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VU 10

   

In another narrative Addie Lenora Lawton McClain tells of her life in pioneer days. At the bottom of that story I attached a continuance of the story by her daughter Grace McClain Petterson.

Grace told how her mother had suffered a stroke while living with Lula Lawton McGhan, a rural schoolteacher, who was Addie's half sister and some 19 years younger. This is a narrative of Lula Lawton McGhan written by her oldest grandson Barry McGhan who is also a retired schoolteacher, living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Lula McGhan: Biography of a Rural School Teacher
Barry McGhan

This biography is little more than an outline of the life and times of Lula McGhan-and may contain inaccuracies as well. For one who has known her, it will not provide new insights so much as it will serve to evoke memories of times past. Your additions and corrections are welcome and will be included in any expanded version of the biography.

On May 29, 1887 a daughter, Lula Elizabeth was born to Lyman and Sarah Lawton, who lived in Wexford County, Michigan,at a place called Meauwataka. Mr. Lawton was a farmer, carpenter, and lay minister in the Free Methodist Church. He and his wife Sarah, who had been a school teacher in New York State, reared a poor but happy family which eventually included two boys, Stowell and Lloyd, and five girls, Ethel, Maude, Lula, Winifred, and Addie (Addie was Lyman's daughter by a previous marriage); a third boy, Earl died in childhood.

Lula's earliest memories were of the hard times following the Panic of 1893. Once, for example, one of her brothers was scheduled to make a declaration at a temperance meeting, and Lula wanted to attend but didn't have a good dress. She solved this problem by having her mother turn an old dress inside out so that she could wear it under her second-hand coat--a coat purchased with the money her mother received from selling hair cut from the tresses of Lula and her sister Maude. On another occasion, at Christmas, the family had no money for gifts or treats. So, one of the neighbors gave the children popcorn balls--and that was all they received that year.

Lula started school at the age of seven, and soon discovered that it was the one place she most loved to be. Her passion for schooling was so great that she would, if ill or without suitable clothing, try to conceal the fact from her parents so that they would not keep her home. Once out of the house, she would run as fast as she could in order to be too far away to hear if they called her back.

In April of 1900, when Lula was almost thirteen, the family moved by train to Mason County and settled on a farm on "the big hill" a few miles south of the village of Custer. She completed the 8th grade at Resseguie School near there and then entered Custer High School for a time.

Near her birthday in 1905 she took and passed a teacher's examination, which qualified her to teach grades onethrough eight in any one-room school in the county. There were probably several reasons for her choice of vocation. Her love of school was undoubtedly the most important, and because she had been an avid student it was easy for her to pass the examination. The fact that her mother had been a teacher may also have had some influence in the matter.

In October 1905, she began her first year of teaching at LaSalle School in the northern part of the county. Most teachers considered this school one of the less desirable ones because of its distance from the towns in the area, and Lula was forced to take it because of her lack of training and experience. The district was composed largely of Danish, Swedish, and Polish immigrants, and the language and cultural differences she encountered compounded the problems she faced as an inexperienced first-year teacher.

The school was small, with less than 20 students-most of them in the lower grades. A compulsory school law-requiring attendance until age 16 or completion of the eighth grade-had been passed earlier that year , and if it had been strictly enforced, Lula would have been forced to contend with a number of 14-15 year olds in the lowest grade levels. Since it wasn't well enforced most of these youngsters didn't attend school.

The image of Lula, at age 18, away from home for the first time, in the company of people with customs foreign to her, and starting her first year of teaching with not much more than an eighth-grade education behind her, seems a bit phenomenal. An incident that occurred that year illustrates her character.

Near the end of the year a rather overbearing mother came to the school one morning and asked for a word in private. Lula sent the children outside, and soon found herself listening to an increasingly loud dissertation on how to teach. The tirade continued past the time to start school, so she rang the bell calling the children in, hoping the woman would take the hint and leave, but…she raved on. The children, accustomed to opening school in song, got out their Knapsacks and Lula started them singing, drowning the mother out and sending her sputtering off to complain-in vain-to the school board.

For her first year she received a salary of $210. The next year she moved on to Chambers School (which was closer tohome), and the next year she moved again, to Locke School near Carr Settlement in the southern part of the county.

While at Chambers she met another young teacher named Lula McGhan. They became friends and visited each other often. Through Lula McGhan, she met Lula's brother Oscar, whom she married on June 28, 1908. She them quit teaching and the young couple moved into Ludington where Oscar worked in a basket factory. About thirteen months after they were married they had a son, Lawrence. But misfortune lay ahead, for soon after his son was born Oscar contracted tuberculosis, and died nine months later in May 1910, at the age of 26.

