Thistles Cut, Ironing Done


Last night another of those dreams came. It was September. I was trying to enroll in another year at Oshkosh State Teachers College but I couldn't find the registrar's office. It is hard to believe that after fifty years those dreams come. My feet seem caught in deep sand as I search for the class I am supposed to attend. With intense effort I go down first floor corridors and then on second floor hallways toward the illusive goal. Other times I dream that I enrolled in a course but never attended even one class session. The term is ending and I am trying desperately to find out what was studied so that I can take the final exam.

When I was in college I actually did go for a final examination at l:00 PM instead of 9:30 AM. In those days the schedule for examinations was posted on bulletin boards in the Main Building. Making copies for each student was unheard of. Xerox and other easy ways of copying had not been invented. A time for the Art exam was so firmly in my mind that when a friend in the same class asked me what time it was to be, I simply told her l:00 PM on Thursday. She didn't question or check the list for herself. When both of us turned up that afternoon for the test we faced a very angry Mrs. Behnke. She focused her attention on me because I had given Bernice the wrong information. In such circumstance, Mrs. Behnke probably would not have been required to give us the test. When our grades were posted outside the classroom a few days later we had A's. We were surprised but very grateful. Perhaps Mrs. Behnke had already forgotten our names.

The teacher of our English composition course required that each of us have a personal conference with her during the semester. I made the appointment with her but completely forgot to go to see her. That didn't help my already wavering grades. English composition was not my special strength.

The city of Oshkosh began as a center for the lumber industry. It is located where the Fox River flows into Lake Winnebago. When I enrolled in the Teachers College in 1933, fine hard-woods, maple, oak and elm lined the residential streets.

Ruby Roeder was a sophomore at the college that year. She was a friend from my high school days. I felt confident that Ruby could help me adjust to college life. We rented a room on Lincoln Avenue in a large old-fashioned house. Many of the large homes surrounding the college had been revamped to accommodate students. Our room was pleasant enough with two west windows. It was equipped with a gas-plate, table for our meals, a study table and a dresser and double bed. A closet stored our clothes and extra foods we might have on hand. We shared the bathroom with others who rented upstairs rooms. If one of us had to stay up later than the other to study or finish a term paper we hung Ruby's pajama bag on the side of the table lamp so as to shade the one who slept.

Oshkosh was only forty miles from our homes but we did not go home on weekends regularly. Forty miles was farther in those days than now. When we did go home, Ruby's parents and my parents took turns getting us on Friday afternoons and taking us back to Oshkosh on Sunday. Snow and ice sometimes made traveling difficult in winter. We preferred not to make the trip. Our mothers cooked foods for us to reheat on our gas plate so we feasted for a few days after a weekend at home. There was a cold place at the top of the attic stairs where we could keep perishables in winter. Fast food places, instant soups and frozen dinners were unknown. There were no restaurants near the college. Even if there had been we could not have patronized them. We needed to economize every way possible. We bought bread at a neighborhood store at nine cents a loaf. A quart bottle of milk was ten cents. Each of us paid two dollars a week for our room.

I remember that nearly all my dresses or skirts and blouses were made over from dresses of an older cousin. Irene had lots of clothes and money to buy more. When she tired of an outfit or if a dress shrunk when it went to the dry-cleaners she gave it to me. A red wool dress that just fit me after it had been cleaned was a favorite. I felt grown-up when I wore it with high heeled black shoes. Martha Zeibert lived in Markesan. She was a spinster who made her living sewing for people of the community. In spring and fall we went to get her to spend the day at our house making my clothes. We redesigned Irene's clothes. I remember a green jacket and skirt that I wore with pleasure for a long time. Occasionally we bought new material to use. Miss Seibert and my mother never could realize that a size fourteen pattern was not my size. They always thought I would grow.

When I graduated from high school my parents gave me a fountain pen. All pens of that time were refilled from a bottle of ink. A lever created a vacuum in a rubber liner inside the case to draw in the ink. Girls did not use pens that could be clipped onto a pocket or notebook. A ring on one end allowed it to be strung on a ribbon which I wore around my neck. I used the pen all four years of college and several years later. A pen was a big investment for a student.

