November 8th, 1909
Pinkerton School, Outside of Treherne, Manitoba
Marjory is sixteen years old.
I’m nervous. I imagined this moment over and over—on the train; in a cold attic bedroom last night. I had my gestures, my introductions planned beautifully. But now that I’m standing in front of my eight pupils, I have a sudden loss of confidence. I’m just sixteen. I’ve completed grade 10 and four weeks of teacher training. That’s all. I have a third-class teaching certificate but no experience whatsoever. I only got this post because the teacher was dismissed in the middle of the term. Some scandal, I’ve gathered, but I don’t know what. I just know I’ve been handed an opportunity, as young and inexperienced as I am. This is my chance to make something of myself, to prove myself as a teacher. Who knows? Maybe I can even complete my second-class certificate someday. If I don’t, I’ll be condemned to teach in these tiny one-room schools forever.
Pinkerton School is a decent school at least. It has clapboard siding, a proper foundation, and a cellar, an anomaly for most one-room schools. Light filters into the cellar through tiny windows, illuminating a woodpile. I am responsible for the schoolroom stove and the task is simple enough, or so Mr. Carter, the school board trustee, explained to me very early this morning: run enough wood to last a day from the woodpile in the cellar, back up the narrow steps to the wood box by the stove. Make a fire, and stoke it well first thing and again at lunch. That will keep us warm. I put on an act of bewilderment so he carried enough wood to last a few days and lit the fire for me. I’ll have to figure out the process eventually or we’ll freeze in our desks.
Three windows, trimmed in emerald green, run up both sides of the schoolhouse. From these windows, I see a swing for the children, a flagpole with the Union Jack, and the outhouse roof, the actual structure built just over the hill, exasperatingly out-of-sight of the schoolroom windows. I’ll never know if a student is using the privy or is just out to stretch their legs.
The schoolroom is small but adequate. Eight children sit in their desks, facing mine, though twelve children could be accommodated. They look at me evenly—freshly scrubbed faces peeking out of cotton and gingham. The little ones sit in the front; the bigger ones, in the back. There may be eight pupils, but there may be many grades represented. The district inspector warned me that many children attend school sporadically and their ages and grades won’t correspond to educational norms. This is the reality of country schools, he said. Farm work comes first. And then there’s foul weather. Few children go to school when the weather is poor. And then there’s the extreme cold, of course. One can hardly expect a six-year-old to walk two miles to school when the thermometer rests at minus 35. That wouldn’t be safe. And then illness can take hold, to both children and parents. He droned on and on. Immigration, pestilence, poverty, and acts of God—it seemed miraculous that any of the children attend at all, never mind leave Pinkerton with a proper education.
I promised to keep a watchful eye on potential gaps in their understanding and the inspector was mollified. He promised to visit shortly but warned me that the hundred schools under his supervision took him a great many months to inspect and I shouldn’t hope to see him for quite some time. I took comfort in that.
I may only be sixteen, but I have my family’s confidence, and the Province of Manitoba’s, more or less. I don’t think there are high expectations for third-class teachers in rural schools, but I’ve been certified and sent regardless.