Widowed and jobless, Lula took her infant son and moved back to her parents farm, where they lived for the nextcouple of years. Not wishing to add to the financial burden of her parents she helped support the family by working on neighboring farms.

During this time she decided to return to teaching, but by then the minimum certification requirements had beenincreased to include one year of professional training in a normal school. In preparation for entrance into Mason County Normal in Ludington, Lula brushed up on her studies by sitting in on the eighth grade at nearby Resseguie. She then left her son with her parents and entered Normal in the fall of 1912, supporting herself by working as a doctor's housekeeper.

There were 19 girls and one boy in her normal class, all younger then she, and none has had any prior teachingexperience. The staff consisted of a principal and one critic teacher. These two conducted classes in methodology, and supervised the normality's' practice sessions with the children who attended the county normal laboratory school. The school--typical of its type--offered a curriculum which included such courses as "Educational Psychology," "Teaching," and "Teacher's Courses," but no academic subjects. In the fall of 1913, Lula took a job as Jenks School south of Custer, while her son remained with his grandparents. After two years, she moved to Walhalla School, making this move because another widow with children had taught there, and she figured that the school board would let her son live with her, too.

In 1917 she moved to Wiley School, where she and Lawrence lived in a back room in the school. It was at aboutthis time that she finished high school and began taking summer courses for a life certificate at Central State Normal School (now Central Michigan University).

It was at Wiley that another memorable incident occurred. Just before a mid-winter school party some of the older boys got into some liquor. Of course, they came to the party and disrupted it. Unluckily for them, Lula's Free Methodist upbringing got the best of her and she chased them off with an axe. Following this incident she awoke one morning to discover that someone had hung a dead cat on the school door. Not one to let students get the upper hand, Lula whacked off the animal's paws and slipped one into the jacket pocket of each of the suspected culprits. Curiously, she never mentioned the cat--and they never mentioned the cat's paws.

After Wiley, Lula and Lawrence moved on to Victory township where she taught at Town hall school from 1919 to 1923. First at Walhalla, then later at Wiley and Town hall schools, her son was one of her students. This presented no problem to strong-willed and determined Lula, but it did on occasion present a problem to Lawrence. For instance, one of the few times she resorted to corporal punishment she started with him--even though he had done nothing wrong--so that no one could accuse her of showing parental favoritism.

In 1923 she bought a house in Scottville (where she still lives) so that Lawrence could go to high school. The move to town brought to a close a period of hardship, which had forged a strong bond between mother and son. From the fall of 1923 until Lawrence graduated from Central Michigan in 1932 Lula taught at Star School in Victory Township. Always before, she had lived within walking distance of the school where she was teaching, and in fact had gained quite a reputation as a long distance walker by this time. But, purchasing a house in town made the travel distance so great that it became necessary for her to buy a car, and so in 1924 she bought the first of her three Chevy coupes.

In 1932 she took a job at Resseguie School--by then located in a different building from the one she attended as astudent--at the invitation of that school's district board. Several interesting circumstances were to arise during the six years she was at this school. For one thing, she had several nieces and nephews in her classes for the first time. This was because some of her sisters had married and settled in the same area where the old Lawton homestead was located. This presented a somewhat ticklish problem, especially with one of her sister's children, because Lula had not been on speaking terms with that sister's husband for several years. Happily, the feud ended rather abruptly one day while she was shopping in Scottville. She happened to be in a particularly fine mood that day, and cheerfully greeted everyone she saw. Her brother-in-law was in town too, and by mistake she spoke to him when they met. Down the drain went the feud!

It was also while she was at Ressiguie that Lawrence returned from college and met a Flint girl named Lois Ressiguie, who was visiting her grandparents for the summer. They married in the fall of 1934 and moved to Flint, where Lawrence began teaching in a junior high school.

In 1938 the Ressiguie Board decided they wanted a new teacher for their school. The reason is not clear, but it is probably because they felt that the children needed a change, rather than because they were unhappy with Lula's work. Unfortunately, they delayed notifying her of the change until she found out about it through the grapevine at a spring teachers meeting. The news came so late in the year that she had some difficulty finding a job for the next fall.

From Ressiguie she moved on to Center Riverton School for three years, where she taught the upper grades in a two-room school. Then she returned to her favorite school, Star (Victory) where she ended her 44-year career in 1954.

In the next few years she continued her association with Mason County students as a substitute teacher and as a tutor. Now in her 85th year, she no longer teaches, but is still known to many hundreds of former students throughout the county. Surprisingly at her age, she even survived the shock of her son's death in August 1970.

In retrospect, one can see that she was prepared to weather this most recent and perhaps most cruel blow by the yearsof hardship, struggle, and perseverance that had gone before.

