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Sunrise

By Vern Zielke

The one and two room schools that dotted the Kansas landscape a generation ago and are now just a part of our history. Those of us who received our education in these surroundings have a great wealth of memories to share with anyone who is willing to listen. What you find in the pages that follow is just part of the story. It is meant as a tribute to another way of life, and a concept of education, which for its time served us quite well. More than that, it is meant as a tribute to a community which cared about educating me, to the teachers who taught me, and to my fellow students whose memory I cherish.   -- Vern Zielke, 1998  

The Place

The founders of public schools in America, in their great wisdom, thought it important to give each school a name that would put the best possible face on the effort being made to educate the children of a given community. In my home community near Meade, Kansas, the one and two-room schools that dotted the landscape had names such as Lilly Dale, Mound View, Pleasant Hill or Lake View. I do not know if there was a dale near Lilly Dale, and if so I never heard that lilies flourished there. Nor did I ever see the mound that one should have been able to view at Mound View School. If indeed there was a hill on which Pleasant Hill School stood, I have no reason to believe that it was not pleasant. I will, however, vouch for the fact that quite often, depending on the rainfall, there was a lake, which one could view from Lake View School. The children of Meade County were very fortunate to have their schools named in such a way as to foster attitudes that could only enhance their educational endeavors. One can only imagine the adverse effects on education if schools had been given such names as Gloomy Grove or Slimy Swamp.

I was, however, most fortunate in that I could attend a school with a no-nonsense name. My school was christened by its founders "Sunrise School." This was a wise choice. There is great security in being reminded every day that in spite of everything the sun does rise every morning. It's unfortunate that somehow the founders could not have incorporated into the name the poetic beauty of the sunset as well. This concept, however, was not fully developed until the creation of "Fiddler on the Roof." It is to Sunrise School and to its founding fathers that I owe a great debt. Here I was introduced, not only to the basic tenant that, yes, the sun does rise every day, but to many other concepts which I had not yet had an opportunity to discover and explore.

Sunrise School was a small part of the Meade County educational system ruled over by Miss Ola Granger. Miss Granger had been County Superintendent for about as long as anyone could remember and continued to be County Superintendent for as long as anyone can remember. How many schools she had under her ample wing I do not know, but her domain consisted of all the country schools as well as the schools in the cities of Meade, Fowler and Plains. Her office was located in the county courthouse in Meade, and every so often she would arrive unannounced for a visit to see if education was, in fact, flourishing. Miss Granger represented the heart and soul of education in Meade County. Her life was devoted to the service of the many students and teachers who benefited by her dedication to her calling.

In addition to Miss Granger's rule from the top, each country school had its own board. This august body consisted of very stern looking fathers of pupils in the school who were elected to their positions at given intervals by the patrons of the district. They were charged with the responsibility of hiring the teachers, keeping the facility in good repair, and upon occasion, make a visit to the school to restore order. My father was never on the school board. We actually lived in the McNulity District and McNulity School was located just two miles east of our farm. I did not want to go to school there because my closest friends attended Sunrise. The Sunrise board agreed to let me attend their school. It so happened that the families who lived in the McNulity district were mainly Klinegeminde whereas in the Sunrise district there were several families from the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren church, so it seemed only natural that I should attend a school where I thought that my friends would welcome me. I should explain that the Meade Mennonite community consisted of two groups of Mennonites. The Klinegeminde, coming from Canada by way of Nebraska, were the first group to settle there and were quite conservative in dress and worship. They attended the two Klinegeminde churches in the area. The other group consisted of folks who came from the Central Kansas area and eventually founded the Evangelical Mennonite Church, where I attended. Both groups shared the German/ Russian heritage and, with some variations, the Plautdietsch language.

It is important to understand that Sunrise School was located pretty much in the heart of the Mennonite community. During my tenure there as a pupil we never had an "English" person attend there. Many of us had learned very little English before we came to school. Plautdietsch was our mother tongue. This usually was not a problem because the school board made sure that the teachers who were hired came from Mennonite colleges and in most cases they also spoke plautdietsch. It did not take us long to become bilingual but the plautdietsch influence on our English usage is quite evident even today.

Sunrise School stood at a crossroads just two miles south of the farm where I lived. It is generally believed that children who attended country schools all walked to school, no matter what the weather. Now it may be that in some communities this was the custom. I don't recall walking more that a few times. I recall walking home once when the teacher kept me after school for some infraction of the rules. Children who lived within half a mile might be expected to walk, and these, if they were smart, could usually catch a ride with someone going by.

For those of us north of the school, a rotating system was devised so that three families took turns transporting the children to school. Our nearest neighbors were the Friesens and the Loewens. Our car was a 1937 Chevrolet. Friesens drove a 1936 Ford and the Loewens usually drove a Model A Ford with yellow wheels, a car that was mainly used for farm errands and school transportation. The 1936 Ford was the most exotic of the three vehicles. I loved to examine the dash and note the speedometer because I had it on good authority that a '36 Ford could easily gain speeds up to and over 120 miles per hour. No excessive speeds were ever recorded during the short two-mile journey to and from school. There were, however, some exciting rides through the snowdrifts and when the dirt roads became muddy from rain or melting snow, the ruts would get deep and the skills of the drivers were tested.

It was very important to my mother that I should always be ready when the neighbors came to pick me up. When the weather was nice I would even walk the quarter of a mile to the intersection of our road and our neighbors' road. This was considered a good gesture on our part in that it saved them the extra driving.

