One Room

Visions of an Iowa Icon
Michael P. Harker

(University of Iowa Press)
The one-room schoolhouses do bring back the memories, don't they? The ideal, the education for everyone, you and me and Buck the farmhand who at fourteen could barely fit behind the desk but he was so big you never laughed at him or he would get you down in the playground behind the school and grind his knee in your back your face in the dirt and shut your goddam mouth he'd say. Wally Ennis lisped and we all laughed at until they took his mom over to the state hospital in Brighton and that Sue Lockheart who they said would kiss for a quarter but you never had enough change so you never could try it out.

That was our one-room schoolhouse there in the north part of the state just outside of Burcock the snow so high on the ground that they had to pack it down so you could get in the door but they never canceled classes on account of the weather you didn't do that in up-country Iowa.

In the winter, you fried or froze depending where you were sitting, near too near or too far from the old Rochester coal-fire stove with its chimney coming up to go through the ell in the side wall. You sat behind Emma, no pig-tails in the inkwell, we were beyond inkwells by the time we got there.

And our teacher? Most were what they then called "Old Maids:" Miss Bumble, Miss Batterby, Miss Barnes, Miss Buford, Miss Butterfield out there in Burcock. The one-room schoolhouse in Burcock shows up as one of the fifty or so black-and-white photographs here: the stove at the back, the wind-up Victrola, the portative organ, Lincoln hanging to the left, Washington to the right, McGuffey's Eclectic Reader on each of the twenty-four desktops.

I sat one over from Donald Lamarr whose mother had died of "the fever." His family were dirt poor dirt farmers and he sweated, stank in the spring and the fall but not in the winter because it was too cold to stink. He was a natural-born cartoonist, made pictures of Miss Butterfield in his notebook which he always showed me but she never caught him. Once I was reading a comic book in class and since we were in the back of the room I thought she wouldn't see but she was light on her feet and I was engrossed in "Terry and the Pirates" and she came up behind me, grabbed me by the hair, pulled my head back and hissed in my face upside-down: "What do you mean?"

Since I didn't know what I meant except that I preferred "Terry and the Pirates" to McGuffey's Eclectic Reader I didn't say anything she scared me but I remember Miss Butterfield lived alone with her brother Amos who was as tall as a scarecrow. He scarcely ever left the house except at night him with his moonblue eyes they said he was creeping around. The Yeagers say he was a peeping Tom: Art Yeager who had 240 acres bottom-land caught him outside the girls' bedroom, Art got him with his turkey-shoot 20-gauge, peppered his back and his bum with salt, Amos squealing like a pig hopping away his jeans down around his ankles blood on his backside him falling getting up again falling down in the street yelling, "Please don't hurt me Art please don't I'm sorry please..."

Miss Butterfield didn't say anything about it in class that week only her mouth a little tighter. Some say they saw Amos on the milk run the next day (we never saw him again) but I remember thinking maybe that was why she was so downhome mean with her hair pinched up in a bun. She may have hated the world that wouldn't let her brother Amos do what he needed as long as it didn't hurt anyone he didn't mean no harm she thought but he had to leave and she lived the rest of her days alone in the dark cottage at the edge of Burcock: no one to cook for no one to clean up no one to care for after he was gone.

--- Art Coker
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