My Mother The Teacher

First Teaching Experiences

My mother was already a teacher when I was born, though she had not been in a classroom for nearly eight years. She had taught one year in a small rural school in Nebraska prior to her marriage to my father. She had been forced to drop out of college between her sophomore and junior years because her parents would no longer support her financially by letting her live at home. 1 She took the teaching job for a year, saved her money, and went back to finish her degree in the next two years — one year secretly married and one year openly married (though somewhat ostracized) — graduating in 1939.

Her first teaching contract, signed in 1936, was short and brief:

The contract has many specific requirements, including proper cleaning of the classroom at the end of each day.

From 1939 to 1945, she was busy having babies, including my three older siblings. By the time I was born in 1945, she may have thought she would never go back to teaching because being a housewife and a mother was keeping her very busy indeed. While I think that she loved teaching and working with young students, I think she craved the independence and financial advantages of having a second income for the family.

She tried again to teach — just one semester, an English class in a neighbouring community. But it was too much with two children in school and two pre-schoolers still at home. She quit that job and waited (perhaps) for a better time — when her children were older.

Move to New Mexico

In 1949, our family moved to Silver City, New Mexico, where my father had accepted the job of Registrar and Dean of Men at New Mexico Western College 2. At first, my mother stayed home, but as soon as I became a kindergarten student, she once again chose to teach.

She applied to the Grant County Public Schools and was given a position teaching third grade at a small mining town in Fierro, New Mexico. It was 1951, and she was beginning her teaching career all over again. In another year, she would also earn her Master's Degree in education.3

Grant County in New Mexico

Grant County was formed in 1868 and named for one of America's presidents, Ulysses S. Grant, a successful general on the Union side in the American Civil War. Grant would serve two terms in office.

The county is shaped somewhat like a T with the mining communities of Silver City, Hurley, Bayard, Fierro, Santa Rita and several others located in the top portion of the T and the bottom part reaching almost to the Mexican border (about 22 miles short of it). The lower part of the T is mostly flat desert, but the Silver City area (where most of the ore was found) is made up of forested low hills which lead, eventually, north to the Gila Wilderness area — the first wilderness area in the United States.

The first people who came to the area were the native Americans. In the Silver City area, they were primarily Apache, though they had a large hunting and roaming area so they were not in the area continuously. Next came the Spanish, of course, and eventually many Mexicans. New Mexico was not American soil until the United States defeated the Mexicans in 1846. Texas had already joined the Americans, but the US now took all of New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of California from the Mexicans, and gave them American status.

There have been men in the hills of Grant County for many centuries, usually looking for ore — gold, copper, and silver, being the most prominent — who really didn't care which country the area belonged to.

Eight Years at Fierro

The older part of town is in the foreground and the school is on top of the hill. I have been unable to identify positively when this photograph was taken or what the name of the mine is behind the school. There was once a Jim Fair Mine in Fierro, but it is not known if that is the mine in the photograph.

Fierro is the Spanish word for "iron." It was named for one of the minerals that was found there in the mid-1800's. All of her students were children of miners, but which mine they worked in depended on the individual and which mines were working and operating in any given year.

My mother at about the time she was teaching in Fierro.

In 1951, my mother wrote a term paper, while working on her Master's Degree, about establishing a music program at the Fierro School. She wrote about Fierro in her paper:

"The Fierro Public School is located in a typical mining community of the Southwest. The entire economic livelihood of the community stems from the resources of the earth, and the economic prosperity of the community rises and falls with the market for mining products. Population of the community ebbs and flows with the rises and falls of the economic condition of the community. Of course, the population changes are immediately reflected in the school enrollment.

"The people of the community are of the type normally engaged in the mining industry of the Southwest. There are many Spanish-American laborers in the mines and the children of these laborers dominate the school picture. Teaching, of course, must be adapted to these children.

"There are few telephones in the community. Housing is unsatisfactory by ordinary standards. Recreation facilities are substandard. School facilities are not adequate enough although the school building itself is quite good."

The Daughter of a Teacher

Mother left for work at about 7:00 a.m., perhaps a little after. As a result, all of us got up early — 6:00 a.m. Dad got up an hour earlier and breakfast was ready right at six. I don't remember how much the six of us fought for space in the one bathroom we had, but I know that Dad started preparing the breakfasts, so that Mother could get ready for school and "fix the girls' hair." As time went by, my sisters and I didn't need our mother to fix our hair, but Dad continued to be the breakfast-maker.

