I was surprised the first time I laid eyes on the tiny, white building on what is now the corner of K Road 900 and 150th Street in rural Greenwood County. My mother, Olive Bennett, had just told me that this was where I would be attending school in the fall. When I looked around and saw only the rolling Flint Hills in every direction, I felt alone. Because of the death of my father, I had attended only four months of kindergarten at Random School in Eureka, Kansas where we lived. Random was only about six blocks from our home and I thought it was the biggest and best building that I had ever seen. There were about thirty kids in my class and I knew them all by the end of the year. Miss Steel was my teacher and I loved her. Like many of my teachers at Random School, she was an older unmarried woman and teaching was her life.
My dad returned home from World War II in 1946 only to die from Melanoma in 1949. My mom was left alone in Eureka with her two young sons. My brother, Dennis, was one year older than me and going into the second grade. My mother had completed two years at Sterling College in Sterling, Kansas. She was not qualified to teach in the city school system because they required certification and a college degree. She was, however, qualified to teach in the Kansas Rural School System with only two years of college under her belt. Her first year of teaching was in 1938 in Belmont, Kansas. That job lasted only one year. My mother and father got married on New Year’s Day but had to keep it a secret until the end of the school year. Women teachers at that time, especially in some of the rural areas, were not allowed to be married.
In the fall of 1950, my mother took the job at Wall Street. It was located about six miles west of Eureka on a partially dirt road. Six miles seems a short distance now, but in 1950 it was long and tedious. The road was dusty, muddy and often snow covered. Older cars and tires in Kansas’ freezing and blazing weather made the going even more difficult.
My mother had decided to have my brother and me attend Wall Street school that year. It was really her only choice. I was to be a first grader and my brother was entering the second grade. I have always told people that my brother’s class that year was twice the size of mine. I was the only first grader and my brother had a classmate. I’ve tried remembering how many children were in the school that year. I think the total was eight to ten. My mom was the janitor, music teacher, art instructor and solely responsible for teaching first grade through eighth. How was that even possible?
The school was cozy and fun. It seemed that the kids all got along so well. The school was located in an area homesteaded by Swedish Lutherans. All the students respected the teacher and pretty much did what was asked of them. The Kansas Department of Agriculture set the districts for the rural schools depending on population. The farmers and their families in that district made up the local school board. They were in charge of the school and grounds. They maintained the school playground equipment, knocked down the weeds, painted the buildings, cut the fire wood, cleaned the two outhouses, kept the outside water pump handle usable in the winter, and paid the teacher. Mother got paid for nine months out of the year. Budgeting for her family to cover those summer months must have been tough. I wouldn’t know and she never said.
The school had no running water or gas propane heat. Wall Street did, however, have electricity ... but not all the schools did. There was a large potbelly stove near the back of the room and a piano against the side wall. We had a water bucket with one dipper for a thirsty drink. There was a table sandbox … boy, did I love that thing. I remember there were two pictures on the on the walls. One was of George Washington above the teacher’s desk and the other was The Angelus on the back wall. There was a chalkboard wall at the front of the classroom. It was divided by chalk lines that separated each grade’s activities. Our desks were attached back to back with the youngest students toward the front. The teacher’s bell that once sat on my mother’s desk at Wall Street now sits on her granddaughter’s desk in a Kansas City classroom.
The winter months were the hardest for Mom. Dennis would go out and scrape the windows and start the car to warm it up. It usually started. We had to get to the school an hour before the students arrived to heat up the room. I would sit in the warm car while Dennis and Mom would carry in the firewood. Being an old farm girl, she had no trouble starting the fire. Dennis would run back to the car for warmth. Mother would motion us in when things warmed up. Dennis was in charge of shutting off the engine.
I know how hard it must have been on my mother to handle all of this only months after her husband and our dad had died. We never heard a complaint...ever. We loved that school year. I didn’t know it then, but that one year of life experience at Wall Street School was immeasurable. It’s sweetness and simplicity built a framework for how I choose to view the world.
My first grade year was the swan song for Wall Street School. Due to low enrollment, the school was closed in the spring of 1951. My mother took a job at Union School east of town and Dennis and I returned to Random School where we spent the rest of our grade school years. Mother taught at Union for four more years before accepting a job at Mulberry School in Eureka. During the summers between Wall Street and Mulberry, my mother attended Kansas State Teachers College (Emporia State) to finish her degree. Dennis and I spent those lazy summers at my grandmother’s farm fishing and playing in the barn with our cousins.
Mother had an unexpected but pleasant shock to teaching in the public school system. She told me, a number of years later that just pushing open the unlocked doors to a warm school building in the morning and walking up the bright and shiny stairs to her clean room was an unimaginable luxury. There was a janitor, music teacher, art teacher, counselor and a principal. She thought she had died and gone to heaven. She taught fourth grade until she retired at the age of seventy. I still run into people that tell me Mrs. Bennett was their favorite teacher. She never remarried but lived a full and happy life. I loved her very much.
It is gone now and has been for seven decades. All evidence of the magic that happened on that little corner in the Flint Hills has vanished. Native grasses cover the grounds again. The old term for this is “Go-Back-Land.” One would never guess that, once upon a time, there was a school on that happy corner. Once upon a time, hundreds of children got their start in that cozy, white and simple one-room school house called Wall Street School.