Pioneers for a day - The Explorer: Import

Pioneers for a day

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Posted: Tuesday, February 10, 2004 12:00 am | Updated: 7:48 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

"Did you clean out your ears last night?"

That's not the kind of question Mrs. Flannery's fourth grade students normally hears from their fun-loving teacher when one of them is caught daydreaming during roll call.

But Mrs. Flannery wasn't herself Friday.

Mrs. Flannery was playing Mrs. Black instead - a stern pioneer woman from a history book who taught children to read in a one-room schoolhouse in the Arizona territory in the 1880s.

The fourth graders knew to expect Mrs. Black. They'd been warned that she would turn up during their all-day field trip to her schoolhouse in historic Tubac.

At 7:40 a.m. on Friday, Mrs. Flannery was just Mrs. Flannery - Dale Flannery to the adults at Copper Creek Elementary School.

The students were themselves, as well, arriving at their 21st-century classroom with colorful backpacks and unremarkable fourth-grade gossip.

True, they had more pigtails than usual, and more bonnets, 'kerchiefs, shawls and straw hats, and a few of them had

bundles of books tied together with leather belts.

But even as the students packed weird lunches - beef jerky, tamales, molasses cookies - into the tin cans on their desks, they still acted like regular fourth graders.

Even on the bus ride to Tubac, before they passed "A" Mountain and San Xavier Mission, the students belted songs that regular fourth graders belt.

But when they neared their destination, something changed.

First, Mrs. Flannery stood up with the bus driver's microphone and started calling out 19th-century names. Then, the students hushed so they could learn about their new identities.

"Where are the Mercer children?" Mrs. Flannery asked.

Several students raised their hands. They knew they were the Mercer children. They'd been briefed during a history lesson the preceding week.

What they didn't know is that their father owned Tubac's only grocery store in the late 1800s, and that the store served as the community's schoolhouse until a real schoolhouse was built.

Before the bus ride, the students knew nothing about the real Tubac pioneers whose names they were borrowing.

Pauline didn't know she was the first anglo child born in Tubac. Trinidad didn't know he was on his way to being kidnapped. Anna and William, much to their alarm, found out on the bus that they were destined to get married.

And Mrs. Black?

Well, Mrs. Black knew about herself already, because she was the teacher. But her students didn't know her - not really - until she stepped off the bus onto Tubac's dusty main road.

"Make two lines," the pioneer barked as her students filed off the bus to join her.

With Mrs. Black in charge, the students would walk to school in two separate lines - one for girls and one for boys. The girls would enter the schoolhouse at one door, and the boys at another. During roll call, the girls would curtsy and the boys would bow.

A stoked wood-

burning stove waited in one corner of the schoolhouse to warm the students' cold cheeks. A dunce hat waited in another corner to fix the children's wrong behavior.

After a fussy roll call and a round of "My Country 'tis of Thee" to the American flag, stern Mrs. Black told her students to open their fourth grade readers to "The Spider and

he Fly."

"I would like to hear loud, clear voices," she instructed. "Not mumbling like you have a bunch of marbles in your mouth."

Marbles were for recess, and would be available after lessons. First, though, the students read in unison:

"And now, dear little children, who may this story read - to idle, silly flattering words I pray you ne'er give heed."

Mrs. Black's math lesson was repetitive, a constant chant of this-times-this is that. It was short, though, since teachers in one-room schoolhouses had to instruct children of all ages.

Before recess, fingernails and faces were inspected for dirt. Then Mrs. Black's students went outside to play with marbles, beanbags, jacks and jump ropes.

After 19th-century lunches - no plastic baggies allowed - the fourth graders filed onto their school bus, leaving their old-time identities on Tubac's main dusty road.

Within the hour, they were full-fledged children of the new millennium, belting the Smash Mouth lyrics, "Hey now, you're an all-star, get your game on, go play."

Mrs. Flannery shed her Tubac pioneer identity, too, and let the students sing. After all, the day's lesson was finished.

The lesson wasn't really about multiplication tables or hygiene or reading "The Spider and the Fly," she said.

It wasn't even entirely about the details of pioneer life in southern Arizona, though the fourth graders probably wouldn't forget that wearing a T-shirt to school was like wearing your underwear.

A bigger lesson, Mrs. Flannery said as the school bus drove back to Copper Creek, was about thankfulness.

If the slate boards and bolted-down desks were fun for a day, the memory-oriented math and spelling drills would get old. The fourth graders are lucky, she said, to get to use their creativity.

"They're so used to being able to talk freely and share ideas," she said.

Julia Nicholson seemed happy to leave behind Mrs. Black's teaching style and have her teacher's old rules back.

"We can talk during class quietly," she said. "And we sit next to each other - not in front or behind."

Alex McIntyre said he was ready to drop Mrs. Black, as well, because Mrs. Flannery's lessons were more stimulating.

"I like Copper Creek better because it's more of a challenge for me," he said.

But creativity, history shows, is hard to kill. Squelch it in the classroom, and it just might show up on the playground.

As fourth graders in cumbersome shawls and red bandanas jumped up and down in the middle of spinning ropes at recess, the jump rope holders called out this rhyme:

"Oh no-ooo, here co-ooo-mes Mrs. Black with a big black stick. Now it's time for arithmetic. One plus one is two, two plus two is four, four plus four is eight, … ."

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