– by Bob Benefiel, excerpt from his book, The Eleventh
(Used with permission)
The school was an eight-grade, one-room, “country
style” school, although it was located in Etna, just about a block south of our house. I do not know how many families
the school served, but as I can best remember, the extreme distance that any pupil lived from the school was not more than
a mile. There were usually around 30 students in the school with one teacher.
During my eight years of attendance at the school,
I experienced instruction from only two teachers; a lady teacher (Miss Nina O’Day) for my first two years of school,
and a male teacher (Mr. Ralph White) for my last six years. When I was in second grade, for whatever reason, I told Pauline
Thomas that “she couldn’t even pee,” and of course, she “tattled” and I was in big trouble.
I was kept after school and Miss O’Day gave me two or three swats with THE paddle as punishment for my vulgarity! That
was the only spanking I ever received in school.
The school was administered by three directors,
all local residents. As I recall, the membership was pretty stable and was, I assume, characteristic of the “country
schools” of that day and area.
As to classroom equipment, there was a globe,
some antiquated maps, wall-hung reading charts for first grade, a set of encyclopedia, a dictionary, a wall clock, blackboards,
a sand table, a small table with “little chairs” for first grade, the inevitable recitation benches, a piano,
and the teacher. In later years there was a radio.
I cannot remember ever having a new textbook
in any subject although I cannot say definitely that no new books were purchased. I believe I remember a World Book Encyclopedia
being purchased new in later years.
Playground equipment included some swings, a
“Flying Dutchman,” a slide, a ball diamond, a cinder basketball court with a goal at each end, and always a bat
and ball and a basketball. Indoor games consisted of blackboard and chalk, and checkers; those were about all.
The school library consisted of the aforementioned
encyclopedia and dictionary, a few ancient fiction books, and such old magazines as might come from various sources. In later
years, the State of Illinois Bookmobile augmented the book offering considerably by its periodic visits.
Looking at my report cards, it’s interesting
to note that history was not taught as a subject until grade six, but that geography was begun in grade three. Science, for
some reason, was omitted from the curriculum during the fifth year. As I recall, subjects such as reading, spelling, arithmetic,
language or grammar, and history were taught every day. Science, health, geography, civics, and handwriting were taught, I
believe, on a two-day per week basis.
On some grade levels, music and art were evaluated,
and the music consisted of singing a couple of songs at the beginning of school two or three mornings each week. Miss O'Day
played the piano, but Mr. White didn't, although he was an excellent singer. Art consisted of coloring, cutting, and pasting
mimeographed forms, objects, and animals, little else.
Free play at recess constituted the physical
education training, as there was no planned P.E. program. I note that personal appearance, courtesy, work habits, and self-control
were subjectively evaluated. (Imagine getting 87 ½ in personal appearance!) Grades were numerical for my first few years of
school and letter grades were given the last few years.
Friday afternoons usually included a period
for a “spelling bee” or some sort of ciphering contest. The inevitable Christmas program of plays, recitations,
and songs was a yearly occurrence, as was a picnic or wiener-roast to close school in the spring. It was an eight-month school
term, beginning after Labor Day and closing at the end of April, as there was no school during the month of May.
I’m reminded that most of the kids’
shoes were too small or worn out by spring, and were mostly discarded in favor of going barefoot for the last few days of
the school year. Lots of us started school in the fall going barefoot. When the weather grew too cold to be barefoot, those
new “school shoes” were really confining! Most of the boys came back to school in the fall with new bib overalls
and the girls in “new” dresses, many of which were “hand-me-downs.” Except in the summer, I had two
pairs of shoes, one for school and play, and one for Sunday. In the summer, shoes were needed only on Sunday or to "go to
I recall on one occasion walking about two blocks
to the railroad to see a “streamlined train” (a diesel) go through. It was the Illinois Central Rail Road’s
"Green Diamond" and the railroad station agent had informed the teacher of its anticipated passing. It was interesting,
but was just “here she comes and there she goes!” I also remember riding about ten miles to Mattoon in an open
cattle truck, before school busses, to take a tour of the Coca-Cola bottling works. A trip to the Sally Ann Bakery
in Mattoon completes my recollection of supplemental experiences. I might add that these trips included all of the children
in the school.
The learning achieved in the so-called “universals’
was probably adequate. The extreme capableness of my teachers leads me to say that this program was exceptionally good. Of
course, the progressive educator would shudder at the methods used, for the strictest of discipline was expected, and received.
There was no project, core or unit method, just information, skills, questioning, recitation, and responses.
The biggest deficit in my elementary education concerned materials; reference books, science equipment, etc. There was
no real training in physical education or music and no chance for supervised or invoked creativity of an artistic nature.
Tight scheduling necessitated by the one-teacher/eight-grade ratio cut down on individual attention and help, but in thinking
back, I cannot think of a single individual who I feel did not achieve close to what I believe was his or her capacity for
The school did little more than provide “a
good common school education.” The patrons of the school were farmers and laborers, and they did not require, nor expect,
more than a fundamental understanding of basic learnings. Their skills were learned on the job and could not feasibly be taught
in such a school situation. Although not specifically aimed at, the program was, I believe, entirely adequate for going on
to high school. However, in retrospect, I can think of only about eight persons who graduated from high school, and no other
college graduates, other than myself, who attended the school during my eight years there. In extenuation, one must remember
that the 1930s were an extremely “tight” period in our nation’s economic history.
There was one factor that always seemed to me
to be a valuable opportunity in such a school. When one had his lessons prepared, he could listen to other grades “recite.”
A reasonably able person could increase the scope of his studies and experiences, learning new things from grades above, and
reviewing with grades below. I feel that present day education does not allow students to have time for independent study;
time to read, if you will. The dictionary was always a favorite book for free-time reading with me. Had I been in today’s
classrooms, I never would have had the opportunity to read and reread the World Book Encyclopedia.
The school of my boyhood no longer exists. District
consolidation took care of that. Curriculum, facilities, equipment, materials, methods, and supposedly the teachers have changed;
been improved. I wonder!
Bob Benefiel lived in Etna, IL from birth until he was inducted into the United States Army
in December, 1950. He attended the school described above from 1934 until 1942. He graduated from Neoga Township High School
in 1946 along with his future wife, Rita Worland.
After he was discharged from service in December 1952, Bob’s family moved back home
to Etna to live with his mother until they moved away from home for the last time to Campus City Apartments at Eastern
Illinois State in Charleston, IL in 1955.
After college graduation, the family moved to Elliott, IL in 1957 so that Bob could teach
in the Gibson City school district. They moved to Gibson City, IL in 1961. From 1966-1985, he was the principal of the Gibson
City Grade School until he retired.
Bob and Rita still live in Gibson City today.
Bob is pictured at the Etna School in the photo from 1934 to the right below. He is the third
student from the right in the front row.
In the 1914 photo to the left, Bob's father, Fred Benefiel is standing in the 3rd row with bib-overalls
on, fifth person from the left. His brother Cecil is wearing a tie and is fourth person on the left.