One Room is Enough
“If you haven’t gone to a one-room school, you haven’t been educated.”So says Mae (Little) Beringer, started teaching in in 1927 in one of the 300 one-room schools in Mercer County, PA.
Through the first half of the 20th century, most kids in rural areas throughout our country received their elementary educational in one-room schools. They are known for teaching the “three rs” – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. But according to Mae, there was another r that was at least important as those three: respect − for the teacher, for school property, and for the other students. That’s what made it possible for one person to teach 40 or 50 students spanning eight grades. And respect was instilled through discipline.
Mae says teaching in a one-room school is an art.
“It’s one-on-one. It’s not an easy task. You have review every day because all the classes are there. They’re hearing everything, they see everything, they learn from everything.”
It’s not only review – it’s also preview.
“We may be having math class in any of the grades, or history. The whole school may raise their hands. If the seventh or eighth grader doesn’t know the answer and a third grader does, she may answer it.”
Mae is completely convinced that Her effectiveness as a teacher is rooted in her upbringing. She was born in Millbrook on April 19, 1909, into a family whose ancestors came to Mercer County in the 1820s.
“I’m functionally related to one-room schools down through the generations. My mother and father taught in one-room schools. As a student, I went to a one-room school in Delaware Township. School has always been an important issue in our family. And history was the main subject. We had an assortment of information in our family. We had the World Book encyclopedia. Through World War One we had a map up on the wall to show where my uncle was. We had folks in the Civil War. We did a lot of writing in our family.”
Her ability to deal with lots of kids developed at home.
“I was the oldest of ten kids, and we all had to work out in the fields and on the farm, and mother would say you’re in charge of the kids. Whatever they need to have done, you do it. I had control over my younger brothers and sisters. And I mean I was strict with their discipline. She said, you have to set the example for the kids.”
She also learned another r that enhanced her ability to teach school: resourcefulness.
“We lived at the end of a long dirt lane. We did not have any modern conveniences whatsoever. None. No electricity, no indoor plumbing, no furnace. We had a potbellied stove and a kitchen stove. We wore whatever hand-me-downs or sale priced things we could afford. If we didn’t have something, we tried to make it, or raise it or grow it. With ten kids in the family, there’s a lot of exchange of ideas as to what we can do. If we wanted something like stilts, we made them out of what we could get out of the pasture or the woods.”
Mae got her secondary education at Fredonia Vocational School. That’s where she met Harry Beringer of Fredonia. In 1927, right out of vocational school, she started teaching at the Reichard School in Delaware Township. She and Harry got married two years later.
“He lived in Fredonia. His dad worked for the telephone company. He helped his dad in the telephone company on the occasions that he could. But his dad said he wasn’t spending any money for him to go to college.”
To Mae, that was not an option.
“You have to get an education. I said, you’re going to college. We’re going to see about that. So we made arrangements for him to go to Westminster. At the end of his first semester, he was offered a job at Grove City College to help with the swimming. That paid for his tuition. He got his degree in accounting.”
Harry’s first job was at Edgewater Steel Company in Pittsburgh for $90 a month.
“We lived in the Pittsburgh area. After four or five years he had a chance to come back to Mercer County, because that’s our home. His parents and my parents lived here. He got a job up at Steel Car in Greenville. Then Steel Car went on strike, and he got a job at Westinghouse. He worked there the rest of his working days.”
When they came back to Mercer County, Mae started teaching again in the Caldwell School. She, too, went to college – the hard way.
“I went to Slippery Rock State Teachers College. I only went summers because I taught in the winter for $2 a day.”
Harry and Mae only had one daughter, Dawn, who was born in 1939. Nevertheless, they raised a large family.
“I had a brother who had three kids, and he couldn’t take care of them, so we had those three. I had another brother who had eight kids. Two of them came to live at our house. When I was teaching through the years, we didn’t own our house until World War II. We bought Judge James McLaughry’s house on West Market Street in Mercer, in 1953. Nobody had lived in it for ten years, and it needed a lot of work. It was built in the 1800s, before the war between the states. We lived in that house for eight years and did everything to it that had to be done.”
Mae is justifiably proud of her long teaching career.
“I don’t claim to be the best teacher in Mercer County or in Pennsylvania, but I do feel that nobody can bring up any questions about what I didn’t do or what I did do in school. I never missed one day of teaching school from 1927 through the years – and I’m still teaching. I haven’t retired. The Caldwell School is the only one-room school in Mercer County. It’s open to any group in western Pennsylvania that wants to learn what they didn’t learn in the big school. And what’s the most important thing they didn’t learn in the big school? Discipline. They don’t have discipline in big schools.”
Many of the “big” schools throughout Mercer County bring sixth graders to visit the Caldwell School.
“They come in and their first question is, do you have a paddle? I said yes. That same kid said, do you use it? I said, try me. That’s all I need to say. My dad told my brothers and sisters if you get the paddle at school, you’ll get one at home. And we didn’t have the problems that we have now. It’s lack of discipline that’s causing the jails to be overcrowded, in many cases.”
She also strongly believes that the one-room school experience integrated life and education in a way that can’t be duplicated in big schools.
“When we had a field trip on the last day of school, we walked on the Erie Extension Canal towpath. And in between fall and spring we often reviewed the Erie Extension Canal because our grandparents, our parents at that time, in their teens, and my mother all knew about the Erie Extension Canal because they lived near it. We walked to school, so we had a field trip every day living in the country.”
The quality of education in the one-room schools was assured by a test that every student had to pass in order to get into high school.
“That was not an easy test. Right now kids don’t come out of high school with the skills to pass that test.”
For years Mae has researched the history of Mercer County and written about it under the pen name of Joanie Appleseed – including a book on one-room schools. At 97 years of age, Mae is as busy as she has ever been, and plans to be as long as her good health holds out. Besides hosting groups at the Caldwell School during the summer, she continues to research Mercer County history. She is a charter member of the Mercer County Historical Society, and remains active in it.
Mae’s husband didn’t share her good health, despite living a healthy life style.
“My husband has been dead for about twenty years. He was not a person with good health. He did not smoke, we did not use alcohol in any way, I’m totally against it, I’m totally against gambling. I was president of the Mercer County Women’s Christian Temperance Union for 28 years. Harry was likewise against alcohol.”
She attributes her own continuing good health to the genes she inherited.
“We have people in our family on both sides who lived to be over 100. My mother was 99 when she died. And I’m coming up to her record. I’ll be 98 in April.”
Mae beat her mother’s record. She passed away on December 16, 2009, at the age of 100.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009