispensing hot cocoa. Cold milk or water sufficed. There were no corner stores at which to buy pop, and no money for such a luxury had there been stores. Schoolrooms were fitted with double desks and seats, which often created problems in arranging congenial seatmates.
The school house was the social centre of the district, the community hall in which were held farmers' meetings, church services, dances and entertainments. After these gatherings teacher frequently found his own and the pupils' books disarranged. Especially following an all night dancing session it usually took one class period to get organized, and to clear the air of stale tobacco and perspiration aroma, and the lingering fumes of coal oil or gasoline lamps. This inconvenience teacher accepted with good grace for he had probably been a participant in the revelries. He also accepted the duty of replenishing the wood or coal during the day.
Making out time tables to keep from four to eight classes occupied was an exercise in permutations and combinations comparable to working out a draw for a curling bonspiel. Problems were to divide one's time equitably amongst classes and individuals and to provide profitable seat work for seven classes while teaching the eighth. Fortunately we used the phonetic method of reading which gave the pupils the mechanics by which they were able to read new material. There were no parent-teacher associations but close relationships were achieved by teacher visiting in the homes of his pupils. There were no school buses. Pupils walked distances up to three miles and thereby gained ample exercise without benefit of gymnasiums.
Teachers' conventions as I remember them were fluorescent lights in the somewhat colorless life of the rural school teacher. There was a warming up period of two days when he heard addresses of a professional nature and took part in discussions. This was no doubt good for our souls and no doubt benefited our technique. But the light reached its full glow at the conversation on the closing night. The host city's artists entertained us with all the tricks in their bags. I recall one such convention in Moose Jaw. After a good time was had by all, my brother and I were deputized to escort two young ladies to their billets which happened to be in the eastern edge of the city, while our homeward way led westward. Our chivalrous duty performed we sat down and pondered our next move. We had 15 miles to walk. It was a heart breaking trudge, a cruel anti-climax to our evening of pleasure. Breakfast was under preparation when we reached home. But it was a good convention!
During my time of teaching I acquired a homestead, 22 head of cattle, one horse - and a wealth of experience, that has been a priceless asset through my subsequent life. It was a basic schooling in human relationships. I was a rural schoolteacher at the turn of the century.
Once when a gruff inspector had entered my school unannounced and had given my pupils stage fright so they could
not give a correct answer to a single question the
department official suddenly dropped a geography lesson and tried another track. "Do you take
nature study here?" he challenged the class. Fearing lest they should let the teacher down they
lied loyally "Yes, Sir!" Actually they were being taught nature in the same way as we were
supposed to teach manners and morals, that is incidentally. As for myself, I have read stories and
books describing expeditions of nature lovers in quest of nature lore but as a rural teacher it was
only necessary to observe what was happening around one's habitation. One only needed to open his
eyes in order to familiarize himself with the ways of prairie fauna and flora. A day might well
begin with the unwelcome tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker on the shack roof and end with the weird
howling of a coyote, that sounded like 10 coyotes. Or it might open with a song of the meadow lark
perched upon a fence post and greeting the morning with his song of praise, and end with the perfume
of nicotine plants wafted in through an open window.
There was deep romance to be observed in the courting dance of prairie chickens as one looked on from a vantage point far enough removed as not to be intrusive. The birds seemed to be parodying our dances in the schoolhouse, with their "circle all", "forward and back", and "allemand left", the cock bird's feathers all ruffed up to the height of dandyism. On moon light nights the jack rabbits gave their version of contests on the famed playing fields of Eton. Unlike temperate Eton the prairie field snow sparkled with a million diamonds. The animals darted hither and thither making it difficult to determine whether the game was high jumping or poison tag, but that was none of my business. They knew the rules of the game and it was fascinating to watch. I had crashed the gate and was not privileged to question the referee.
Every Boy Scout and Girl Guide knows what "freezing" means. One day when driving past a muddy slough I spied one of these long legged and long beaked birds we called mudhens standing amongst some tall, broad leaved plants. The bird's beak pointed to the sky. As my equipage moved around the curved end of the slough the bird kept one bright shining eye focused on his potential enemy. Almost imperceptibly the bird's head kept turning but always holding the same line of vision until I was out of range. The mudhen's ruse succeeded. I had been deceived into thinking the bird was just another weed.