My mother considered it prudent to have a good relationship with our neighbors, and I tended to concur, and for good reason. There were times when my neighbor Elmer gave me the distinct impression that he considered his father's '36 Ford highly superior to our '37 Chevy and this did little to enhance my self-esteem. In fact, there were other inferences from my fellow passengers from time to time which caused me to gravely doubt the worth of my dad's farm equipment and farming methods as compared to what their fathers had and were able to do. Basically this reflected a certain rivalry which existed between the two Mennonite groups in the community. It was always our opinion that the klinegeminde were a bit "groatch" and that they tended to put on superior airs. I even felt that they disapproved of my dog or dogs in general. But then one day the Friesens got a puppy and I went over to see it. We spent many happy hours with the puppy until one sad day it was hit by a passing car. The dog was not killed but badly injured and the Friesen boys and I grieved over it and nursed it. I do not recall whether it lived or died but I do recall that our friendship deepened as a result of this tragic experience. We not only experienced grief, but anger, as we discussed the horrible things we would do to the hit and run driver who was responsible for the puppy's pain.

Sunrise School was located five miles south and two miles east of the city of Meade. The building itself, which faced south, stood on a corner of a section where two township roads crossed. The schoolyard, a square piece of real estate about an acre in size, had been separated from the section by a fence, and was thus bordered on the north and on the west by a cultivated field. No attempt had been made to landscape the yard, and so it stood, void of grass, trees, or shrubs. Playground equipment consisted of swings to the east of the schoolhouse and a slippery slide to the west of the building. The area to the south of the building was large enough to provide room for all kinds of games. In addition to the schoolhouse itself, there was a barn, which had been built to provide shelter for the horses, which students rode to school in earlier days. Two privies had been placed on the grounds, the one for the boys to the west of the schoolhouse and close to the barn. This worthy edifice stood some distance from the schoolhouse and on extremely cold winter days it was a real test of courage to pay it a visit. The one for the girls was close to the northwest corner of the schoolhouse and may have been a bit scarred from occasional assaults by rock throwing boys who thought it was great fun to stone the outhouse when there were occupants inside.

Sunrise School had been designed to house and educate students in grades one through eight. The building itself was a rather large stucco structure, rectangular in shape. The building's designer must have had some sense of the importance of atmosphere, for the entry way he designed was a rather wide, roofed portico with double doors, and two very solid looking pillars on either side. As one approached the building from the front it seemed that one was, indeed, being invited to enter the portals of learning. It was possible, on picture taking day, to place thirty-five to forty students on the steps and have them nicely framed between the two pillars.

A first visitor to Sunrise School, after passing between the pillars and entering through the doors, would find herself in a small foyer, which served as an entry point to the building. The foyer itself was an important room where one could see, on rainy or snowy days, an assortment of overshoes, possibly a broom and other cleaning tools, and a large water container from which the students could dip their drinking water. There was no well on the school site, and the water had to be brought to the school each day. The teachers were not only responsible for our education but also needed janitorial skills which included sweeping floors, building the fire in the furnace and general day to day maintenance of the facility. Bringing enough water for the school day was one of those duties.

Upon entering the small foyer the visitor would notice that there was a door to the right and a door to the left. The door to the right led into the room that was the east half of the building. In this room the "lower grades" were educated. The door to the left gave entrance to the "upper room." Here grades five through eight assembled each day.

 The Basement

 By taking a sharp turn to the right one could see the basement stairs. The basement was a very special place, and maybe that is why our visitor seems to be drawn to the stairs. Not only did it house the furnace and the coal bin, but it also served as the woodworking shop for the older students. Here one could find an amazing device that allowed the students to cut out the patterns that had been drawn on pieces of plywood. The device was a saw, made from a Singer sewing machine, which the students could sit and operate by peddling with their feet. Many creative things were produced through the years in this little woodshop. We had at our house a figure of a cat, its head turned so that it looked right at you, and on its back were inscribed the words, "Scratch My Back for Light." This hung on the wall near the stove, and many a match was struck on the cat's back to bring light and warmth to the kitchen. This piece of art and a unique little corner shelf of rather intricate design had been created by my foster sister. I do not recall any contribution of worth that came from my hands in that workshop.

The basement, however, served many other purposes. This was where students went for recess on rainy days and thought up fantastic games. One such game was dodge ball. A group of students, usually boys, would line up against the wall and one boy was designated to throw the volleyball and everyone in the line would dodge to avoid being hit. This was the regular and quite acceptable way to play dodge ball. An exciting variation to this was to place the ball on the floor and hit it with a baseball bat. This increased the velocity of the ball at least a hundred fold and added an element of danger, considering the fact that the distance between the batter and the wildly dodging targets was not much more than twenty feet. It was a wonderfully terrifying experience to be one of the younger, smaller participants and to be allowed by the big boys to stand in that line to await sudden death. Your heart was in your throat as the batter took aim with the big bat, swung at the ball, and sent it on its quick, smashing flight. Sometimes it hit the bare wall and sometime it struck a dodging body. If the body was yours and if you were able, you than had the privilege of becoming the batter. My recollection is that teachers were often not present for these games, thus leaving the participants unsupervised and quite creative when it came to alternative ways to play an otherwise harmless game.

The basement provided other opportunities as well. Back in the 1930's the curriculum in a Meade County school was pretty much limited to the three R's, and sex education was not included as a formal subject. But as in all schools everywhere, curious students looked for ways to fill in the gaps between what they already knew and what they thought they would like to know. And so it was that on more than one occasion, in the dark space under the stairs, a group of boys could be found huddled together, eagerly anticipating the moment when the girls would descend the stairs. Girls always wore dresses in those days, and from the vantage point under the stairs the view was considered to be most interesting. I would assume that every boy at one time or another took advantage of this opportunity to thus enlighten himself.

