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What I learned from country school

Published: Friday, July 11, 2014 10:51 a.m. CST

Let me take you back to a simpler time: a time when children walked to school with their books of poetry and arithmetic securely fastened, not in a North Face vinyl backpack but by a simple clasp or leather belt. It was a time when one-room school houses were heated by wood-burning, pot-bellied stoves, and the only air conditioning was the occasional breeze through an open window. The smell of chalk dust filled the air as children practiced spelling and handwriting on the board for the whole class to see.

For many people of today, this is either a distant memory or a scene of country life recreated in a museum. But for me it seems like not long ago. It has been 24 years since I participated in the week-long country school program at the Iowa State Fair. The program took two students from each grade in the Des Moines Public Schools and gave them a glimpse of what rural school used to entail. And as fair season fast approaches, I cannot wait to return to the old school house, as I do every year, to reflect on where we’ve been and how far we’ve come.

It’s nearly upon us. Footlong corndogs on a stick, giant turkey legs, Wonder Bars and Iowa craft beer will soon be fired, smoked and poured right before our eyes. The 4-H families and livestock farmers will herd their cattle, hogs, goats, horses and llamas from their travel trailers into the pavilions and fair barns in hopes of top sales and top prizes. At night, these showers will set up their mattresses and cots, sleeping right next to the animals they’ve tended to for months and years. Flood light will keep the barns lit throughout the evening for safety but not conducive for sleep. This scene reminds me of what events like the Jasper County and Iowa State Fairs are about: dedication.

This is not the scene, however, of a simple life or lifestyle. Agriculture at a fair is the painstaking culmination of science, education and labor for Iowa farmers and their families; a life that the little boy from Des Moines attending the mock country school was ignorant to all those years ago.

But as I’ve traveled the state interviewing growers and livestock farmers, I’ve learned to appreciate what country school children did in and outside the classroom. I cannot image the exhaustion faced by many of those students, fatigued from the morning chores and anticipating what lay instore on the farm after returning home from their academic endeavors. When I sat at my oak desk during the Iowa State Fair, laughing at the kid demonstrating the dunce camp in the corner, I could not see what my surroundings truly symbolized for Iowa’s past.

But this year, after years of learning the talent and toils that make Iowa’s economy tick, I will look at the one-room school house a little differently, as I walk through to remember the 4-foot-9-inch kindergartner in a plaid button-up and suspenders reciting his first poem at the state fair.

Staff writer Mike Mendenhall may be contacted at mmendenhall@newtondailynews.com.

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