Mother had to be on the road by shortly after 7:00 a.m. because Fierro was a good 30-minute drive away. It wasn't too difficult a drive, except when it snowed or the roads got icy (which didn't happen often). Once she was gone for the day, I really didn't know much about her day. We did go over to the school to see her students perform in a Christmas concert or to enjoy a buffet of Mexican food, prepared by the parents of the children of the school.

She returned about 4:00 to 4:30 in the afternoon — usually just a half hour or so before Dad was due to come home. I remember her bringing some of her work home with her. I occasionally got to mark some papers (she taught third grade and she only let me mark papers that were just multiple choice or on a bubble answer sheet).

My mother had a hectograph and it was a way to make duplicate copies of a worksheet she might be using with her students — the very next day. I always knew when she was using it because it had a prominent odour and she usually did it in the kitchen because it was a bit messy.

An early hectograph.

The following paragraphs are from Wikipedia (which also provided the picture):

"The special ... dyes for making the master copy came in the form of ink or in pens, pencils, carbon paper and even typewriter ribbon. ... Unlike a spirit duplicator master, a hectograph master is not a mirror image. ... After transfer of the image to the inked gelatin surface, copies are made by pressing paper against it.

"When a pad ceased to be useful, ink could be sponged from the top of the gelatin and the pad reused for the next master. A grey-colored, thick, absorbent paper pad was supplied to cover the gelatin surface for storage. This also removed ink from the surface, but took many hours to do so. Care needed to be taken that the gelatin surface was kept clean, and not damaged by one's fingernails during duplicating.

"The gelatin process produced print runs of somewhere between 20 and 80 copies, depending upon the skill of the user and the quality of the original. At least eight different colors of hectographic ink were available at one time, but purple was the most popular because of its density and contrast."

Mother's Love of Music

Mother's students prepared to make music!

My mother was musically talented and had a trained soprano voice. She sang in a college choir, and later sang solos at church on Sundays. So it's not too surprising that she wanted her students to experience music: she was introducing something that the children in Fierro had never experienced.

She wrote in her term paper while working on her Master's Degree:

"Music is a way to life enrichment. It provides wonderful recreational possibilities for all who know enough about it to appreciate it. Music can provide relaxation and relief from the tensions of everyday living — something which all people of modern times can enjoy. Therefore, it seemed logical to the writer and greatly desirable for the elementary children of the Fierro School to have liberal exposure to the possibilities offered through music."

Mother didn't find it easy to implement her music program: "Unfortunately, many schools are somewhat restricted by adherence to the philosophy of textbook teaching," she wrote. She added: "The writer feels that the idea of Americanzation is basically sound and at the same time the Spanish-American child need not regret his Spanish heritage and background. Certainly the bi-lingual (sic) child has a language ability that many children of the nation will never possess. It is believed that the best procedure is to utilize the child's natural background — his Spanish language and culture. Let us use his natural interest in his own environment by doing some teaching through folk songs and dances of Spain and Mexico."

Mother managed to acquire rhythm sticks, tambourines, maracas, jingle sticks, and bells for her students to play. She could play a song on the piano or use a record, and the students would beat out the rhythm and sometimes sing.

End of Her Career

After eight years of teaching at Fierro, the school district consolidated into the Cobre Public Schools and the Fierro school was closed; children were probably bussed to Santa Rita. My mother, with eight years of tenure, was offered a job at Hurley, where she taught for another four years, and then in Bayard, where she taught another four or five years, and ended her career there in about 1968. She had spent 17 years in the classroom.

When I was in my early 40's, my mother admitted to me that she worried I had "suffered" the most from her teaching because I was the youngest and therefore experienced a "working mother" for more years than any of my siblings. I responded quickly to her concerns by saying I had "never felt neglected" and that is true. I don't think it was probably the answer my mother wanted to hear, but I wish I had told her then how much I respected her long teaching career.

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In no particular order, here are other personal articles I have written:

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  1. That's because my mother's father did not like my father and did not want my mother dating him — and certainly not marrying him, which is what they planned to do. 

  2. The name was later changed to Western New Mexico University; it is still thriving today. 

  3. She earned the distinction of earning straight A's on every course she took for her Master's degree.