On one occasion the furnace played an important role in a feat of sheer inspiration. A small group of older boys asked for permission to go down to work on woodworking projects. Permission was granted, with proper admonition on the part of the teacher that total attention be given to these projects. All went well until someone thought that it would be interesting to shovel more coal into the furnace and get it really hot. With this came the realization that putting the steel poker into the hot coals would provide a ready-made red-hot branding iron. For the cowboys in this group this presented a challenge that called for creative thinking. When your iron is hot, you must have something or someplace on which to leave a mark. The solution to this dilemma was not long in coming. It was common knowledge that the teacher had recently gone out on a date with a local swain, and this seemed to be the perfect time to record this for posterity. And so it came to pass that the object of undivided attention was the wooden post that stood in the middle of the basement. Surely, it was reasoned, this pillar would forever stand to bear witness to future generations. First the teacher's initials were burned into the wood, deeply and clearly. Then below them a + was securely imprinted, and under this the initials of the lucky young man. Even though I was present and involved in this historic moment, I regret that I am unable to remember which teacher and which young man were the objects of this notorious act. Nor do I remember exactly who the other perpetrators were. When one considers how extremely hot the poker was, how deep the letters were imprinted into the post, and how much wood smoke quickly accumulated in the room, it is no wonder that the teacher soon arrived in a state of panic. Through a haze of dark blue smoke she saw the group of artisans, poker in hand, but at a loss for words to give adequate explanation for what was surely one of the most elegant works of art ever conceived in this basement

There were consequences, of course. The punishment did not involve either physical or mental abuse, but it certainly was a blow to free expression. The assignment was to take a saw and make a surgical incision above and below the masterpiece. The offending piece was then to be removed, turned over, and nailed securely to the post, thus forever hiding the message that had been engraved for succeeding generations to marvel at. While visiting the school site some twenty-five years later, I found that the building had been dismantled but the basement was there with the floor still intact above it. Peering through the debris, I was able to clearly see that the post was still in its place and the message, though not visible, was still securely nailed to its base.

 The Lower Room 

But we have digressed. Our visitor, upon entering the school, made a sharp turn to the right and explored the basement. As we have seen, this was an exciting place, but it did not reflect the true educational spirit present in this building. This was to be found in the two classrooms. The classroom to the right, the east half, was for the "lower grades." Here it was that mere six-year-old children were brought from the warmth and safety of their homes and families and thrust into a world of reading, writing, and arithmetic. My fellow first-graders and I entered this room in the autumn of 1939. The country was recovering from the great depression and unbeknownst to us, the world was moving swiftly towards another Great War. Little did we, our even our parents, know how important it would be for us to absorb what we would be taught here, for our world was changing. Our first major challenge was to learn to speak English.

My recollections of this room and my first teacher are mostly pleasant and positive. The teacher's name was Miss Kliewer and I remember her with warmth and affection. She very competently organized the educational activities of the four grades under her care. My most vivid memories of first grade relate to the one activity that I treasured most. I wanted very much to learn to read and I recall how the first graders came to the front of the room for reading exercises. Often flashcards were used and I loved to call out the word as the card was held up. The room could accommodate from twenty to thirty desks, depending on the number of students enrolled in a given year. The desks were lined up in straight, orderly rows. There was a blackboard at either end of the room and the teacher's desk was usually at the east end. The north side had large windows that looked out on a cultivated field and allowed lots of light into the room. The south side of the room had several small rooms that were used as cloak rooms, providing a place for students to put their coats and lunch pails.

One of these rooms contained an intriguing device. It was a rather large crank that was attached to a very heavy rope, threaded over a series of pulleys. When the crank was turned, the blackboard at the west end of the room was raised. This provided an opening between the two rooms. The blackboard was very large and heavy and only the strongest eighth grade boys could manage to raise it. At Christmas time and at graduation in the Spring a small stage was constructed next to the blackboard in the "lower room" and the audience, assembled in the "upper room," could enjoy the program that had been prepared. It was always a momentous experience for the whole school when the signal was given to raise the board. Several big boys would take turns at the crank, and slowly, with ominous creaking sounds, the big board would awaken from it long slumber and began to inch its way up from the dusty chalk holder. The student body held its collective breath, hoping that the rope would hold, and yet, secretly wondering what it would be like to see it come crashing down.

It was here on the little stage in front of parents and friends that we presented a Christmas program each year. Songs were learned, poems were memorized, plays and skits were rehearsed, and a sprit of good will prevailed from Thanksgiving till Christmas as we made preparations for this event. It was great fun to come on a cold December evening, often with snow on the ground, to participate in Christmas plays and carol singing. Members of the school board were responsible for preparing the Coleman lanterns, which were lit and hung on long wires from the ceiling. The steady, gentle hissing of the gas lanterns contributed to the festive sounds of the evening's celebration. I can still feel the exhilaration we all experienced as we anticipated the evening's program. The rooms were festively decorated and there was a large tree. Here we had put the presents, which we had purchased for the gift exchange that followed the program. Names had been drawn well in advance and gifts were purchased, care being taken to not exceed the maximum price agreed upon. The gifts had been placed under the tree during the week before the program, and now finally the time had come to find out who had your name and what this person had wrapped in the package with your name on it.

Santa Claus did not visit Sunrise School. Apparently at some point he had discovered that he would be welcomed reluctantly, if at all, so he made his stops at some of the "English" schools in the county instead. The school board, however, made up for this lapse of Christmas cheer by presenting all the students with a sack of candy and nuts. These were very generously endowed with wonderful goodies and greatly treasured by the recipients. This was still not the end of an exciting evening. It was the custom of the young people of high school and college age to go caroling in the district, arriving sometime during the night hours, to sing at each home. To hear these harmonious voices in the stillness of a cold, clear night was a wondrous thing. To fall asleep and not awaken when the carolers came was a great disappointment indeed.

My most exciting experience with Miss Kliewer, however, had nothing to do with learning to read or participating in Christmas programs. It had everything to do with pain and suffering. It so happened that the township crews were improving the dirt roads in the area and the road that passed by the school on the south was undergoing major surgery. The ditches were being deepened and the dirt elevated on to the roadbed. The result was that a rather deep ditch had been carved out on the edge of the schoolyard. The road crew had left a long plank, which lay invitingly near at hand, available to serve any purpose that a group of schoolboys could devise.

