Miss Bessie Stevens

Miss Bessie Stevens
Just A Country Schoolteacher
By Mary Trotter Kion

Bessie Stevens was a tall, gaunt woman. Her sallow-hued features and dark hair left little to admire in the way of attractiveness. She was not famous, nor was her life ever recorded in any history book that I am aware of. Miss Stevens was simply a country schoolteacher in a small, one-roomed Missouri schoolhouse called Pilot Knob. And like most teachers, over the long years past, she has been nearly forgotten, but not quiet.

A lot of unkind remarks were made about Bessie, especially about her appearance. At one time she attempted to persuade the school board to provide a horse for her to ride back and forth to school on. Her request was denied even though one member of the board was a wealthy raiser of horses. This incident provided just one more occasion to make an unkind remark about the schoolmarm. It went rather like this: If the school board provided Bessie with a horse there would be no problem with her getting on it. She was so tall all she’d have to do is stand there and let the horse run right under her. Such was the fate of poor Bessie Stevens.

Whether or not she was a good teacher is probably in the mind of the beholder. Of all the grubby farm kids that attended her classes there is, to my knowledge, no record of any of them killing each other or their teacher. They all learned to read, do sums, perform opening prayers, and sing a variety of songs. They all knew the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, and Heaven help them if they didn’t.

On cold winter mornings, when the last snowfall had reached the tops of the fence posts, Bessie had a hot fire going in the old black pop-bellied stove that heated the schoolroom. And there was usually a pot of something simmering on top of the stove to warm a bunch of hungry stomachs at noon. This was sheer luxury, and the school could even brag of an outhouse that sported several holes. There was no waiting in line at that establishment.

World War II hadn’t long been over at this time, and years later I’ve wondered, and imagined, if in Miss Stevens’ past there had been a fallen hero pilot who went to his reward far from home with Bessie’s name on his dying lips. But that’s a secret that only Bessie may have known.

In reality, she taught school day after day for nine months of the year to students that ranged from those in the first grade to those in the eighth grade. Some years a grade might be missing due to no children available of that particular age and/or status. There were no snow-days, when school busses could not maneuver icy roads, to give her a reprieve. There were no school busses. You either rode a horse to school, or as Miss Stevens traveled-by your own two God-given feet.

Her students varied as much in personality as in grade level from one year to the next. In one particular year there were twin girls in about the fifth grade. These two young ladies were pretty, buxom farm lasses. Their older brother was the school bully and surely gave Miss Stevens many an angry worry. Another girl was in his grade. She being a slight-built and studious child was usually the brunt of the boy’s brutish antics. In all, there were usually about twelve children who spent their daytime hours under Bessie’s watchful eyes and instruction.

One year there was only a single child in the first grade. She was a little five-year-old who hated Miss Stevens with all the fervor her blue eyes and pink pouting lips could muster. Bessie liked to teach the younger students to read by presenting them with a collection of little thin pink blocks that had words printed on them. The idea was to arrange these blocks in order that they made sentences. This particular little pale blond-haired devil thought she had a better idea.

One by one, the child proceeded to destroy the little pink blocks and toss them on the floor. For some reason unknown to this little girl, who would have rather been outside climbing trees, Miss Stevens didn’t like this use of her word blocks. Had it not been for the intervention of the little girl’s older sister, the child would have received her first, and well-deserved, spanking from Old Bessie. The real problem was that the little girl just didn’t care to learn to read, or to know anything else that came out of a hateful book. But Bessie Stevens had more than one method for encouraging her students to learn.

It was rather amazing when the teacher suggested the little girl memorize a story in one of her reading books and act it out for the parent-teacher’s meeting. With rapid skill the child learned the story by heart and did the performance to a grand parental applause. It was not until many years later that the little girl realized she’d fallen very neatly into that old teacher’s trap.

Miss Stevens’ talent, or tricks, for teaching didn’t end there where the little girl was concerned. When she suggested the child learn a song about teddy bears having a picnic and sing it at the next parent-teacher’s meeting the child agreed. The thought of performing and being the center of attention once again outshone the hard fact that she’d have to “read” the words of the song to learn it. But learn it she did, and sing the song she did while her mother played the piano and another young student, a city to country transplanted boy, tap danced.

This little girl grew up to be very thankful for all dedicated teachers, especially a stern, gaunt, unlovely teacher named Bessie Stevens in a long-ago one-roomed, Missouri schoolhouse called Pilot Knob. I know all this for certain because this writer was, and is, that little girl who didn’t want to learn to read.

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Mary Trotter Kion spends her time reading, researching, and writing about historical person and events, especially notable women. At the present time, while researching and writing a five-volume historical novel concerning a Virginia slave woman who travels to the Far West, Mary writes various articles for the Internet. She is also designing a web site to showcase her articles on Western Women and what their lives were like as they traveled west and lived in the various western regions in the 1800s. She may be reached at webwomanwest@aol.com.