I was graduated from a small-town high school in a class of twenty-six. Even though Oshkosh State Teachers College (Now Oshkosh State University with an enrollment of ten thousand or more.) had an enrollment of only seven to eight hundred students it seemed worlds away from the educational environment of Markesan, Wisconsin. The college had only four buildings. The Demonstration School, an Industrial Arts building, the Main Building and the Men's Gymnasium. Main was built on two floors with classrooms surrounding the library and locker rooms. Each of us had a locker for our coats, hats and umbrellas as well as text books or other equipment we might need but found inconvenient to carry to each class. The college had no dormitories or cafeteria. The College Store located next to the locker rooms stocked pens, pencils, paper supplies and "blue books." Almost every week of my senior year I had enough courage to buy a candy bar at the Store.

To help pay college fees Ruby worked part time in the library under the National Youth Administration program. She was enrolled as an English major. Her interest in prose and poetry encouraged mine. Thinking back, I remember that she started recommending books for me to read even when we were in high school. Ruby also introduced me to star-gazing. A few steps from the room we shared, a door opened onto the roof of the front porch. On clear autumn and winter nights we slipped on our warm bathrobes to go out on that roof. There Ruby pointed out the brilliant constellation Orion and other stars and planets. When our children were young I passed along my interest in astronomy. They mouthed the stars Betelgeuse, Rigel, Sirius and the names of the planets by the time they were three years old. Two-year old Alan looked out a low window at the western sky one evening, and said, "There's Venus." Joel and James had already taught him some of what they knew. In the years to follow Ruby became a librarian. She presented them with one of the best books for children or adults, The Stars by H. E. Rey. Isn't it wonderful that after living with me three years Ruby is still a friend?

When I tried to register that first year in college with a major in biology, those in charge looked at the little girl that I was and said, "You can't teach biology. You are a woman!" They decided I could teach small children. I hoped to be able to teach as soon as possible so as to draw a salary rather than be dependent on my parents in those depression years, the 1930's. I enrolled in a two-year Primary Education course. Beginning two- year students carried a heavy load of eighteen credit hours plus six-weeks of Health Education and a class in Library Lectures. The head librarian taught us the set-up of the library and how to use it. She gave long assignments to develop our skills. We learned the Dewey Decimal System and how to check out our textbooks and how to check out books on reserve reading lists. Books on reserve could only be kept out overnight or used in the library. We did not buy textbooks. Those beginning weeks were more than busy with much reading for our other classes and the adjustment to study on a college level.

A course with which I was totally unfamiliar was physical education. What with growing up on a farm and going to a high school where participation in sports was not offered, I had no knowledge of games like volley ball, tennis, handball or ping pong. Badminton was something I had never even heard of. We were expected to participate in each game at sometime during the year. I was not even skillful at catching a softball let alone hitting one with a bat. Then one day Miss Perkins asked the class, "Can anyone do a handstand or cartwheels?" I was amazed when a couple of girls promptly went to the middle of the gym floor and demonstrated. I was so impressed that I determined to learn to do just a handstand. In the evenings I practiced throwing my hands down a short distance from the wall and putting my feet up on it. One day our landlady came to investigate the thumps she was hearing but she didn't discourage me. As the tumbling classes continued the group held me on top of the pyramid or on the ends doing a handstand. Later in the year I learned to play volleyball with girls playing after the hours of our regular classes. I was very pleased when I was finally able to serve the ball over the net.

One of the features of college I really liked was the Assembly we were required to attend for an hour on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Many students liked to skip these sessions. Perhaps they were bored, but I found the programs and speeches introduced me to ideas and activities that were new to me and it was an hour that didn't need any preparation and I could just sit back and enjoy it. The two secretaries of the college President actually took the roll in the assembly auditorium. We were seated in alphabetical order. If your seat was unoccupied you could expect to be called in to give an explanation. In a college today even class attendance may be optional. What a contrast to the controls we were expected to accept!

Once each year the fraternities and sororities competed with each other in producing a one act play. The plays were put on each night for a week. All students could attend on their student activity tickets which were included with the twenty dollar registration fee. I thoroughly enjoyed the plays. I admired students who could act or sing on stage and make a story live. Occasionally there were other stage performances. My first exposure to a musical was hearing "Bohemian Girl" done by the students. What fine voices they had! I had not dreamed of that type of entertainment. Another feature of the Play Contest Week I liked was being in the assembly hall in the evening with all the other students. Ruby and I and other girls sat together. Some way or other word got to me that the quarterback of the football team, was trying to find out who I was. Each night of the play contest that curly-haired guy with a French name and his friends sat near us and he made lots of efforts to get my attention. It took many days before he could find anyone he knew who also knew me so that he could know my name. I thought it quite fun that I could be such a mystery.

