The following story is featured in All Is Calm: A Maine Christmas Reader. All Is Calm, edited by Islandport's own Shannon Butler, is an anthology of Maine Christmas stories spanning nearly 200 years. The stories show that while Christmas traditions and trends may be changing, the warmth, gratitude, and humility of the Maine spirit is evergreen.
Christmas in A One-Room School
May B. Davidson, 1934
My school days began in a one room school in Bremen.The year was 1934. One teacher, Miss Fossett of Round Pond, taught all subjects to eight grades and somehow provided us with a solid, basic education. She covered all capacities from general cleaning, filling, and polishing oil wall lamps, keeping the wood stove going, and being second mother to fifteen or twenty scholars, as we were called then. The number of scholars fluctuated over time and there were only twelve during my years there.
Our “school bus” was an old, tired, wood-sided “Beech Wagon.” It’s Isinglass windows had long since cracked and blown away. We were kept from freezing in winter by a huge, thickly-furred buffalo hide over our knees.
The school did not have a well so two older boys were required to bring pails of water from a neighbor’s house, about a quarter mile up the road. Gaiety along the way sometimes resulted in limited water arriving to fill the barrel-shaped crock with a small spigot at the bottom. The boys also brought in big chunks of wood from the entryway to pile around the stove.
We created our own drinking cups by folding paper into the proper shape, but it was usually flimsy “arithmetic” paper that went soggy and leaked before we finished drinking.We were happy on days when there was only blue-lined writing paper available to make cups because it held water longer, giving us more time to waste. Also, the blue lines had a fascinating way of dissolving and running down the inside of the cup staining the water with veils of color.
When morning chores were done we were seated and our day began by Saluting the Flag, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and singing a hymn. Handwritten papers, which Miss Fossett had prepared the evening before, and daily assignments for each grade were passed out.
As the morning wore on and the loud tick-tock of the wooden octagonal wall clock with its roman numerals and shining pendulum seemed to be slowing down for us, the teacher’s announcement—“You may lay your work aside for recess”—reenergized us and filled us with new life for the mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Noon hours seemed wonderfully long and after the“dinner pail” contents were devoured, we built snow forts, had snowball battles, or went skating on nearby Webber Lake.
When we returned to the afternoon’s lessons we were deeply encrusted with snow, and little pills of ice rattled on our mittens. All removable clothing was spread on the wood stacked by the stove. The wettest of us were allowed to pull our desks into a circle around it. I can still smell the steaming wool of our hats and mittens.
To begin our afternoon session, Miss Fossett read aloud two chapters of an adventure story, this was the highlight of our day. Our energy had been used playing in the snow, and our interest in studies waned.There were two diversions: A bitterly cold visit to the outhouse or the pleasure of watching the Banner Rats at play.
These engaging creatures are not rats, but large and pretty mice, round-eared, soft-eyed, nearly blonde and sport fluffy banners at their tail ends. The mice lived in the entry’s wood pile, and had chewed small arches in the baseboard between entry and school room.They came out to watch us, sitting up and grooming their white tummies. We learned to enjoy them silently because Miss Fossett viewed them as wretched rodents and went after them with a broom if she divined the direction of our gaze.
Another break we favored was when the Ipana Toothpaste salesman came to visit the school and distributed small samples of the yellow tubes with red stripes that converged in the center. When his lecture about dental health was finished, and he left, we squeezed the toothpaste out and ate it with gusto since candy was not affordable in this era of 1930s. It was vaguely sweet and minty.
From November on we looked forward eagerly to Christmas at school.We were in the Great Depression years and Christmas was simple, if not stark, for all of us, but it did not affect our joy and anticipation of Christmas activities.
As the time neared, first in the celebration was the expedition for a Christmas tree. I particularly remember the Christmas when I was nine years old. On the day chosen to cut the tree, one of the eighth grade boys brought an ax to school, and then our teacher lead all twelve scholars off into the woods.There were miles of pine, spruce and balsam forest growing just across the roadf rom our school. Thirsting for adventure we tramped along with Miss Fossett, laughing, throwing snowballs and searching for the perfect balsam tree. Sometimes we stooped to caress the moss on a ledge, or found some frozen red wintergreen berries, so piquantly flavorful.
Once we were deeply into the woods and were standing quietly still for a short rest, a magnificent bull moose crossed ahead of us. Ignoring us, we watched his sleek, dark body silently disappear, his head was bent back to maneuver his great antlers through the branches.His noble beauty was breath taking.
When we found a classic fir balsam, it was cut and the boy shouldered it back to school. To decorate it, we cut and glued colorful paper chains and popped popcorn so we could string it on the tree. We also brought out carefully stored ornaments to hang on the branches. A kind retired doctor who lived nearby provided a practical gift for each child to be placed under the tree which stood from floor to ceiling filling the room with its pungent fragrance, the essence of Christmas.
Later in the season, Miss Fossett gave us each a piece to learn and recite, and guided the older children in the production of a Christmas play. With practice we performed it quite well, until, that is, our parents came to school to join our Christmas celebration. As they watched, stage fright took over, and we mumbled our lines or delivered them in rapid-fire staccato lest our memory should fail before we finished.
The youngest scholar was little five-year old Annie in the first grade.She was the last in a family of lusty older brothers. Annie had a lisp and she was squirming nervously in her first public appearance. As she struggled with her lisping recitation she suddenly burst out, “Thit! Mumma! Mypanth ith fallin’ down!”
Annie’s mother went to the rescue and Miss Fossett hurried to the ancient organ to pump out a Christmas carol hoping to detract from the scene. She succeeded because it was another amusing event. The music was jarringly discordant due to the Banner Rats nesting in the organ and chewing some of the vital notes that were in their way. The entertainment ended joyfully. Each child’s gift of a book and mittens from under the tree was excitedly opened and apple cider, with home made doughnuts provided by Miss Fossett were passed around.
Thinking back to the simplicity and innocence of Christmas at the one-room school in Bremen still brings pangs of nostalgia each year as I remember the drenching scent of fir balsam, warmth of the wood stove, softness of kerosene lamplight. A beautiful time that has passed. I think of school children who may have never experienced the joy of following their teacher into the Holiness of an old and deep evergreen forest, never listened to the silken silence of it, never seen a huge wild animal in his own forest setting, or bent to touch velvet mosses while searching for the perfect Christmas tree.
Yes, in those early times larger, city schools may have offered cultural and sports advantages, but there was no ice skating to school if you lived near the big lake that ended at the school house.Teachers couldn’t help children identify birds and wild flowers in the wood-sweet time of spring, scholars couldn’t swing on slender birch trees bent by the previous winter’s ice storms. We could catch up on culture, but the beauty of nature, and substantial, well-rounded education we received in our one-room school was unique.Christmas times there were to be remembered like diamonds on the heart.
Growing up in Aroostook County, Shannon Butler was surrounded by the softly-piled snow, warm, cozy farmhouses, and the towering evergreen trees that set the scene for an idyllic and pristine Maine Christmas. A graduate of the the University of Maine at Farmington, she now lives in Kennebunk and works at Islandport Press. She still spends every Christmas fireside and surrounded by family in her hometown of Caribou, Maine.