One of the older boys soon had an idea. He suggested that the plank be placed horizontally on the ground with one end extending over the newly excavated trench. This plank could then serve as a catapult that would provide a moment's thrill for any boy who would dare stand on one end while a larger boy took a running jump, landing solidly on the end which extended over the chasm. An eighth grade boy volunteered to be the one to jump on the plank. His name was Eldo, and Eldo was a big boy. The call went out for a smaller boy to volunteer to occupy the other end and to be gloriously launched into space. Herb, my cousin, and two years my senior boldly volunteered to make the first flight. Taking his place on his end of the plank, he awaited the moment when he would depart this earth. Eldo took a short run, came down on the extended end, and Herb's short journey into orbit turned out beautifully. He executed a perfect flip and landed, more or less, on his feet, none the worse for wear. It was a feat that was not equaled till John Glen's historic flight thirty years later.

With such success, it was only reasonable to try for a record height. A smaller boy was needed. Herb was not only my cousin, he was also my mentor and my confidant. How could I not step forward. With great trepidation I offered up my body to science. The contrast was impressive indeed. This time Vernon was to make the jump. He was all of six feet tall, weighed at least one hundred and sixty pounds, and was determined to qualify, with this jump, for the World Book of Records. The little first grader must have looked like a little bug on his end of the plank. Again, the launch was all the bloodthirsty crown could have hoped for, and the flight itself was smooth enough. It was the landing that we could have done without. There was not a parachute to gently lower me to mother earth and so it was my fate to plunge headlong into a ditch by the side of a township road in a most undignified fashion. At the moment of impact the assembled notables could clearly distinguish a cracking sound not unlike that of a dry stick breaking. Scrambling to my feet, I saw immediately that my right wrist had lost its usual shape, and it seemed to me that the hand attached to my arm was held in place only by the skin that surrounded it.

I was quickly ushered into the presence of Miss Kliewer, whose face blanched as she saw what had once been a perfectly normal appendage dangling limply at my side. She swung into action immediately. She helped me up into the front seat of her Model A coupe, placed a book on my lap on which to rest my throbbing arm, and proceeded down the road to the north to deliver me to my parents. Every bump the Model A hit on the dirt road was painfully magnified in the arm that was lying broken and bruised on the book. I tried to be a brave little boy, feeling somewhat sorry for Miss Kliewer, and at the same time admiring her fortitude and presence of mind. She got me home in record time but I knew that another long trip awaited me, for there was only one remedy for a broken arm, as everyone in the Meade community knew, and that was to go see "Dr." Schlichting who lived way on the other side of Minneola. That, however, is another story.

Miss Kliewer was my teacher for two years. My third and fourth grade teacher was Miss Plett. She also was a very wise and gentle person and she provided us with excellent educational experiences. Under her tutelage my delight in exploring new horizons in learning continued. I especially looked forward each day to the time right after lunch when the whole room would listen while a continued story was read. Here we heard and lived the stories of Lassie and Black Beauty and other classics of the day.  Another delightful experience that we always looked forward to was the Friday afternoon skating party. While this may not have occurred every Friday, it was somewhat of a regular ritual. Just before school was dismissed on Friday afternoon, all the desks were pushed aside and an oily sweeping compound was spread on the wooden floor. Then everyone was free to skate on the slippery surface. This served two purposes. It allowed the students to burn off a lot of pent up energy and it thoroughly saturated the wooden boards with the oily substance. After the compound had been swept up, the floor was nice and shiny and there was a pleasant smell in the room.

It was during my fourth grade year that the school underwent a most trying and stormy few months. The board had hired a young teacher, Miss Klassen, who came to her task with a great deal of enthusiasm and a genuine love for children. She was to teach the students in the upper grades, and obviously this was her very first experience in the classroom. Since I was still in the fourth grade I did not get to know her as a teacher but she seemed a very likable person, eager to please. She, however, failed to gain the respect of the students and to ultimately establish a friendly atmosphere for learning. As things went from bad to worse in the upper room, those of us in the secure cocoon of the lower room could hear the shouting and laughter and loud tramping of feet as students rioted on the other side of the blackboard. For me it was a sort of coming of age, a realization that the world could be mean and nasty, that people who were your friends could turn on someone and, in affect, ruin their lives. I recall going out of my room on some errand, and as I walked by the open door to the upper room, I saw Miss Klassen sitting at her desk with her head in her hand, sobbing loudly, her students milling about in disarray. Members of the school board came to the school to attempt to restore order, pleading with the students to behave with respect, but to no avail. After Christmas vacation, Miss Willams, a veteran teacher with a reputation in our community as a strict disciplinarian, came to finish the year. Life at Sunrise School returned to normal.

 The Upper Room

 After completion of the fourth grade it was time to enter the door to the left. To be in the fifth grade meant that you would occupy one of the desks on the north side of the room near the windows. The teacher's desk was at the east end of the room where the big blackboard was. In the northeast corner stood an old upright piano, which was used whenever there was a teacher who had the skills to play it. Also in the front of the room, on either side of the desk, were the two registers in the floor through which the heat rose from the furnace to warm us on cold winter days. In the back of the room was a large bookcase and this was known as the library. Here were books that students could read after assignments were finished. The teacher would made weekly trips to the public library in Meade and bring a variety of books for our perusal. It was also possible to order a book if you knew the title or the kind of book you would like to read. One of my favorites was the Hardy Boys series, where one could revel in the exploits of the two brothers who chased criminals and got into all kinds of tight scrapes. The X Bar X Boys became my friends and heroes, and I especially liked them because they were cowboys whose adventures I could only dream about. As time went on, I also read most, if not all, of the Horatio Alger books, as well as a great variety of others. There came a day when, during the closing ceremonies of a school year, I was awarded a reading prize for reading more books than any other student during that year. It was here at Sunrise School that my romance with books began and it has continued unabated to this day.