Equally sagacious was the mother duck I surprised one day with her clutch of ducklings out on the open prairie. She made for the tall grass which fringed a slough, coaxing her brood to follow. As they reached the grass I alighted from my buggy and searched the area but not a duckling could I find. The mother emerged from cover fearlessly and flopped along the trail, as if with a broken wing and a sore foot. After decoying me half way around the slough she took off with all cylinders working and rejoined her little ones.
There is a popular fallacy that earthworms come down in heavy rain. Well, if earthworms, why not lizards too? One day when driving in the vicinity of a shallow prairie lake after an unusual downpour of rain I came upon a veritable plague of lizards. That was worse than meeting worms washed grey by the rain. The plague of frogs which afflicted Egypt in the days of Moses came up from the river and I fancied that those lizards crept up from the lake. But why those slimy reptiles left their natural habitat after a rain to go on a pilgrimage over land I failed to understand.
The protective coloring of birds and animals is another device of nature with which the scouting fraternity are familiar. The ptarmigan of the North and the brown bunnies of the prairies turn snow white in winter and the predatory weasel becomes the white furred ermine for milady's muff. How effective this protective coloring is I proved
one moonlight night
when I shot a chunk of snow for what I thought was a hunched up jack rabbit. The chameleon of course
is credited with ability to change color without waiting for a change of season.
Another interesting habit of animals is stalking. The animal or bird in quest of prey moves silently and unobtrusively upon its unsuspecting victim. A companion and I one day sighted a coyote stalking a barn cat out in a pasture field. We jumped into my buggy armed with shot gun and approached to within range. My companion fired but missed. Then we discovered an intriguing plot. The unalarmed cat had been stalking a gopher and knew nothing of the coyote's designs upon his life. So here was enacted a perfect illustration of stalking man stalking coyote while coyote stalked cat which in turn was stalking a gopher. This drama of wild life goes on constantly and generally ends in tragedy. Thus Tennyson writes of "Nature red in tooth and claw".
"Go to the ant... consider her ways, and be wise..." Thus says the wise man in the Proverbs of Holy Writ. Disturb her citadel and watch her civil defense corps go into action. Consider her way of storing up food. Wisdom and industry might well be inscribed upon her gateposts. Sit on the grass for a while on a drowsy summer afternoon and observe the restless activities of the denizens of a prairie anthill. On one such day I watched with intense interest what appeared to be an ants' moving day. They presented the appearance of a three-inch wide conveyer belt on an assembly line, stretched over several rods of grassed surface. There must have been many thousands of those diminutive workers engaged in their undertaking. Each of them carried a burden - a white cylindrical object as large as the bearer. Whether it was an egg or pupa of a young ant or an article of furniture I know not as I am not versed in the antics of ants. They were a living and quickly moving stream, traveling as though to a definite goal of which they had knowledge.
Anyone may safely go to the lowly ant which crawls on the ground but no one should cultivate contact with the ant which is airborne - the notorious flying ant of the prairies. A plague and a pestilence is this vicious species. He flies in loose formation and attacks in hordes all kinds of more or less stationary objects. He crawls over the bodies of man and beast. He gets underneath the garments of humans, and resenting the pressure of clothing inflicts venomous bites upon the flesh. One's only relief is to do a strip tease act and remove the fire injecting offender. The "Old Timer" claims the flying ant bears a brand, "H.B.C." - "Here before Columbus". The "Old Timer" also tells you that while the flying ant is bad enough, when the "Flying Uncles" come, watch out.
Living and teaching on the rural prairies also familiarizes one with the ubiquitous mosquito, who is an indefatigable worker. Through the summer season he keeps on the job day and night. He is indifferent to smudges and is undeterred by door and window screens. If only one of the millions which mill about man's abode manages to squeeze through a screen he is enough to keep a sleeper awake. However, this can be said for the mosquito. He plays fair. He always gives due warning before he attacks - he sings a little grace before meat.
Scientific research has led man to use certain devices and chemicals to reduce or eliminate harmful plants and animals. This does not always work out satisfactorily. Killing off coyotes leads to increase of gophers. Destruction of owls and crows invites more mice. Spraying noxious weeds and unwanted trees becomes ineffective when these plants develop immunity to the spray, as the human body becomes immune to certain drugs. Man is learning that it is unwise to disturb the balance of nature. The study of insecticides is engaging the attention of scientists.