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Teaching In Mendocino County, 1934

The following are excerpts taken from letters I wrote home to my parents during the first year and a half that I taught in Sherwood Valley School in Mendocino County. This was my second year of teaching but the first year being on my own away from home. I boarded with Lou and Ethel James. Ethel James was the clerk of the school board. My salary was $100 a month. I paid $30 a month room and board. I had no car so I walked to and from school about 1.8 miles each way.

September 6, 1934 — The first day of school is over. My only students were the little Potter girls. What a boring day! The Anderson boy on the corner would have been here but he did not know that school was supposed to start today. I rode from the corner to school with Mr. Anderson this morning. He talks in a rather sing-song voice and we had a grand conversation the rest of the way to school.

September 7 — The second day is over. I had five children today, all in different grades. Oh, I saw a bear today. He was in the field across from the schoolhouse this morning. I just prayed he wouldn't meet the little Potter girls on their way to school. I know they would have been scared to death. When I first saw it I thought it was a pig but on second look I realized that it was too big for that and it's feet were too big and thick-looking. It also moved with quite rambling gait.

Little Charles Anderson is the cutest kid you ever saw. He reminds me of Jack Clow. The folks up here are very horsey and doggy. They are as apt as not to pick up a full-grown hound dog and hold it on their lap.

September 8 — You remember the man we saw coming up that the girls picked for my boyfriend? Well, I found out who he is. His name is Heffernan or something like that. He lives in that house where we saw him, all alone and does his traveling at night. The Jameses suspect that he is responsible for some of the missing sheep and cattle from the valley here. The other day Bunt Bucknell lost 16 head of sheep. So when you come right down to it, the boyfriend isn't so hot. I really suspected that all the time but — well, anyway. I don't believe there is another to compare with him in the valley. He drives an old horse and buggy. He goes traveling up the valley in the morning at about 5:30. He usually wakes me up and I lay and listen to him creaking by. It is terribly romantic and thrilling!

Mr. and Mrs. James have only one son, Edgar. He lives here in the valley. He is married to Stella who is just 18. Stella told me the other night about her father. He is a very strict old German. When the kids took cake to school their father made them make a kind of sandwich out of it by putting a slice of bread on each side of the cake. She is one of a family of eight.

September 16 — Last evening I walked off into one of the big pastures and closely examined the largest pepperwood tree in California. It sure is a whopper! I'm sending you a view leaves. They don't look like they came from such a distinguished tree, do they?

The first thing I did this morning was to ball out my entire school. They get to school at 7:30 in the morning. I like to come early and get some work done before they all get here, but I no more than get the door open and they all come trooping in. I told them that the next ones who get here before 8:30 will have to come in and study until bell time. I wonder if that will hold them for a while? Poor little urchins, struggling for an education and an old meanie of a teacher trying to foil them!

September 18 — The children have gone home for the day. There's a fire right in back of the schoolhouse, very close. I can feel the heat and hear the roar. I don't know if anyone is fighting it or not — I hope so. You can hardly see for the smoke. I hope the schoolhouse doesn’t burn.

September 19 — Excitement is raining high this morning. The fire I told you about yesterday burned down to within a quarter mile of the schoolhouse. Bunt came down yesterday afternoon and moved the James’ cattle. The fire is burning on the hill back of the James property and has run clear down to the back of the schoolhouse.

A bunch of guys from Willits came in last evening with the older Mr. James (Lou’s father) and we had to get supper, midnight snack and breakfast for them. The California Conservation crews came in late last night. I didn't get to bed until after one o'clock last night and got up at 5:30 this morning. The crews are supposed to watch the schoolhouse and protect it, but I'm going to keep a close look myself and if it seems to be too close to the school I’ll close the school and take the kids home.

September 24 — My first two little Indians arrived this morning. They are such cute kids. Everett and Lucille Ray, children of Brown Ray. Everett is the elder. Lucille sits and watches me, her big brown eyes as bright as silver dollars. When I look at her she grins the biggest grin and then ducks her head back to her book.

September 25 — I have a new boy, Willard Gamble. He says he is part Indian, "but not this kind of Indian." He does not live on the reservation. He comes from someplace back east. He has brown hair and brown eyes. He is a real nice boy.

There was a big bunch of White Faces in the field that the little Potter girls come through on their way to school. They were in the field last night so I walked across to them. I hope that someone brings them to school this morning.

Charles Anderson was working with fractions this morning. He had both the fourths and the eighths and wondered what he should do with them. I explained above having common denominators and ended by suggesting he changed the fourths to eighths. Charles simply erased the four from the three-fourths and put down eight making 3/8. How's that for fractions simplified?

September 28 — I'm playing with my kids during noontime and the recesses. I'm trying to get the Indians to play with the others. Ms. James says I can't because no teacher ever could before. But, by cracky, I'm doing it!

October 3 — I rode home with the Indians last night. I worked for three fourths of an hour after school was out and then I started home. Before I got very far they overtook me and stopped. I was afraid if I refused I would mortally offend them so I jumped in and rode. Imagine me sitting in the car (a coach) with two great big Indian men. I talked gaily and sweetly with my most schoolteacherly air. I sat so straight my back hurt cruelly but I endured it manfully all the way home. They were more polite than the whites and said, "Yes ma'am" to everything I said.

Mrs. James said it was unusual for them to even offer to give anyone a ride so they must approve of me.

I just like my little Indian children. Maybe they do have a different odor but it's no worse or really as bad as the garlic on the breath of the little Potter girls at times.

This was in reference to the first visit I had from the County schools office. The supervisor, whose name shall be withheld to protect the guilty, came into the schoolhouse, paused, then turned and threw open the door and exclaimed loudly, "Who are these Indian children? They sure stink, don't they?" I was completely speechless for a moment and then I just glared at him and remarked coldly, "I really hadn't noticed."

(Ed note: The late Betty Burns is the sister of the late Charmian Blattner, long-time columnist for the Anderson Valley Advertiser. We much appreciate Marylin Pronsolino, Anderson Valley's indefatigable archivist, for passing it on to us.)

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