Hats off to teachers on the move! All across Minnesota and North Dakota, fresh education graduates are setting off right about now for the great unknown … along with the rest of the tribe of itinerant teachers whose careers take them beyond the beaten track each August to classrooms over the horizon.
If teaching is a calling, it often turns out to be long-distance. Career educators in more urban districts like Fargo and Grand Forks sometimes spend most of their careers in a single community … comfortably looking forward some September to welcoming the children — grandchildren? — of the kids listed in their very first grade books.
But about this time every August, I feel the urge to salute the rest of the educational corps: the teachers called to classrooms in towns whose populations don’t top three digits. Where students are sparse and classes worryingly small, there you too will find men and woman writing lesson plans and mastering the names in a new attendance book. And their nomadic lives are quite unlike their earthbound neighbors’.
I wish them well. And I still feel that ghostly urge to start packing.
My mother was one of those itinerant teachers. She’d cut her teeth on blackboards in one- or two-room schools in places like Hoople, N.D., and Rothsay, Minn. When she returned to teaching in the 1950s, after my farmer father’s health deteriorated, that preference surfaced again … aided in no small part by her two-year teaching certificate in an increasingly degree-oriented market.
So off we went, the schoolhouse gypsies. Beginning when I was in third grade, she accepted contracts from Antelope Consolidated School near Mooreton, N.D., where she taught sixth, seventh and eighth grades; Inkster, N.D., with its seventh and eighth grade classroom, Streeter, N.D., (solely seventh) and Amenia, N.D., from which she retired as a sixth-grade teacher.
We spent summers at home base in Hillsboro, N.D., where Dad raised grain east of town. As he wrapped up taking the wheat and barley off the fields, though, we were back to packing our wagon, ready to roll to whatever school was lucky enough to have signed Mom for the coming year. By the time I graduated from high school, we had moved exactly 18 times and lived in 10 different rentals, ranging from one with a privy out back to run-down aged homes whose elderly owners had passed away over the summer.
Nor were we alone in our rather nonstandard way of life. In every locale, we encountered other families who were part of the tribe. Schoolteachers, principals and superintendents — as well as preachers — provided just about all of the moving in and moving out in the villages we temporarily called “home.”
We were curiosities among the deeply rooted farmers and merchants around us. Webs of cousinship, ancient sweethearts and generations-long family feuds and alliances were invisible to us. We had trouble following North Dakota-style directions in our new surroundings: “Go a couple of miles south and turn where the Dockters’ barn used to stand.” We had no hereditary place in the social landscape, no history that meant much to our new neighbors, and the indelible standing as benign carpetbaggers … permitted our opinions on local concerns, but none that mattered much.
It was an interesting way to grow up, if slightly off-kilter. Mom’s teaching jobs endowed us with an appreciation for what passed for diversity in those days. We were amazed by Mooreton’s huge Labor Day bash and Streeter’s (N.D.) epic annual buffalo supper. Good little Norskies, my brother and I rubbed shoulders with German-Russians and Czechs and Poles and Hutterites. And we even learned exotic new skills, like spitting sunflower seeds.
Raised on whitish Norwegian fare, we quickly adapted to colored food: Gackle, N.D., sausage and borscht and pierogis and halupsi and fleischkuchele and knoepfla soup, plus anise candy, ammonia cookies (better known by a far less genteel name), kolaches and real German-Russian kuchen … always kuchen.
Once the school year began, we seemed to spend our after-school hours in an exotic bubble comprised of Mom’s teacher colleagues and their families. Our native neighbors were pleasant, and many were kind. In villages, though, where their forebears had literally broken virgin prairie sod side by side, our undeniable other-ness meant we circulated in a largely separate stratum. I baby-sat exclusively for the principal’s sons; no one else ever asked.
The local circle, established so long before we arrived, rarely expanded. So the atmosphere was electric at our house when a new superintendent moved to town with his wife and kids or married teachers brought their families. On the historic occasion when an outsider bought the Chevy garage, his brood of five was automatically part of our circle. We couldn’t wait to meet the new preacher — were his kids still in school?
Small-town teaching positions seemed to be a better social bet for the single members of our tribe. As a teen, I secretly wondered if the local district’s teacher vacancies weren’t Mother Nature’s sly strategy for importing eligible women for the area’s bachelor farmers. When all was said and done, those matches accounted for most of the more-or-less permanent faculty members planted in the community.
If you’re a teacher on the move this month — a newbie or an old hand — you have my best wishes. If you’re headed deep into North Dakota or Minnesota, that goes double. Get ready for an adventure that will challenge your views of what counts as everyday life. Be prepared to broaden your horizons. Take nothing for granted; you’ll learn — and impart — new discoveries every day.
And if you’re a teacher’s kid like me, settle back with a whole buffet of back-to-school memories scattered all across the map. It’ll give you time to figure out a more succinct answer to the question that always stumps us: “So, where are you from?”