The library in the basement of the Meade County Courthouse became a favorite haunt for me. Whenever my father went to town I was ready to go along and visit the library. The librarian, a rather portly woman with a very severe look, became my friend, and always welcomed me and helped me find books. To this day a library is an awesome place for me and I love to spend time among the bookshelves. I always had a book near me and often it went with me to the field. I can't fault my father for getting a little upset when the book got in the way of the work that was to be done. He accused me of being addicted to books, and so I was, and so I still am.

The upper room had more that a piano and a library, however. It, like its counterpart, also had two little rooms called cloakrooms, in which there were shelves on which we could put our lunch pails and hooks on the walls to hang our coats. One was for the girls and on for the boys. These rooms could hold an amazing number of students at once, and it was in here, sometimes behind a closed door, that some rather bazaar things were wont to transpire. One year a boy came to school with information he had gained from some outside source. He had it on good authority that if a group of boys were to sit around a table and place their hands on the table, while pleading loudly in unison, "Up Table, Up! Up Table, Up" that without a doubt the table would rise from the floor and levitate before our very eyes. Many a lunch hour was spent in that cloakroom around a table, and the clamor that arose is reminiscent of that of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. The table never would levitate when I was present although some boys swore that it did happen at least once when I was not there. I thought at the time that its lack of response was in direct proportion to my lack of faith and that my absence must surely have guaranteed success.

One of the subjects that we had was penmanship. The idea was that by following a prescribed set of rules one could learn to write, not only legibly, but also beautifully and artistically. In short, it was thought at that time that cursive should be readable. One day, during my sixth year in school, we got out our writing pads and practiced the exercises as indicated. We were under the ever-watchful eye of our teacher, Miss Weaver. She encouraged us to hold the pencil just so, to place the arm on the desk just so, and to use a fluid, circular motion, which would then result in something to admire. Miss Weaver was actually quite congenial and as far as I can recall a competent instructor. But she did have a short fused temper, and if properly provoked she was prone to act somewhat impulsively. One response on her part was to grasp the offender by the hair and administer a good shaking, which certainly drew the attention of the entire room full of students. It happened to me just once. We were doing writing exercises and I was probably not making a suitably enthusiastic effort to display the correct posture and hand and arm position. After having been admonished several times to be more vigilant, I suddenly found myself being vigorously shaken from the top down, with my hair securely in her grasp. The experience has remained vividly in my memory. Unfortunately, to this day my handwriting skills do not reflect the level of legibility that she obviously had in mind for her students.  Having spent thirty years of my life in the classroom as a teacher, I can assure you that I do not hold this action against her. How often have I longed to administer the same or worse to a recalcitrant student.

Miss Weaver was my teacher in grades five and six. She was the only teacher I had who was of a slightly different background than the teachers usually employed by the school board. While she was Mennonite, she was not from Kansas or Oklahoma as were most of my other teachers. She was not educated at Tabor College, as were the others. She came to us from either Hesston College or Bethel College and did not speak Plautdietsch. Her name suggests an Old Mennonite background, although she did not wear a head covering to school. The boys in the room were quite aware of her rather ample bosom and when she would lean forward at her desk all eyes would be on her, especially when she wore a dress with a rather low neckline. This was exciting indeed, because most of the women and girls that we knew wore dresses with more conservative necklines. This was Sex Education II at Sunrise School.

During my seventh grade year life at Sunrise went on without me. In the summer of 1945 my father decided that he would like to visit his brother (my Uncle Pete) who lived in the Yakima Valley in the state of Washington. Uncle Pete had moved to the northwest during the depression years and had subsequently prospered in that he owned a small dairy farm and seemed to enjoy life there. My parents had often spoken of moving to California or Washington to be near relatives and seek another way of life. My father thought another climate or a different environment would be of benefit to his health. After the wheat harvest that year an auction was held, some livestock and goods were sold, the farm put in the care of Uncle John and Aunt Bertha Harder, and the journey was made to Washington. A pleasant time was had by all, and I was very much disappointed when my parents decided not to remain on the West Coast, but to return to Kansas in time for harvest in 1946.

In September I was back at sunrise for my eighth grade year. The class of 1947 looked forward to graduation in April. Our teacher was there for her second term and her name was Miss Hamm. Interestingly enough she drove a Model A Ford coupe. Whether the other teachers had cars and if so, what kind, I do not recall. I recall Miss Kliewer's and Miss Hamm's Model A's because I had experiences in them which were significant. Miss Hamm was jolly, enthusiastic, outgoing, and very friendly. While she was a good instructor, we sometimes forgot that she was the teacher and thought of her as one of us. She was eager to please and we soon found that she could be manipulated. This was especially true for those of us in the eighth grade. One of our favorite ploys was to finish our assignments and ask for permission to go to the basement to work on a project. Soon we would come back up to say that we were short of nails or screws or wood. After some begging on our part she would allow us to go to town in her Model A to fetch the needed materials from the lumberyard. This was in an era when driver's licenses were not required and farm boys had become drivers back in the fifth grade. It was not unusual for several cars to be parked on the schoolyard. Henry L. Friesen bought and repaired an old school bus and his sons, when considered old enough, would drive it to school, picking up neighborhood students along the way. It was not unusual, therefore, that Alvin Friesen, Elmer Friesen, and I, the three eighth grade boys, would drive to Meade to get supplies in the teacher's car. We would take a little extra time to see what was going on in town, buy a candy bar and a soda, and head back to school. The trips always ended safely and no one seemed to think much about it. Maybe this was our version of Driver Education, which, like Sex Education, while not in the curriculum, was a subject of great interest. No tests were taken, no grades were given, and how much was learned was hard to measure.