One of the hazards of being in Primary Education was that there were only girls in the classes. In most courses the Elementary Education students were with us. The group was not too large so that we learned to know one another. All of us were addressed by teachers with the title Miss before our last name. In that way we tended to learn the others by last names rather than our first. I still refer to one of my closest friends by her last name, "Leinwander." When I think of others I didn't know as well I remember them as, "Duecker, Dexter, Roberts, Kezertee or Krueger." In today's society people seem determined to know your first name as soon as they meet you. Courses in Psychology, Conservation, Speech, Sociology, History, and Economics were required of Secondary Education students as well as those of the Primary and Elementary levels so that those classes included men and women.

To this day I do not know how I was able to force my feet to take me into the room for class the day I was assigned to give a three minute speech. I remember looking out the window in the hallway outside the classroom and being tempted to just run away. Making a talk just to fit an assignment was terrifying. The category for speeches was rather restricted. I could have varied the assignment to a subject of my interests, but I didn't think of doing that. One day after I had given one of my usual poor performances, the teacher remained seated at the back of the room. She put her hands up to pull her hair and said, "What will we do with you?"

We were required to take a number of geography courses, such as Geography of Europe, Geography of North America, World Geography, and Geography of Wisconsin. Miss Bradbury taught all of them. She had very blonde hair and fair skin so that she looked quite colorless, but her eyes glowed and her face was animated as she taught. I can still hear her soft, almost breathless voice as she presented the peoples of the world. She sometimes read fiction to us such as Willa Cather's, My Antonia, which illustrates the effect of climate and soil on the lives of people.

In earlier school years we had been asked to memorize poetry occasionally. Seldom was any attempt made to relate it to our world or help us understand the language which was often very different from that we used everyday. Miss Peake conducted our class of prospective primary and elementary school teachers in Children's Literature. She may not have been very old but she had snow-white hair put up on top of her head. She spoke in a gentle voice while she gave meaning to the poetry and prose. She actually read it to us. That may have made the difference in our appreciation. None of us could read it with the inflections she used. Even though the focus was on literature suitable for children I developed an appreciation of poetry.

I was unhappy when I found that a course in economics was required. I knew that would be totally uninteresting to me. The only term I remember from it is "unearned increment." At one time the county took gravel out of our gravel pit on our farm to build roads. The money we received for those truckloads of gravel was unearned increment. We had done nothing to produce it. Through the years when we felt especially blessed, I have said, "Count it as unearned increment."

Conservation of Natural Resources was required for all graduates of the State college. Wisconsin was already learning that we needed to think about how we used the soil, water and forest resources. I'm not sure how many students were impressed with the need to save anything, but since I grew up on a farm I was interested even though the professor was not a dynamic teacher. Some of the ideas were already familiar to me - rotation of crops, proper use of natural fertilizers and control of noxious weeds. In recent years when I stayed in a motel in Wisconsin there was a posted list of noxious weeds which landowners were requested to control on their property. My father plowed thistle patches in our pastures several times a year in order to stunt their growth. In other fields he kept them mowed short to prevent their going to seed. Quack grass was similarly treated.

During my first year the schedule called for a course called Introduction to Psychology. If I had ever even come across the word psychology, I didn't remember it. I had no idea of its meaning. The teacher, Dr Farley was a slim, older man with gray hair and a trimmed moustache. He often began the class by quoting a bit of poetry he particularly liked that had nothing to do with the course. One of his favorites was "The Charge of the Light Brigade," with special emphasis on "Into the valley of death rode the six hundred." He was not reticent about expressing his likes and dislikes on any subject. I remember his comment on painted fingernails. He spoke of a girl who came to him with a paper she had written. As she discussed it she pointed to passages with her brightly colored fingernail. He told her, "What you are speaks so loud, I can't hear what you say." I don't think that line was original with him but he used it to show his opinion. Even though he was from a broad cultural experience he didn't accept the vanity of painted nails. How would he feel today?

