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As The Twig Is Bent

Lyle Sladek

        The Conley Schoolhouse was situated in a plot on land at the corner of a field more or less central to several farms in Cleveland Township, South Dakota. Fourteen pupils, the children of farm families struggling to survive in the dust bowl years, attended the Conley School in 1934. These children came to school in horse-drawn buggies, on ponies, or by trudging as far as two miles through fields and pastures. Only on those days when a blizzard was raging or when it was bitterly cold did a favored few ride to school in the family sedan.

        By some quirk of fate, eight of the pupils were boys of nearly the same age five in the third grade and three in the fourth grade. These boys tolerated the school work; they lived for the fifteen minute recess each morning and afternoon. During recess pent-up energy was released in boisterous play, usually without supervision. Favorite recess activities were work-up softball, crack the whip, and snow ball fights from opposing snow forts.
These farm boys were neither mean nor destructive, but they were energetic and mischievous at times. They were a trial for their young teacher, Miss Warner. It was the first year of teaching for Miss Warner. Like many other rural school teachers at that time, she had attended just one year at Normal College before becoming a "school marm."

        As teacher of the Conley School, Miss Warner had the responsibility of teaching the lessons in all eight grades. Beyond that she had to maintain order and take care of housekeeping duties such as starting the fire in the coal stove on winter mornings.

        Located in a field about a quarter of a mile from the schoolhouse was a low swale of land. Melting snow would fill this slough in the Spring. Then, when the weather turned cold, it would freeze over. At that time the boys could think of nothing but skating. Some of the boys owned skates that could be clamped to the soles of their boots. No matter that it took several minutes to clamp them on and just seconds for them to come undone. There was fun to be had just by taking a run and sliding over the ice on leather-soled shoes. One April morning the boys noted the icy sheen on the slough. They could hardly wait for recess that day. They would run over there and have a big time skatingi

        The signal for the end of recess was the appearance of the teacher on the entry step ringing the school bell. But the boys were having too much fun that day and the temptation to continue skating was too great to resist.

        "Let's make believe we can't hear the bell," suggested Wilbur.
        "Yah, just don't anyone look over at the teacher," said Robert Lee.

        So the skating continued, but with many furtive glances in the direction of the school house. Shortly the tension mounted and soon became unbearable.

        "My feet are getting cold," said Duane. "I'm going to head back to school to warm up."
        "Me too," said Franklin.

        The party was over.

        Miss Warner was young and inexperienced. And her year of study at Normal School did not include a course in psychology. Nevertheless her instincts were right on target. She simply ushered the sheepish boys to their desks and proceeded with the lessons as on any other day.

        In later years these eight boys became farmers and mail carriers and merchants and teachers. They reared families and paid their taxes. With the possible exception of Wilbur they became good citizens. Wilbur, it was noted in the local newspaper, got a ticket one day for not making a complete stop at a traffic light.




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