Teacher Teacher
By James E. McEldowney

Can you imagine me being a teacher? Just pretend for a minute that you are a teacher. There you stand, in front of a room of students, and you are expected to tell many wonderful things. Teachers are wonderful people. I owe much to them. When I graduated from college I did not realize how much a teacher had to know. I thought I was pretty smart. I had read ever so many books. But when you stand before a class you wish you knew lots more than you learn at college. Teachers have to study and learn more than their pupils do. I think teachers are very special people and I hope some of you become teachers.

When I became a teacher at Kensett, Iowa in 1928, I was just a few months past my 21st birthday. I was still a young squirt but I was supposed to act like a dignified teacher. What made it all the more funny was that when I got to the school, the Superintendent - the big guy - called me into his office and said, "the teacher we expected to be the Principal is not qualified so you are it!" Me a Principal at 21! with one student just two years younger who must have thought, what can that young fry teach me?

As the Principal I was supposed to keep all the students out of mischief. Only a few day passed when one of the students tried to test my authority. What I said and how I said it I cannot remember but I let the students know I was no push-over. Some time later when I sat up on the platform in charge of "assembly" two girls passed notes to each other and I saw them. I went down to them. "Please, oh please, don't take the note," one of the girls said. I took it and read it. It was not nice - bad enough to make a person blush. Both the girls buried their heads in their arms on the desk wondering what I would do to them. They were so ashamed. I walked back to my desk, sat there and let the girls suffer their own guilt. I learned that the punishment students inflict on themselves is often more severe than anything a Principal can do. Most of the time we had a very happy time together.

Of course I had to teach history and English literature and make out the report cards and do lots of other things. I guess I was so eager to help those students I tried to do everything.

One of the things I did on the side was to start an orchestra and a male quartet. That quartet was my glory. We practiced every noon. My, how they could sing. They won the District Contest and I even took them down to Simpson College where they sang at chapel before the student body. They also sang over the radio station at Ames. Then I decided to have an operetta, BITS OF BLARNEY. It was a happy Irish musical and in it was the Irish jig. I had to learn to jig before I could teach the students how to do it. Then when we put it on one night downtown in a hall over the Drug Store and all of us did the jig together, the windows rattled. It is a wonder the building didn't fall down. I shutter to think of it even now. But what fun we had.

James Benjy Bird, my grandson, named after me, must have had some of my old Irish rubbed off on him. I got a letter today and in it he tells of all the places he has been in Europe. He is a soldier in Bosnia trying to keep the peace. He is a Second Lieutenant in charge of a platoon of men. He takes every chance given him to go to different countries and see how people live. He seems to want to know all he can about everything.

I said he is something like I am. During the summer between the two years I taught I wanted to see new places. I had grown up in Iowa and had never been far from home. I wanted to see what the west was like.

Wilbur Perkins, a college friend and I bought a new model A Ford and drove west. There were miles of grain fields in western Nebraska. What would you do when you saw a mountain for the first time? - take a picture? That's what we did. That night when we stopped at a little hotel up in the mountains we had to drain the water out of the radiator, otherwise the water would freeze and break the radiator. The next day we drove up over the Continental Divide where we threw snow balls at each other. Then we went on to the Bridge of the Gods across the Columbia River and came to Stevenson, Washington and the Ryan Lumber Camp.

My uncle Will and his family welcomed us. They were very kind to let us sleep in their living room. We hadn't any more said hello when we took off up the valley, we were so eager. We came to a mountain stream and both of us stripped off our clothes and jumped in. That water had just come off melting snow and was it ever cold. We set a new record getting out and getting dressed. Then we went back to the house and talked about work in the lumber camp. We got jobs. We were having the time of our lives. On weekends we hiked up into the mountains to the place where they were cutting the giant Douglas fir trees for the mill. We saw them load the 75 ft logs onto a little train that brought them down the mountain to the mill to be cut into lumber.

My most unforgettable weekend was the fourth of July. Wilber and I left right after work the night of the third and drove to Government Camp on the slope of Mt. Hood. We got alpine sticks and joined up with two boys who were also climbing during the night. We left the Camp about nine o'clock, after dark. We climbed up to Timber Line Lodge, which was then only a log cabin with a few bunks in it. We slept a couple of hours. Then we climbed to the top just as it was getting light. It was foggy at first but before long the sun broke through and we could see the whole world. Down south were the Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson. Up north were Mt. Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens. We stayed a couple of hours talking with other climbers before we started down. I had high boots on and would lie back on my alpine stick and go fast over the snow. Then all at once my foot dropped into a depression and I fell flat on my face. I was headed for an outcropping of rocks. The others fellows were ahead and lined up in front of the rocks. They were able to stop me before I crashed into them. I had tried to stop but my hands couldn't break through the crust on the snow. My hands were covered with blisters.

