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.
[See what I did during the Summer of 1930, between my two years of teaching at Kensett. See "Go West Young Man, Go West."
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
(Spring 1997) 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.
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.]
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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