 The Playground

 There are still other areas of interest to explore. One of these, of course, is the schoolyard. While the formal aspects of education took place in one or the other of the two rooms in the schoolhouse, much of our social development took place on the expansive playground. Here the games were played, intrigues were planned and executed, cliques were formed and abandoned. Since relatively much time was allowed for these activities, much could be accomplished. There was recess before lunch at mid-morning and recess after lunch at mid-afternoon. The lunch hour was a full hour, and when boys are eager to play, lunch can be dispatched forthwith. It may already have become apparent in this narrative that, for much of what occurred at Sunrise School, the teachers were not present, or at least not till after the fact. Some teachers made quite an effort to be involved with playground activities, and others made use of the time for planning classroom activities. Most games were played without adult supervision and the rules were often made up and enforced by older students. Cheating was anathema, whether in the classroom or on the playground. There was a certain code of honor that students adhered to, which was seldom broken. Some games were by their very nature segregated by sex and others were integrated. I recall the names of some of the games but find it difficult to recall just how they were played. One favorite was a game that all could join when the upper grades were at play. This was called "Twenty-three Eskadoodle." For this game sides were chosen and the action revolved around a central base. As you ventured out from the safety of your base you could be tagged and thus held prisoner in an area, that was the enemy base. Here you stood, stretching out your hand, pleading for deliverance. Your friends would dart in and out, trying to touch your outstretched hand and count as fast as possible till twenty-three and then say "eskadoodle!" while your enemies tried to keep them away and capture them as well. If someone touched your hand only for, say, the count of three, you would scream, "three, three," until someone else came by and counted a few more digits, until finally you were liberated. This was a wonderfully noisy game, with much excitement, and certainly one that tended to develop fleet-footedness and daring on the part of each participant. 

Other games which we enjoyed were "King Base," "Red Rover Come Over," and "Pump-Pump Pull-Away." I wonder if any of these games are still known to children today. While we did not have Physical Education in the curriculum, we were very active and did not lack for exercise, and generally practiced good sportsmanship. Regular sports such as softball, volleyball, and touch football were also very important, especially for students in the upper grades. Softball was played almost year round. All we had was a ball and a bat. Gloves, shin guards or catcher's masks were unheard of. Sometimes we chose up teams and sometimes we played work-up, but competition was always intense. While some coaching would have helped us to understand some of the finer points of a sport, it may be that the spontaneity, which came about as a result of the sandlot concept, was just as valuable.

We always looked forward to the first snowfall in winter. Then "Fox and Goose" became a popular game, as did just plain old snowball fights. Great forts were built and maintained as war was declared and the snowballs became cannon balls that could be almost lethal when they were carefully packed and rounded. Sometimes we were given sled rides on a homebuilt sled pulled behind a car. If the snow was just right we could roll up several giant snowballs and assemble a large snowman that would stand guard on the schoolyard until the sun finally caused his demise.

There were several other areas of play that I remember with great pleasure. The swings, which were located just east of the school house, provided endless hours of pleasure. These swings had been built to last. The basic framework, constructed with heavy pipes, and firmly braced, towered about fifteen feet above the ground. Two swings were attached to this framework and they were usually occupied when the weather was such that we could play outside. Not only could you swing, but you could also shinny up to the top and enjoy the slide down the metal pipe. It was breathtaking to stand up on the swing and pump and pump till at last you got high enough to experience a sort of weightlessness, as the chain, for just a moment, lost its tension and you found yourself almost level with the top bar of the swingset. We watched with great admiration as a daring aviator would choose to bail out of his high flying seat and fly through the air, trying to set a new distance record with his jump.

The "slipper" slide, as we called it, was firmly planted on the west side of the building. Most of us had our sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper in those days and this paper was not thrown away until it had served a most important purpose. Often, right after lunch, we would rush right out to the slide and work like busy beavers to give the slide a coat of wax. The surface thus coated provided a much faster ride, and, while this may not have been a consideration for us then, it must also have saved a lot of wear and tear on our jean bottoms. Sometimes a call would go out for all boys to come to the slide and we would "squeeze." This meant that a strong eighth grader would sit at the bottom and serve as the anchor and the rest would all pile in behind him, creating a human logjam, which could only be broken when the anchor gave way.

The schoolyard presented us with many opportunities for creative play, but sometimes events could also take a somewhat destructive and dangerous turn. World War II had a profound effect on us as it did on children everywhere. Being Mennonites, we were taught that war was wrong and that as Mennonites we were all conscientious objectors. While we gave lip service to this we were very much taken with the war and with what was going on in the world. We knew people, sometimes relatives, who had been drafted, and who were fighting the Germans or the Japanese, or were preparing to do so. Many of the young men from our community were going to C.O. Camps in different parts of the United States. Our local newspaper carried weekly reports of servicemen from Meade County who were stationed in far-flung places around the world. The most exciting aspect of the war and the thing that brought it close to home for us was the regular, almost daily, appearance of bombers in the skies above us. There were training bases in all of the larger cities around us. We could soon identify the different kinds of planes such as the B-24s that flew out of the base at Liberal and the B-17s from Dodge City. Sometimes we would see the larger four-engine planes from the base at Dalhart, Texas, and occasionally we would see fighters such as the P-38. It is not surprising that a group of Mennonite boys would soon think up war games to play at recess. One favorite game was to choose up sides and designate one the Americans and the other side the "Japs." The action took place by the road with one side taking refuge in one ditch and the other side in the opposite ditch. The object of the game was to throw clods and try to hit the enemy while at the same time trying to avoid being hit. If a clod hit a player he was wounded, unless he was hit hard enough so that blood was drawn, or at the least a rather obvious welt appeared. In that case he was declared killed, and was out of the game. The winning group was the one with the most soldiers left alive and unwounded when the bell sounded for class to resume. It was a mark of heroism to carry a visible wound, and the bravest players were willing to take significant risks to prove their daring.

