School Time, Winslow Homer, 1874
I love this painting, which shows how much these girls love their teacher. I feel unfortunate not to have had a young teacher in elementary school that I could idolize. But there were certainly young women, older than myself, that I looked up to with adoration. The children gathered around the teacher in Homer's painting look as if they can hardly wait for her to show up; her head is bent as she listens to their chattering. Perhaps they are pleading for a privilege or an outing or maybe they are regaling her about an exciting happening at their home or farm.
The teacher's role was not only to convey knowledge. The building of a school and the collection of funds among families to bring a teacher signified a commitment to a permanent stay on the frontier, a commitment to bring culture west. For the teacher, this was a great responsibility, and not in abstract, but in helping her children every day. As prairie teacher Anna Johnson described it, as quoted in Schoolwomen of the Plains and Prairies by Mary Hurlbut Cordier:
I not only taught, but was also an administrator, mother, doctor, nurse, judge and jury, arist, cook, librarian, custodian, or janitor, carpenter or fixer, advisor, psychologist, disciplinarian, and humanitarian. I might say that I was a "jack of all trades and a master of none." In this rural community I was very close to the children and all of the parents and many others in the area. Their problems often became my problems, which sometimes made my task even harder.
Their role in extending culture westward was well understood throughout the 19th century. As early as the 1840s, the National Board of Popular Education recruited 600 teachers from the northeast to be trained and then sent on their way to teach frontier communities across the country, as far as Oregon.
Teachers, especially women teachers, tended to be leaders in their community, not only the pillar of the local school but also of the church. Their commitment and spirit of charity were exemplary, as shown in the compassionate downward turn of the head of the teacher in Homer's painting.
We see this in the writings of the young teacher, Miss Bessie Tucker, whose diaries are featured in Schoolwomen of the Plains and Prairies:
It seems a bit presumptuous to hope and pray that one's life might better a community in any way, but don't think me conceited, little book [diary], when I say that one of my greatest desires and constant prayers is that some word or act of mine may brighten some life, may help someone in a spiritual way and may leave happy memories of the nine months [school term] I have spent in their midst.
And after her first year of teaching as she prepared to move to a new school, Miss Tucker wrote:
a little white school house with the beautiful bell .... little parsonage which I called home for six months ... I shall take the memories of the lives of many people whom I have met and and who have made me feel one of them.... how I would like to leave something behind me. A memory of a life that might be helpful to someone. I am realizing more and more, little book, the non-importance of things that seem to take up so much of our time. Only as they may be a help to others are they important and I am learning to make that one of the guiding rules of my life.