Memories of a one-room schoolhouse, and a great teacher

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Farm Forum

STEWARTVILLE, Minn. — Robert Lee can imagine a much different, and a less happy, life if not for his seventh- and eighth-grade teacher Shirley Hahn.

Lee almost certainly would have been a dropout if not for Hahn. She convinced Lee he could learn and school could be fun, which for a farm boy back then, was a revelation as startling as seeing pigs fly.

Lee has never stopped feeling a sense of gratitude for those experiences, six decades after having her as a teacher.

Hahn taught in a one-room schoolhouse outside Dexter. Such schools were once the norm in rural Minnesota decades ago but are nearly extinct today. There were no Smart Boards, no iPads, no distance learning. Yet, none of that mattered if you had inspiring, enthusiastic teaching. And Lee found that in Hahn, the kind of caring teacher he never imagined existed up until then.

“She always told me, ‘I can do what I want to do. I can be what I wanted to be,'” Lee said. “I wouldn’t have went to high school without her.

Now living at the Stewartville Care Center, Hahn, 90, still gets visits from surviving former students, sharing and evoking memories of a bygone time.

In the early 1950s, Hahn was a young 20-something teacher, writing lessons on a slate blackboard while students sat at wooden desks with inkwells. The school had a bell-tower on top, and all the students, from first through eighth grade, gathered in a single room to learn.

“I had to make lesson plans, and you had to have a plan for every grade,” Hahn recalled. “So, you can imagine what you had to squeeze into a one-room schoolhouse.”

One-room schoolhouses are all but a memory now. But at the turn of the 20th century, they were where most rural students received their educations. Children lived within walking distance of their country schools. Each grade had three to four students, all in the same classroom, the older ones helping the young ones learn.

But the system created a dizzying patchwork of districts of uneven quality. Many lacked the funds to purchase books and teaching tools and were seen as lacking the facilities of larger districts. The schoolhouses began to disappear in the late 1960s after the Minnesota Legislature passed a law mandating consolidation of all districts without elementary and secondary levels.

Allan Sprung, a classmate of Lee’s who also had Hahn as a teacher, said the schoolhouse was often the cultural center of a farming community.

And it didn’t take long for parents and community members in School District 98, outside of Dexter, to develop a favorable opinion of Hahn, the school’s newest teacher.

“They were very glad that she decided to teach there,” Sprung recalled.

For students similar to Lee, Hahn was nothing short of a revelation. Up until then, school had been a grind, and teachers distant figures of authority, if not the enemy outright.

School had been a special horror for Lee. Raised on a nearby farm, he suffered from an undiagnosed learning disability and was seen as incorrigible by teachers. At the time, teachers were free to be physically abusive toward students, and Lee recalled being kicked in the shins and returning home with scratches on his arms.

He said he learned to hate school.

And then Hahn arrived, and suddenly school, once shot in dreary black-and-white, took on the hues of technicolor. Hahn had a knack for making learning fun. During the Christmas season, she had her students put on one-act plays on a makeshift stage. She organized model airplane contests, inviting community members to serve as judges.

In softball games during recess, students competed to get Hahn on their teams because she was the best ball player.

Hahn’s gifts included knowing the value of patience, Lee said. She believed in her students, former students say. She discovered their strengths and appealed to them. She recognized that students learn in different ways. With Lee, for example, she learned that if you read the words to him, he absorbed the information much quicker than if he read it himself.

“The one thing about Shirley is she’s loved by all — anybody who had ever met her,” Sprung said. “Here us kids who were 13, 14 years old, we hadn’t had a teacher that we really liked, dare I say. I actually looked forward going to school.”

And it wasn’t as if Hahn was getting rich being a teacher. She said she started out making $75 per month. Eventually, that figure rose to $200 after receiving a strong review from the county superintendent.

“I felt like I was getting the world,” she said.

For Lee, the lessons learned in Hahn’s classroom became lifelong touchstones. He would go on to serve in the National Guard, become a salesman and a floor-covering subcontractor, a husband and father. Now 77 and retired in Rochester, Lee is a lifetime removed from those experiences, yet the vividness of those schoolhouse memories has barely dimmed.

Hahn only taught for about a decade, eventually leaving teaching to raise a family. But she always retained the ability to inject a sense of festivity into a moment.

“We had such a fun childhood,” said her daughter, Karen Morrow. “We always had Halloween parties, you name it. We had fun, not just in childhood but as big kids.”

For many of Hahn’s former students, the relationships forged in that one-room school turned into enduring friendships. Their get-togethers are filled with stories and memories about an era long gone.

“I also remember playing ball with you boys,” Hahn recently told a couple of former students now in their 70s. “You know, fun is a part of learning. We had a fun, but at the same time, they were learning.”