Pagosa’s Past: School days: A memory from a country school

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Fil Byrne was the first Pagosa Springs school teacher. Shown in this 1901 photo seated on the rumble seat of the wheel horse, Byrne is leading the boys’ band in the annual Fourth of July parade.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

I’m sure there are at least a few old-timers who share my memories of country school. Some of those are good memories and some are not so good. I recall a day when we had a substitute teacher. Everything was going as per normal starting with the ring of the school bell — a real bell hanging in the bell tower above the red, shingled roof. If you were being good, sometimes the teacher would let you ring the bell.

On that particular day, I sort of forgot about being good. Sitting in front of me was the other fourth-grade student, a goody-goody, pig-tailed girl who eagerly assumed responsibility for making the rest of us be good.

Well, I couldn’t help noticing that one of those pigtails hung within a tantalizing distance of the bottle of black ink ensconced in the upper right corner of my desk. Without capturing her attention, I managed to maneuver the pigtail into the ink bottle and settle back with a self-satisfied, buck-toothed grin lighting up my freckle-spattered face. 

Ker-whop! The next thing I knew I was pulling myself off the floor and back into my desk. “What happened!” I wondered. My left hand soothed the sharp pain invading my right shoulder. Suddenly, the answer appeared.

“Surprised you, didn’t I, young man?” The teacher’s face was about 3 inches in front of my face and the gleaming eyes dared me to try something. I didn’t cry. The older boys were watching. I didn’t want them to think I was a sissy. I thought about walking out, but where would I go? I could tell her my mom was president of the school board and she’d better watch out if she wanted her paycheck.

The longer I thought about telling my mom, the more I realized I was building a bigger problem. I knew what mom would do. She favored one of those big French knives for slicing meat and chopping vegetables and such. It had another use that I tried to avoid. She’d go into the kitchen, rummage around through the silver drawer and come back patting the flat of that knife against her hand. Her eyes accented everything she said.

“You know those willows growing down on the creek where the cows drink? I want you to find a green willow about this long.” She stretched out her arms, handed me the knife and threatened, “Don’t be long about it or I’ll tell your dad. You know what he’ll do.” It was her top threat.

I grabbed the knife and ran out the door. I did know what Dad would do. He didn’t believe in willow whips. He’d grab the nearest arm right above the elbow and start kicking the rear side of my sitting apparatus, barely allowing me to stay on my feet as I circled the room, the boot-clad foot right behind, kicking, kicking, kicking. My caterwauling should have scared the cows grazing way out in the pasture.

If they had child-abuse laws in those days, I didn’t know about ‘em. Neither did my friends. Even so, we all grew up working hard and living respectable, law-abiding lives.

Those were the days, my friend.

 

This story was posted on May 12, 2020.