Back to School

We’re at that time that circles around once a year, when students put away summer and start or return to school with various levels of excitement or dread, or both, when parents find themselves fluctuating between sadness and relief and teachers and administrators take deep breaths as they once more enter into the fray that is education. ’Twas ever thus.

Some years ago, while researching in the Missouri Valley Room, I came across a 1972 article in the Kansas Historical Quarterly spotlighting a diary kept by Anna Webber during her first term as a teacher. Edited by her daughter, Lila Gravatt Scrimsher, it turned out to have special significance to me.

Anna Webber as a young girl, before she began her teaching career in Mitchell County in 1881

In the spring of 1881, having passed her teachers examination, Anna began teaching in a one-room building, to which she sometimes referred as a “house.” It was in a small settlement called Blue Hills, Mitchell County, in north-central Kansas. Her contract ran only from May through July.

Anna lived in the home of William and Mary Ann McPeak, who had two young adult offspring – Martha, who went by Mattie, and her brother Arza.

Anna would turn 21 the coming September, and taking this job appears to be the first time she separated from her family for any extended period. Her parents were William Ellsworth Webber and Thankful Delila McDowell Webber. Her mother and two brothers had died by the time Anna turned 8. Based on her diary, Anna was quite close to her younger sister, Charlotte Ellen, whom she called Nellie.

Anna had a lot of adjusting to do. She dealt with recurring homesickness, especially missing Nellie. While she appreciated the quiet beauty of Blue Hills, more than once she grew very tired of it, finding herself longing for some excitement and a change of pace.

The school was “a small frame house” with “three windows and a door.” However, an irksome feature was that there were “no benches, seats, black board or writing desks.” In her first entry she recorded that, as she was writing, she was “sitting on the floor with my paper on ‘the Teacher’s chair,’ which is as high as my chin, (almost)[.] For seats we have two boards placed on rocks.”
She ended her first entry, “I think if I had more scholars, and things more convenient I should like teaching very much.”

One adjustment she had to make was developing what is sometimes called a teacher’s voice. By her own nature she tended to speak low. “[I]t is as natural for me, as it is to see.” She found on the first day that one of her “scholars” (as she almost always called her students) was “some deaf,” and she “hollered” and talked until her throat ached.

At times she showed a delightful, if frustrated, sense of humor, writing once that she was “awfull [sic] tired, and hungry enough to eat a stewed cat, if it was cooked tender, and I didn’t know what it was.”

The weather she described was temperamental, extraordinarily pleasant and beautiful or extremely hot and dry, or hot and humid. One day she wrote, “The wind has blown a perfect hurricane today” and they “had to keep the door shut nearly all the time.” The next day was “dark and cloudy, but cool and suitable to study.” A few days later it rained and turned very cold.

During her three months teaching at Blue Hills, Anna made progress connecting with her students, swinging at times from great satisfaction and joy in her teaching to frustration and back again. One source of frustration was the small number of “scholars” she had in her class, which fluctuated from half a dozen to about 20. A few weeks into her teaching she wrote, “One of my scholars is absent today. I have so few if one is gone I miss it.”

She was determined to become a better teacher and to continue her own education. She tried to allot some of her weekend for self-education and she set a goal to write an essay every Tuesday and Thursday after school. She was not always successful but kept at it. She had struck up a friendship with Mattie, and the two of them, possibly joined by Arza, would occasionally go visiting in the evening.

Anna also had ongoing frustrations with deficiencies in the schoolhouse. The biggest seemed to be the inability to provide her students with a place to sit. On Tuesday, May 24, 1881, she wrote:

I do wish those seats would come! They are not going after them now until they get their corn planted. Then perhaps it will be, “not till after harvest,” and I wouldn’t wonder if by that time it would be “Let’s build a good house first.”

On Friday, June 17, she was once again hopeful, in a tempered sort of way, saying “they have gone after those old seats again. O, I do hope they will get them.” She planned to clean the schoolhouse that night and found it was so horribly “dull and quiet” that she felt she “had lost half my senses.” But she closed, “I think those new seats and black board will rouse me up.”

It was not to be. On Monday she observed, “I just don’t see the reason I have so much bad luck. They did not get those ugly old seats, and I don’t know as they will get them while I am here.” Not only that. She also reported that their table was gone that morning, and she had “the floor and all out of doors to put my books on.”

June turned into July, and Anna joined the local community in celebrating the Fourth of July. It was tinged with sadness when word came that President James Garfield had been shot, but Tuesday, July 5, brought her some joy.

One person gone for a good part of the celebration of the Fourth was William McPeak. He took it upon himself to pick up the seats (Anna doesn’t say from where), not returning until quite late. Anna went to the school by herself that night to look at them and arose early the next morning to clean the schoolhouse. She said the “long-expect seats” were “nice-looking ones.”

She also lost four of her students that morning. They moved to live in another part of the state. But the new seats did raise everybody’s spirits, and she “commenced school that morning on a new scale … the children [were] nearly as proud as I was, and acted like a mess of little crazy bedbugs.” Even though they hadn’t gotten a “black board.”

Anna remained at the school through Wednesday, July 27. She had written two days earlier, “I believe I hate to leave this place, yes I do. I have nice times here, if I am among strangers.” She had become friends with Arza and, especially, Mattie. She thought she might “never see some of my scholars again.”
Anna Webber did teach some more in the Blue Hills school and other Mitchell and Lincoln County townships, and in Nuckolls County, Nebraska. She also taught at the Kansas Industrial School for Girls in Beloit.

Arza went on to marry Serena Elizabeth Little in 1884 and become a member of the school board in Hunter, Kansas. In 1895 he and his wife named their second daughter Ethel. Ethel would marry the man hired to teach at the one-room school in Hunter. His name was Alva P. Horner. Their first son was Arthur L. Horner.

Art was my dad.

About the Author

John Arthur Horner of the Missouri Valley Room has a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from UC-Santa Barbara, as well as a deep love of history. He is an award-winning playwright and member of the Dramatists Guild of America. He lives in Independence with his wife, two pianos, and their multitude of books.


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