Off to school I go

Florence, Helen Ens, Jimmy and Jeanne.

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My mother was forced to quit school in Grade 4 as she was needed at home to care for younger siblings. She loved school and cried when she realized she would never again be going. At the age of 18, she saved up enough money from her nanny/housekeeping jobs to attend Winkler Bible School for one year. She made many good friends there and talked about that year often and fondly. At home, she read newspapers with a dictionary by her side to look up words she could not pronounce or understand. She was determined to improve her education!

Mother’s lack of academic learning caused her to value education highly. She thought she was doing her girls a favour when she consented to having us begin Grade1at the age of five years. In Fort Garry, we lived near the small French-Catholic village of St. Norbert. The school, there, needed students to remain open and so in the spring of 1947, our parents were encouraged to enroll Jeanne. After Easter, I went with her every Friday. I was just four. This weekly day took the place of Kindergarten in many rural schools across Manitoba. We were to learn to sit still and not speak unless spoken to. I remember only two incidents of that time. One day, I embarrassed Jeanne by speaking out in Low German, our first language at home. I also embarrassed her by dropping my orange at lunch time. I ran after it as it rolled down the aisle.

The next school year, 1948 to 1949, we moved from Fort Garry to rural Manitoba. Dad had the first of his many heart attacks. He thought he would find work he could do in the country. I remember sitting in a small room in a small house in Horndean, surrounded by boxes. We all looked sad and disorientated. In walked a small white kitten. Our smiles returned as we played with it among all the boxes and wrappings. Later, Mom set it outside to find its rightful owners.

Mom soon found employment in the South Thames S. D. but Dad was forced to return to Winnipeg to work. By September, we were living in a teacherage near Horndean, Manitoba. The Grades 1 to 8 country school stood on the same yard. Miss Ens, was hired to teach Grades 1 to 4 there while Mr. Bergen, was hired to teach Grades 5 to 8. Mom was to keep house for the two teachers as it was not considered suitable for them to live together by themselves. So while Dad worked in the sugar beet factory in Winnipeg, Mom cooked, washed and cleaned for these two teachers, plus looked after her young family.

Again, Mom and Dad were approached about allowing me to start school early. This school also needed more students to remain open. And again, my parents consented. Miss Ens thought I seemed clever enough. I might have been clever enough but I definitely could not print as neatly or colour as well as the 7-year-old girls in my Grade 1 class. Rural children and immigrant children often did not start school until they were older. Starting school early worked out better for me as I was taller, bolder and more aggressive than my petite, quiet and shy older sister.

I was quite popular as the baby of the school and was given lots of attention by the older girls. I remember squirming to get out of their arms so I could run to catch up to where my classmates were playing. We were allowed to bring our dolls to school and could always be found playing with them in a secluded corner. Because we lived on the school yard, Jeanne and I had to go home for lunch while the other children brought lunches to school. I ran home at noon to eat and take my turn drying dishes and then hurried back so I could join my friends in play before the bell rang.

Mom enjoyed Miss Ens’ companionship during the long, lonely evenings while Dad was away. We enjoyed living on that yard and going to school there. Our mixed breed black and white collie had 8 puppies in the small barn where students could tie up their horses. I often envied Jimmy his freedom, though, while I was in school. One day, I pretended to feel sick while Miss Ens was reading Pinocchio. I did not enjoy that story as I worried about all the troublesome adventures poor Pinocchio was involved in.

Mom came to get me as soon as she was summoned by one of the older students. No cell phones, not even landlines! As it was a beautiful spring day, and Mom soon realized I was not that sick, we walked to the nearby country store. Mom needed some groceries for dinner. She also bought Jimmy and I each some penny candy, a real treat.

Later, Jimmy and I played with the puppies until Jeanne came home. Jeanne promptly told Mom I had made myself sick by sticking my finger too far down my throat. How did she know that! She felt a little better when Mom gave her the same amount of candy she had given us.

This teaching assignment was Miss Ens’ first after one year of Normal School as Teachers’ College was then called. I remember her as kind and understanding but one day I did literally get my knuckles rapped. Mom was trying to break me of the nasty habit of chewing my finger nails. She asked Miss Ens to stop me if she witnessed it at school. Using her ruler was the accepted method, I assume.

Mexican Mennonites were beginning to move back to southern Manitoba. They realized they had made a huge mistake by moving to Mexico from Canada. On one occasion, Miss Ens, interrupted her lesson to explain about the new students who would be coming the next day. She told us they did not speak English but we could speak Low German to them outside. She continued to say they dressed differently and wore their hair differently but we should be kind to them and share our toys with them. As soon as I saw those girls with their long, apron-covered dresses and their tight braids under their kerchiefs, I wanted nothing to do with them. When we were dismissed for recess, I called out to my friends to run to our usual corner with our dolls and ignore the new girls. Even though I was the youngest, they all followed me.

It did not take long before Miss Ens came to find us. Upon enquiring why we were excluding the new girls, my little friends all shouted that it had been my idea. I was called in and spoken to again but still in a caring way. I can remember that incident so clearly but have absolutely no idea why I would have behaved that way. I know Mom would not have been pleased and Jeanne, most certainly, would have never exhibited that behaviour.

Today cursive writing is becoming a lost art. But way back then, I remember being taught cursive in Grade I. I had trouble writing the lower case ‘f’. Mom practiced with me until I got it. She also encouraged me to follow her around with the readers I was allowed to take home. Even at an early age I was praised for attempting to read those Dick and Jane stories with as much expression as I could. The only book I owned besides our Sunday school papers and a Bible story book Mom read to us, was a book of nursery rhymes. I was quite the extrovert and amused my family and our friends by memorizing these rhymes and reciting them as dramatically as a five year old could.

Christmas concerts in rural schools were the highlight of the year. I am sure we had one that year but I have absolutely no recollection of it. I do remember our end-of-the-year picnic, though. Booths filled with candy, ice cream, chocolate bars and drinks were set up. Different kinds of races were held with prizes given to the winners. Mom had made Jeanne and I shorts to wear under our dresses and we competed in all the events. Our little girlfriends with their long skirts and heavy boots were no match for us. We won more than our share of prizes and with the small amount of money we were given for having passed our grades respectably, we stuffed ourselves with treats not often available.

Miss Helen Ens went on to become a missionary-teacher among the Mennonite colonies in Mexico. She, together with her brother Henry Ens, worked with the Mennonites who had been excommunicated from their colonies. They could be excommunicated for trifles such as owning a vehicle with rubber tires, listening to the radio or looking at picture books. It was feared these Mennonites would lose their faith and heritage when they were forced to live among the locals. Miss Ens and her brother and his family, established churches and schools for these people. Later, Miss Ens worked with the Mexican government helping to establish a good teacher training program. She was given many awards and accolades by the Mexican government for her work on improving education in Mexico.

Our children and even some of our older grandchildren have very little memories of their early years in school. I am thankful to have been gifted with a good memory. Writing about my first full year in school brought me right back to South Thames and that little house on the school yard. It reminded me of my wonderful Grade 1 teacher, and my happy year in a Grade 1 to 4 classroom. I believe, it also helped instill in me my desire to become a teacher and my life-long joy of learning.

Jimmy with our eight puppies.

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