Considering the size of the playground around the school, it seems strange that the road and the ditches played such an important part in our play activities. I have recounted earlier my experience as a first grader when I broke my wrist in the ditch south of the schoolhouse. We were fascinated whenever the road crews worked on the township roads, and the results of their work often gave us opportunities for new experiences. One such experience came about when I was a fifth grader. The road workers had left in the ditch a barrel and two long, heavy planks. Spring rains had left an inviting little pool of muddy water in the ditch. We managed to place the barrel in the middle of the pool and laid a plank on each side, resting the end of the plank on the edge of the barrel, thus providing ourselves with a bridge across the "river." We spent all recess running back and forth over the bridge, sometimes demonstrating daring feats of balance and sure-footedness. Just before recess ended, it became important to me to show everyone that I was truly the "king of the road." Stopping in the middle of the bridge, I proceeded to crow about my exalted position, slipped on the wet plank, and fell into the mud below, landing, not on my feet, but flat on my back. This time the teacher did not offer me a ride home, but called my parents, and I had to wait in the basement till my father arrived with a complete change of wardrobe.

Another activity that I remember with some amusement came about in the Spring when the buffalo grass and weeds began to grow in the school yard. There is a plant, native to the Kansas prairie, which we called Indian bread. It had pale green leaves and was nothing more than a nondescript weed. It had a rather long root, not unlike a white radish, and we believed that it was a food that the Indians ate when they occupied the prairie. We would diligently search for this plant, and when we found one, dig it up with our pocketknives and eat the white root. It had a rather pungent, musty taste, certainly not to everyone's liking. If our mothers had offered this at our dinners at home we would surely have refused it. The conventional wisdom at Sunrise School was that the plant had magical powers. The boys believed that it would generate in the eater a generous portion of gas if enough of it were consumed. There were many manifestations of the coming of Spring, and one was that during early April the quietness of a classroom at study was often interrupted by what some considered unseemly noises, which brought guffaws from the male population and embarrassed giggles from the females. It was not hard to determine who had been most successful in finding Indian bread on a given day.

There was one other place in the schoolyard that was of utmost importance to the boys. While I don't recall that girls were specifically banned from this place, it may have been an unwritten rule, established many years before my time, that girls did not frequent the barn. The barn stood on the northwest corner of the yard. Its original intended use was to give shelter to horses. It was a simple wooden shed without a door, open to the south. At some point we had gathered together some boards and nailed them to the rafters, making a sort of attic hide-a-way. We gained access to this by climbing a short ladder that was nailed to the north wall. This provided a wonderful place for many of our games, such as cowboys and Indians.

The barn also became, during my fourth grade year, a place of fervent religious expression. Revival meetings were in progress at the E.M.B. Church. In those days it was deemed necessary to conduct two-week revivals twice a year. In a community such as ours, where things like movies, bowling, roller skating, athletic events, and almost any other form of entertainment were frowned upon, church events became major social events. The revivals brought in fiery preachers who often were also fine entertainers. They used humor, had special presentations for children, and sometime had special talent in music. Revivals were therefore well attended. The church was full each evening and everyone looked forward to the varied activates, depending upon the talents of the evangelist. Reverend Esau was one such evangelist. He was blind, and each evening he would demonstrate, especially for the children, some amazing feat, such as driving a nail into a board, straight and true, in spite of his blindness.

While I was always fascinated by the revivals and enjoyed the singing and storytelling, I was often also frightened by what was said by the preachers. This, of course, was the intent, for most of them were very effective at what is known as "hell fire and brimstone preaching." Two themes were stressed above all others, or at least that is what I remember most. One was that hell was a real place and the other was that Jesus was coming back just any time. After each sermon a lengthy invitation was given for those convicted of sin to come to the front of the church. Even though I went down the aisle numerous times, it seemed that the "assurance of salvation" that was so highly touted and of which many testified was not a concept I could grasp.

This particular revival had a rather dramatic impact on some of the young people just a bit older than I. The preacher had made it clear that it was the responsibility of the saved to speak to others about the need to be saved. Some of the seventh and eighth grade boys came to school with great zeal to gather all the other boys into the fold. The leader of this endeavor was Pete, assisted by his brother Ike, and my cousin Art. Their strategy was to gather as many of their fellows from the upper room during recess and urge them to climb the ladder to the loft in the barn, and there to pray for salvation. It did not take long for the entire male population to experience revival except for David, a fifth grader, who resisted. While they continued to work on him, they began to look for other lost sheep, and soon focused their attention on me.

Usually, anything the older boys did I wanted to do also. This time, however, I balked. I began to dread recess, because I knew that the older boys would be after me to go to the loft with them. Soon David and I, who normally did not pal around together, became close friends and supported each other in our resistance. Finally, however, peer pressure prevailed, and I capitulated. I went to the loft and a group of zealous boys gathered around me, loudly praising the Lord. For anyone arriving on the scene, not knowing the circumstances, this would have been something to observe. Here were six or eight schoolboys grouped around a little fourth grader, addressing him with great intensity and in all seriousness. Pete was the spokesman, and he spoke in a deep, low voice. He was later to become a missionary and was destined to spend his life seeking lost sheep in lands beyond the sea and even then he had a clear sense of his mission. He asked me if I wanted to be saved and exhorted me to pray. I found myself at a loss as to what to pray and this stumped him for a moment. When I said I knew a German bedtime prayer that I said every night, it was agreed that this would do. It was a short four-line prayer, a simple rhyme, which I can no longer recite. I offered this prayer and again everyone loudly praised the Lord and declared me saved. I felt a great sense of relief, partly because I now felt a bit more certain that I would go to heaven, and partly because I was once again in the "in" group. I do not remember whether they ever persuaded David to climb to the loft, and if so, what his response might have been.

