Monday, April 12, 2010

Rhetta Hogan: Teachings Best of the Best

My Early School Years

We lived in the rural part of western Pennsylvania when my brothers and sister and I were growing up and our early schooling was in a small, one-room, red brick schoolhouse in Brighton Township, Beaver County known as Eakin School. First through eighth grade was taught by only one teacher. In fact, everything pertaining to that school from sweeping the floors, washing the windows, keeping the stove fired up in the winter and meting out punishment to an errant youngster was handled by that same teacher.

Those teachers, in Rural America who taught all eight grades by themselves had to be saints beyond belief. One such teacher whom I remember well and who lived about two miles from us and had been raised next door to my Grandfather, Frank Holt, was Miss Rhetta Hogan. Miss Rhetta, who had taught almost countless years in such schools and would often substitute for our regular teacher. She herself, had gone to Eakin School as a youngster. She continued her education finishing up at nearby Piersol Academy in Bridgewater, Pennsylvania. She died 21 November, 1945. She was a first generation farm lass who never married.

I had her only as a frequent substitute. When she was there, she would ring the bell promptly at eight to bring us all in from playing outside. She would quiet us down by going to the front of the room, turn around and stand, ramrod-straight, with an open Bible cradled in her hands just above her waist. There was always a wisp of iron-gray hair curling like a coiled spring over her heavy eyebrows, which shaded two of the most piercing, steely, blue eyes you ever saw. Those eyes would rivet all thirty-two of her first-to-eighth grade students to full attention as she recited, from memory, passages from the divine book that ruled her life. Next came the Lord’s Prayer. That completed, she would make a half-turn, lift her eyebrows slightly, and as one, she and the obedient class would pledge allegiance to that great symbol of this bold, brash, young country we all loved.

Rhetta was then, when I had her, a seventy-five year old spinster who had taught school for fifty-eight years and would never have dreamed of opening a school day without that ritual. Her entire career was lived out in one-room schoolhouses. Many generations of local Brighton Twp kids were drilled in the three R’s by this stern but gentle, caring woman. Farm born and raised by immigrant Irish parents, Thomas and Hannah (Mullins) Hogan, she lived, worked, and died within one county, Beaver, in western Pennsylvania. When she first started teaching, school was reached by either walking or driving a buggy. When she died, the skies over Europe and Japan were alive with angry, roaring airplanes.

Stories were legion around Beaver county about how this wiry, little woman managed to maintain discipline over pupils, some of whom towered over her by as much as a foot. Everyone, including students, referred to her with typical country familiarity as Rhetta, but no student dared to be so bold to her face. It was either “ma’m” or Miss Hogan.

I remember one warm, spring day when all the windows were open, and except for lesson recitations by students standing around Miss Rhetta’s desk, not a sound could be heard. Suddenly, titters interrupted the silence. Heads turned, first toward the sound and then toward Rhetta. The cause of the tittering was a wasp, with a string hanging from its waist, flying level, about eye-high, around the room. At one point, it flew straight toward a giggly little girl who let out a piercing screech that ignited screeches from half of the other little girls in the room. Pandemonium broke loose. Instantly Rhetta was on her feet and the clack! clack! clack! of her eraser against the black-slate blackboard restored order. Smoke seemed to curl from her eyes and up from her collar as she glared at the bib-overall clad boys one-by-one until something told her this was the culprit.

How did she know? I suppose the pink flush from cheeks or ears, the downcast eyes, or the bare toe scribing circles on the floor had something to do with it. The young man’s demeanor abruptly changed when he was commanded, by a deep, authoritarian voice, to report immediately to the front of her desk. Your obedient servant, who had been thoroughly chastised in front of everybody, was then dispatched to the woods behind the school to cut an appropriate switch with which to have the dust whacked not-too-gently from the seat of his pants.

Woe betide the clown who had the temerity to bring in an inappropriate switch. He would be nailed to his desk for the entire day for a week. His parents would be summoned for a conference and to mete out the required punishment in front of the class. She didn’t fool around and everyone knew it.

This caring woman, who dedicated all of her productive life to teaching had passively but positively, influenced a long line of young people, was of the last and best of the old. I count myself exceptionally fortunate to at least have had her from time to time as a substitute teacher. Also, I went to school with her niece and nephew, twins, Leona and Leo Hogan. Leona was a WAVE during WWll. In the summer I use to earn a little money by picking strawberries on the farm where she lived with her brother, James Hogan, Atty at Law, and his family. What wonderful memories.

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