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Students Spend a Day at School in the 1880s

Filing into the one-room schoolhouse, the children slid into the well-worn, shiny, 150-year-old Welsh desks and curiously surveyed the pot-bellied stove, the portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln above the blackboard and, finally, Miss Jones.

As they shuffled their feet on the unfinished wooden floor, the teacher explained the ground rules of life in the classroom during the 1880s. The group of 10 children had come Wednesday morning to the Stagecoach Inn Museum in Newbury Park, which gives living history programs to schoolchildren throughout Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley.

“A hundred years ago, teachers were very strict and students had to be very polite,” explained Miss Jones, who is really Vivian Rattray, a retired grade-school teacher. “The teacher would enter and say, ‘Manners,’ and then the boys would bow and the girls would curtsy and say, ‘Good Morning, Miss Jones.’ ”

“Manners.”

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The assembled kids, boys wearing bandannas around their necks and girls with patterned aprons tied about their waists, then performed as instructed.

They rose, bowed and curtsied, and dutifully recited.

The three schools--a Winnetka school had been on the waiting list for two years--had come to visit the just-opened Timber School, a three-quarter scale reproduction of the original, which was built in 1889 on land bought for $50.

During the school portion of the hands-on experience, Rattray rushed through a brief tour of subjects studied in 1889: the three R’s, with geography thrown in for good measure.

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The students read from reproductions of McGuffey’s Third Reader, wrote on black slates with chalk, stood when called on and shot their hands eagerly into the air, straining to answer the easy questions Rattray asked.

“You don’t have to do as much,” observed Nicole Prior, 10, a student at St. Martin-In-The-Fields Parish School in Winnetka. “But I’d rather just stand than curtsy.”

Nicole’s classmates reached similar conclusions.

“I like this class because there’s no homework,” Niklas Thelin, 10, of Canoga Park stated flatly.

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That the lessons weren’t too challenging and Rattray never broke out the ruler and rapped the knuckles of unruly pupils suited just fine the fourth-graders from St. Martin, Calmont School in Topanga and the Carden School of Camarillo.

“It was real good,” said Tyler Colbert, 9, a student at Carden School. “It was old-fashioned and I like that.”

Other students thought perhaps a revision of their schools’ current modus operandi was in order.

“We should bow before class because it’s polite,” said Tom Paternoster, 9, of Agoura Hills and a student at St. Martin. He tried to stifle a laugh as he issued the declaration while his colleagues simply burst out laughing. They said he talks too much in class and shouldn’t be believed.

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Asked if he liked this school day better than his usual one, Tyler’s answer revealed a wisdom beyond his 9 years.

His reply: “No comment.”


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