Part Two: COMMENTS: An era in Rural Education

Lula's preparation for teaching was typical of thousands of teachers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, since she began teaching with little more than the highest grade level of the children she was expected to teach.

During her career she held at least four different types of certification. The first kind was obtained by merelytaking a teacher's test (the precise name of this certificate is not known). The second type was a county normalcertificate, the third a second grade certificate , and the fourth a normal life certificate. All except the lastneeded to be renewed periodically.

Lula's career also serves to illustrate the organizational structure of rural education. For most of her career she worked under the authority of a County Commissioner of Schools, County Board of Examiners, and three-man district school board. Mason County contained at least 35 of these districts in their heyday. The districts were spread over 15 townships, and were officially called primary school districts because they enrolled less than 75 students in grades one through eight. The districts were named by township and number, but the school's popular name usually came from the family who originally owned the property on which the school was built.

The district board did not have much control over curriculum, but concerned itself mostly with business matters, e.g., taxes, hiring teachers, salaries, school supplies, etc. Since the county commissioner visited each teacher only three or four times a year, the teacher was relatively free to pursue her own course of study, within the restrictions set by required textbooks and state requirements in such areas as physiology and hygiene.

In the early days there was relatively little contact between teachers, and thus few opportunities for professional interaction. Salaries varied from district to district--depending on what the teacher could negotiate. Although the teaching staff of Mason county was relatively stable during her career , , there was considerable shuffling around of personnel throughout the county. In Lula's case most of the moves were made on her own initiative to obtain a better salary. There was never much controversy over salaries among teachers, and they made no attempts to organize themselves to obtain better salaries. They took what they were offered, apparently thankful to have jobs.

In the later years, from the middle twenties on, the teachers in the county were able to get together as often asonce a month to share ideas and learn about new methods of instruction. One organization, the Teachers Reading Circle, was the usual source of new ideas. Eventually, Lula also joined the Michigan Education Association, and its publications and meetings along with her subscription to The Grade Teacher provided additional information.

A typical school day went as follows. Lula would arrive at school before 8:00 AM, start the stove if need be, andmake plans for that coming day and the next. At 9:00 AM school would start with "opening exercises"--singing andthe Pledge of Allegiance. No bible readings were offered because of the multiplicity of strongly held religiousbeliefs in the district. Then the children would begin their reading lessons. Following reading came midmorningrecess, then arithmetic. At lunch, Lula and some of the children stayed at school, while those who lived near enoughwent home to eat. In the afternoon, there was English--grammar and spelling, geography, history, and hygiene. The younger children usually went home at the afternoon recess, and school was over for everyone at 4:00 PM. Lula would wind up the day by sweeping and doing any other janitorial work that needed to be done. She was paid extra for this. Through the years the curriculum outlined above changed only a little; by the late forties, physiology and hygiene had been dropped and science and art had been added.

The idea of having possibly forty children in as many as eight different grades may seem a bit frightening to amodern teacher. Lula handled the problem by organizing the room so that each grade level was in the same subjectarea, say arithmetic, at the same time. She did not have students work together much, but did have them sit ingroups so that she could move around the room giving some time to each. She tried to show the children that she liked them, because she believed that they had to know that in order to achieve well (nowadays we call this showing acceptance of children), and it is probably for this reason that the students were generally cooperative in the group situation.

Occasionally she used older students to supervise the younger ones. The different achievement levels meant that some of the brighter students could work ahead of their age group, while slower ones might even be held back a grade in a certain subject. Passage from grade to grade was based on yearly examinations. Those who passed the eighth grade exam were issued certificates by the County Board of Examiners, and were able to celebrate the event at the annual school picnic held for families of the children of the on the last day of school. Looking back on it, Lula felt that her main problem with the number of different levels in one room was with the complaints she received from the parents, accusing her of showing favoritism when she found it necessary to spend more time with one group than another.

Her involvement with the community was almost exclusively school-related. She visited the homes of her studentsregularly, in order to get to know the home background of the children. These visits were expected and were generally well received. Other after-school activities included PTA meetings--where she would act as chairman, and sometimes present a program of readings--and 4-H club work. A most important change in her relations with parents through the years was that the amount of parental interference lessened. This was no doubt due to the fact that her training and experience had increased enough that most parents felt that she could be trusted to know what she was doing.

Lula's career ended during the middle of the inauguration of a new era of education in Mason County. Ten years beforeshe retired Victory Township had consolidated into a "union" district, and within ten years after she retired, theentire county had consolidated into four districts.

The one-room country schools are closed now, and the children ride shiny buses over smoothly paved roads to big, modern, glass-and-brick school buildings. Somehow, it all seems a little less personal, a little more coldly efficient than in Lula's time. Loss of this personal quality is apparently one of the prices we have to pay for progress. At least, it's one of the prices we have paid.

 

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