A few days later I had a telegram from my father. "Come home at once. We are both hurt and your mother is in the hospital." We were about to leave when I had further word that mother was out of danger. So Wilbur and I returned to Iowa by way of the west coast.

At Cresent City, California we drove out near the breakers. That was the first time I saw the Pacific Ocean. How thrilled I was. We were even more amazed at the giant redwood trees. How excited we were all the way to San Francisco. I had expected to havem mail there and get a report on how mother was, but there was no word. We jumped in the car and during the next two days we drove right across to Salt Lake City with only one stop. We did go off the road once to drive on the salt beds for a few miles. At Salt Lake City I had mail waiting. Mother was getting better. So we went up to Yellowstone Park. That is another story.

When I got home late Saturday evening I went to the door and mother met me. "We don't take in any strangers here," she said. I was so tanned from working in the sun she didn't recognize me. Soon she knew who I was and welcomed me. I had hardly gotten in the house before she said, "We leave for Robert's Monday morning." Phyllis, her first granddaughter, had been born that week, so we left for Stambaugh, Michigan on Monday.

My second year teaching was even more fun than the first year. I was so eager to get children started in music that I helped a number get musical instruments. I tried to teach them. I also coached the students for the declamatory contest. The night of the contest it was thirty degrees below zero. My ears almost froze off. We had to drive 50 miles to the contest. The Superintendent loaned me his car. When the contest was over and we started home the grease in the running gears had frozen and made a terrible noise. I drove slowly until the heat of the gears thawed the grease. Later that year I also coached the school play.

Students sometimes play tricks on their teachers if they think they can get by with it. We were short of teachers so while I coached the students for the play in another room, I had to put the assembly on their honor. Most of the time it worked but one time when the play was going well a student stuck his head in the door and said, "It is time for school to be out." I looked at my watch. There was still half an hour. I dismissed the actors and went with the student into the assembly room. I asked Melvin to stand. "Look at the clock," I said. He looked. Sure enough it showed four o'clock, time to dismiss school. Then I said, "Melvin you know how to turn the hands of the clock. I could cuss you for turning the clock ahead to four o'clock. Instead I will make you the custodian of the clock. Every morning for two weeks when you come to school you will get up before the students and see that the clock is on time." I think he would rather have had a good whipping.

We had some other hilarious times. I taught a boys Sunday School class at the Methodist church. Halloween came and they wanted a party. During the afternoon I decorated the class room with all kinds of spooky things. The boys came and we had some lemonade and cake, then it was time for stories. I had heard some scary ones and one after the other I told them. Now and then a light would go out in the church. When it was time to go home, not one of those boys would walk alone. I had to walk each one of them to his home.

But there were things more serious. The time came when I had to decide whether I would return to Kensett for a third year. My father had been a Christian minister and all his life he had shown how important it is to serve people. That kept popping up telling me to prepare for the ministry. My father had told me, "learn all you can about God and His world." At last I decided I must go on to Boston University School of Theology, and do what I felt God wanted me to do. It was a terribly hard decision, especially since I had received offers from other schools and the Kensett School Board urged me to return.

I will not forget the night I left Kensett. Many of my students and their parents, 50 or more of them, came to the railway station at three o'clock in the morning, asking me to return for another year. But I felt God had a different plan for me and I must find it. Kensett kept tempting me. Each of the next three years I received letters urging me to return, offering me a much larger salary. It would have made my life easier because I was having a difficult time. I had to earn my own way at the University and it was very difficult.

I think teaching is a wonderful life. After I went to India it was not long before I became a teacher of young people who were going to be church leaders. My experience at Kensett was a big help. Even now, after 67 years, I correspond with a number of those former students and when I go back to Iowa we try to have lunch together. I have held those students and friends in very deep affection throughout the years. They have added joy to my life. I hope you will know that kind of joy too and you will have many very wonderful experiences throughout your lives. [by James E. McEldowney, Spring 1997]

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