As we began the study there were diagrams of the brain and descriptions of what took place in it. What a foreign field that was to me! Where did they get the information about dendrites and synapse and other terms they were using. My mind blocked! Eventually I began to catch on but using a psychological approach in my relationships is still not one of my strengths. Dr. Farley took notice of me in the class of about thirty students. One day I wore a pink ribbon around my hair. He made a comment. Later when we turned in term papers mine came back to me with an "A." A few days later he announced that those with high grades on their paper would read them to the class. Oh, that mine had had a "D" on it! When he called on me to read I sat down behind his desk as he indicated. What foolishness was this that I had written? After all it was only a combination of things he had taught. I proceeded to read in such a monotone that he stopped me. I welcomed that embarrassment over that of having to read my paper.

Someone else in the class noticed me. I wasn't especially aware of the tall, scholarly-looking fellow that always sat on the front row. One bright spring day he walked home from the campus with me but I forgot all about it until the evening I received a phone call. The telephone near the front door in the downstairs hall served the family and all those of us who rented rooms. Our landlady's voice floated up the open stairway, saying that I was wanted on the telephone. The young man's voice said, "This is Jim. Would you like to go to a movie with me?" It took me a moment to realize who he was and then surprise made me hesitate. He said, "Do I need references?" Whereupon he put Grace Keating on the line. She was one of the girls with whom I played volley ball. She told me that she and Jeanette, another of the volley ball players were with their dates, Bill and Sully. All of us would be going to the movie together.

Jim came from a different world from mine. His father was a doctor in Oshkosh. The family lived in a style that included cultural touches my family had not actively cultivated. It was new to me to have a young man dressed in coat and tie and white flannel slacks escort me. Although he and Bill and Sully often dressed more casually they were always perfectly at ease. I had never had that kind of self-confidence. The three men had grown up within a few blocks of each other. One night at Bill's house he brought out his French horn to play one of the latest hits, "The Music Goes Down and Around." The song was very suited to the instrument and he played well. Although I played piano I would never have played casually for anyone. I admired those who could make their own entertainment so easily. Jim's favorite popular band music was Duke Ellington's. I had never even heard of Duke Ellington. Jim was perfectly at ease entertaining us in his home. One evening we played monopoly, a new game that had just come out. Once again I was initiated into a new experience. I am not one for taking risks especially in areas of finance so I did not play monopoly at all well. Jim served us very large slices of mince pie with milk to drink. I had the idea I didn't like mince pie, but I couldn't refuse it in that situation.

Occasionally Jim and I walked to see a movie. As we walked home on a drizzly evening in September of 1936 we stopped under a street light while he explained the workings of a cyclotron. I did not have even a vague idea of what he was talking about. I don't think the word "atom" was in my vocabulary. Many years later I realized that a cyclotron was an early version of an atom-smasher. I think!

Ruby and I carefully selected the movies we chose to see. We didn't have much money to spend but it is possible we needed this added touch to our education. We liked the unrealistic stories and the singing of Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy. We saw "Little Women" and other sweetly sentimental pictures. We walked the seven or eight blocks to the downtown theaters. It didn't matter that it might be winter or evening. There was no thought of danger for us to be walking. Very few college students owned automobiles.

Ruby and I also walked to church. Her family were Lutherans. The Lutheran Church was only a couple of blocks from where we lived so we went there more often. There was a Lutheran society for the students on campus but when we attended the worship we were ushered into the building and ushered out with a handshake from the preacher. My family belonged to the Evangelical Church. We walked the nine blocks to it some Sundays. There too, no one bothered to get acquainted with us.

As prospective teachers of young children we were required to take Education courses. In theory they were to teach us how to be expert and interesting teachers. Those who were teaching the five courses I had to take, needed to practice what they preached. Each course was more boring than the one before it. I remember the head of the Training School told us to be sure to have our shoes shined when we went for interviews for jobs. Later I remembered that advice when my third grade pupils stepped on my shoes when I stood at the door of the classroom as they entered.

Practice teaching in the training school was a horror comparable to speech class. Here again, my self-consciousness while a supervising teacher watched never left me. The kindest of the three teachers was in second grade. At the end of one day she said, "You have the most unpleasant voice I have ever heard." That didn't do much to encourage me. Another time I was asked to present a little introduction to astronomy to the second graders. I was interested in that. One of the facts I gave the children was that the moon only reflected the light of the sun. At the end of the day Miss Wold asked me to stop by for a conference. She was sure I had taught an error! I simply went to the library. The next day I proved my point from a stack of books left open on her desk. Student teaching in first grade was even worse. Miss Vanderstein had a reputation for making her students teachers cry. She gave me very good reason to cry but I stood in front of her desk and listened to her unjust accusations and didn't give her the satisfaction. A student teacher is in an impossible position because the children know she is not the final authority - that the supervisor is. As a result it is difficult to maintain one's command of them.