A similar movement was in progress among the girls in school and what part the teachers played in it I do not recall. For a few weeks the boys in the upper room were on their best behavior, reasoning that good works should accompany faith, and surely the teachers must have appreciated the respite. The revival story is a fairly accurate commentary on the extent to which our religious beliefs and practices affected our daily lives. While religious classes were not a part of the curriculum, our teachers were carefully selected by the board to insure that the community belief system would be continually reinforced. The school day included Bible reading, prayer, and a salute to the flag. It was through books from the library, listening to the radio, or just by making a trip to Meade or Dodge City that one could gain a brief insight into a world beyond one's borders. We did try to reach out beyond those borders, sometimes in rather crude ways.

One such way was something we developed during my eighth grade year. Alvin, an eighth grader, was deemed mature enough to drive the school bus and usually parked it on the east side of the schoolhouse. This bus often became our gathering place when we wanted to get together and talk with some privacy and apparently girls were not welcome. Here we gathered to eat our noon lunch and this always generated all kinds of spirited conversation. We soon began to experiment with language that we knew would not be acceptable outside of our group. Our frequent trips to town with our fathers took us to places where farmers, ranchers, and businessmen gathered. This included the barbershop, farm supply stores, grain elevators, and especially the livestock sales barn. We were quite aware and somewhat in awe of profanity and jokes that generally circulated in these surroundings, but we also knew that our own fathers did not usually express themselves in this way. And so it was that we would gather in the bus and regale each other with language profane. As we used to say, "Let's go to the bus and cuss!"

 The Clouds and Sunlight

One of the regrettable realities of the human condition seems to be that intolerance continually raises its ugly head, bringing sorrow and shame into personal and community relationships which can sometimes be perpetuated for years to come. It was a rare thing in our community, and especially in our little school that new faces should appear in our midst. We were used to each other, and we had no particular desire to share our experience with someone from the "outside." As is often the case, the underlying Christian values, which were upheld in a community such as ours, did not always provide us with adequate guidance in the area of human relationships. Given the right circumstances, prejudice and intolerance were quick to surface. Diversity was not acceptable or considered important, while the conservation of our own narrow belief system was thought to be of utmost importance.

It happened that a family moved into the community and into our district, and several new children came into the school. This family was not really new to the community. They had lived there previously, but had moved to another state where they had lived for a number of years. Because of economic circumstances they were forced to move back to the Meade community. They were provided with a place to live by relatives on land that my father had farmed for years. This meant that a quarter section of good farmland, which my father had hoped to eventually purchase, had been taken from us and given to this needy family.

When I reported to my schoolmates that this family was moving onto "our" land and taking "our" land away from us, there was immediate, unspoken consensus that these people should not be accepted. During my own teaching career I have often witnessed the struggles of students who, for whatever reason, were not accepted by their fellow students. I do not recall seeing children being abused by other children as were the children of this family. They were ridiculed, shunned, and sometimes physically assaulted. Our teachers did not gather us together and explain to us the evils of intolerance, nor did our parents or our church leaders. No one made a concerted effort to eradicate this evil. I find it remarkable that such a thing could have continued day after day without some kind of public outrage being expressed. I find many of the experiences of my childhood to be interesting, humorous, and even significant in positive ways. This I see as a very dark chapter in my life and the lives of my fellow students and regret that such a story needs to be a part of an otherwise lighthearted telling of childhood events. Our curriculum did not include lessons in diversity and the evils of prejudice. The lessons I learned in this regard came as a result of tragic experience that had its affect on me as well as on those who were mistreated.

In spite of sinister clouds that at times did block the bright sunlight, all was not darkness and gloom. For the time and the place, our educational experiences were adequate. The school term was eight months in length, from September through April. It was the conventional wisdom that farm kids needed only eight months of formal education. The coming of spring heralded farm work and they were needed on the farm. When the last day of school arrived, the whole district turned out for a grand celebration. Farmers left the fields for at least part of the day to hear the program prepared for the closing exercises and to enjoy the great feast that was laid out on tables set up in the school yard. And what a feast it was. It included all of the homemade delights that only Mennonite mothers could provide.  Usually, after the meal the adult men and older boys played a softball game. Eighth graders received diplomas and awards were presented. The county superintendent was there to make these presentations.

After eight seasons it was time for the class of 1947 to graduate. The Great War was over, the community was prospering, and the mood was generally up beat. More of the Mennonite youth from the community were going to college after high school, and I just assumed I would do the same when that time came. All of us were planning to enroll eventually as students at the Meade Bible Academy, which would offer us a sound high school education and delay our entrance into the larger world by another four years. Several in our class would stay at home to work on the farm for a year before starting the high school experience.

I do not have vivid memories of the graduation ceremonies. I know that my name was called and Miss Granger offered her congratulations as she handed me my diploma. I had been a slightly above average student in most of the subjects taught and had my share of fun and games.

Miss Kliewer, Miss Plett, Miss Weaver, and Miss Hamm were significant people in my life, and their guidance in matters educational and social was of great consequence to my development as a person. It must have been intimidating for a young teacher to come into a community and assume the many duties of a country schoolteacher. They may not have been adequately prepared to deal with problems of prejudice or intolerance and it may have been difficult for them to relate quickly to the dynamics of a community, but they taught us and they taught us well. They saw the potential in us and developed an arsenal of motivational skills that kept our interests alive. I thank them and I salute them!

The schoolhouses that stood at the various crossroads in Meade County are now preserved only in memory. They came in different shapes and sizes and each, in a sense, developed its own personality. They, however, had one thing in common. They represented the will of the community that its children be educated. As time passed, consolidation took its toll, and gradually, but not without protest, the little schools closed. The sun sent on an era that we can only recreate in stories. It does seem though, that some of that same spirit which inspired names like "Pleasant Hill," "Lilly Dale," and yes, "Sunrise" is still alive today wherever optimism is expressed. Long live the memory of Sunrise School!

(copyright Vern Zielke)

 

 

 

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