The way The Secret School begins, with fourteen-year-old Ida driving a Model T Ford, but being so short her brother needed to be on the floor working the clutch and brakes, is a true tale, told to me by a bookstore owner who had gone to a one-room school house. Though very young she had a special driver’s license which allowed her to drive—but only back and forth to her one-room school house.
I think it was hearing that story that led me to write The Secret School
“Consolidated School District,” is a term common across the landscape of American schools. What is not always realized is that in many cases the consolidation was of one-room school houses into large school systems. It happened following World War Two, when there were massive population shifts, and car transportation became truly mass transportation. But prior to this time there were thousands of one-room school houses in rural areas. In my Colorado home area, I can identify at least seven buildings that were once one-room school houses. Though greatly reduced in number they still exist. When you learn about their architecture you can spot them everywhere.
Some years ago I visited a small campus of The University of Montana which had the only program in the country for would-be teachers in one-room school houses. Aside from standard education courses, you were required to take classes in plumbing, accounting, and other such practical skills.
One-room schools pop up everywhere in memoirs, and those who went through the systems are fiercely loyal to their schools and educators. Their strength lay in community, dedicated teachers and that students taught one another. Their weakness lay in their isolation, (physical, cultural, racial) and courses of study beyond the strength of individual teachers, more often than not, science. This kind of problem was remedied, in one case, by the State of Wisconsin that broadcast (radio) classes for the scattered students.
In any case, I was fascinated by these schools and was able to interview folks who had been students in such schools. I also was able to visit some still-existing schools. There are any number of books about these schools, too.
The Secret School was originally written and serialized in newspapers for Breakfast Serials.
It can be still read in its original format (with illustrations by Brian Floca) via the internet at Instant Serials. A slightly expanded version was published and is still in print.
One of the pleasures of publishing the story has come from readers who shared memories of their (or their grandparents’) one-room school experiences, including the ninety-year-old newspaper reader who corrected my placement of those Model T clutch pedals.