Dr. Case was the Dean of Women, but she also taught sociology. Dr. Case would have fit well in today's world. Since she was a short woman it may have been good that she sat on the table at the front of the room while she taught. It was rumored that she smoked and in her speech and manner she was as unladylike as she dared to be. One of the facts we learned was that pneumonia was one of the top causes of death. That was true because the antibiotics had not been discovered. On the final exam in sociology was a question, "How would you feel if your son wanted to marry a torch singer?" I didn't know what a torch singer was. I have no idea how I discussed that question. It was typical of unconventional Dr. Case to pose such a question.

In September when we filled out registration forms for the new semester we were given a questionnaire on which to tell how we had spent our summer. I think the administration hoped we developed our skills at working with people--perhaps managing a playground or being involved with a summer camp. Or at least broadening our experience with travel or going to museums or concerts.

I took perverse delight in describing how I drove a team of horses on a mower cutting peas for the canning factory. Early in the morning my father made the first trip around the field near the fences. Then it was my turn to guide, Maj and Beaut continually back and forth across the field. Periodically I called "Whoa." and pulled on the lines to back them up a few steps. The pea vines got tangled in the sickle. Backing up released them so that I could get down to pull the tangle out of the sickle bar while the horses stood motionless. After a few stops like that Maj and Beaut backed as soon as I called "Whoa." The summer day grew warmer and warmer. I began to think how good a drink of water would be even though I knew that after the first drink the desire for another would possess me.

To help me pass the hours and those minor discomforts I memorized words of hymns. Whenever we sing "Have Thine Own Way Lord" I am once again in that green field with the team under the summer sun.

In 1935 at the end of the two year course of study I did not find a place to teach. My parents and I decided that I return to college for two more years. Since I had already completed the required education courses and student teaching these last two years gave me the opportunity to take classes I would otherwise have missed.

I was allowed to elect a course in Ancient History. In high school our history began with Columbus. Now I found this area of the Egyptians and Romans very new to me. The more I studied the more interesting it became. There was a time when I spent my weekends reading The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon. I liked it.

Dr. James taught English Novel. I didn't realize what pleasure was in store when I signed up for the class. I had always like to read. My mother was often annoyed because I didn't hear her instructions when I was lost in a book. She said, "Zona always has her nose in a book." Now Dr. James introduced a whole new aspect of reading. We were assigned novels such as, Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, and others. Until that time novels were strictly for my enjoyment. Now we were being asked to look for conflicts that made up the plot, a message the author was putting forward and for characterizations. I began to see that many times the people in the story were like people I knew in real life.

The girl who sat next to me in class was a stranger. I only knew her name from looking at pictures in the college annual. I made no effort to get acquainted with her since I knew she was a member of the most exclusive sorority on campus. Of course, she wasn't interested in me until one day when an assigned paper was returned to us. Mine had an A on it. Hers had a D. She took note and began to ask questions. "Where is your home?" Of course she had never heard of Markesan, forty miles from Oshkosh. I told her about my life growing up on a farm. The next time we were asked to write about one of the books assigned she asked me if I had read it. I had and thoroughly enjoyed it. The deadline was near for our work to be turned in. She said, "Would you come to my house and tell me the story in the book?" I agreed to meet her in the Public Library downtown and from there we went to her home. Her grandfather had been one of the lumber kings. She lived in the finest section of the city in an elegant home. We found a very comfortable place to sit in a room off from the main living room. While I told her the story I kept repeating, "You just have to read it! It is very interesting." I think she avoided reading any book as much as she possibly could.

In June of 1937 the precious college years ended and I found a job teaching third and fourth grades in my home town. I have always been somewhat chagrinned that I didn't find a job elsewhere. On the other hand the salary was better in Markesan than in most places of similar size in those years. One hundred dollars a month and I could live at home. Many small towns did not require a bachelor's degree for a teacher of the lower grades. In Markesan that wasn't quite enough. Even with the degree, I had to promise the school board that I would learn to play the harmonica before the fall term began. My predecessor had had an harmonica band for thirty years therefore I must do likewise. I managed to be accomplished enough to play "Annie Laurie." I learned how to teach the children to use their tongues to get the single tone. By the end of the school year many could play better than I.

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