Edgar Prescott: Teaching in the Forties

Introduction: Edgar Prescott arrived in Yelm in the 1940s. His descriptions of Yelm in numerous articles and books he wrote provide a great record of the history of the town. The following is an excerpt from his memoir found at the Washington State Historical Society.

It took hours to write those thirty applications, evenings and a couple of Saturdays and Sundays, and after they were mailed, I settled back and waited for contracts to come flooding in.

It wasn’t exactly like that. I was working every day, and every day the job seemed to be getting a little more undesirable. Evenings when I came home I’d ask Alice, “Did we get a job yet?” and she’d shake her head.

Then one evening she nodded, yes.

The letter she handed me was from a superintendent named Montgomery, from a town called Yelm, in the state of Washington, and it contained not only a letter but a contract. The contract offered only fifteen hundred dollars, but Mr. Montgomery explained in his letter that if I was willing to drive a school bus, I could get an extra five hundred dollars, or close to it, during the school year; and that there was a mostly furnished house, right in town, available for only ten dollars a month.

The money the contract offered wasn’t anywhere near as much as we’d hoped we might get. Still we were excited about the chance to live in Washington state with Puget Sound and the ocean and Mt. Rainier, and the big trees I remembered reading about in my seventh grade geography book, and the cool summers . . . the soft warm rain that kept everything fresh and green.

Yelm, we thought, was an intriguing name for a town, an Indian sounding sort of name, and though it was one of the places we couldn’t find on the map, there was a family we knew living in Ault that claimed they’d heard about it—a logging town they thought it was, close to Olympia.

The schools, Yelm High School and Yelm Grade School, sat side by side—We found them across the railroad track and a piece up the street to our left. They were more modern looking than we were used to, spread out along the ground instead of being piled up, one bunch of classrooms on top of another. In fact the high school looked new.

Actually, we found later, it had been in use only a year. The old frame high school, the one it replaced, had burned to the ground a couple of summers before. Both buildings were surrounded by lawns and bordered by trees and a low hedge.

I hunted up Frank Bower, the high school principal. There weren’t a lot of days left until school would start. Frank was a big fellow for that time, about six feet two—Anymore it seems that half the kids in high school are six feet two, even the girls—and he weighed close to two hundred pounds, all of it brawn, but he had a gentle voice and eyes that I described to Alice as being understanding. They were the kind of eyes you wouldn’t be bashful looking into if you were hurting or needing help or advice; but it sure wouldn’t be easy to look into them if you were figuring on telling a lie.

Frank was about my age, maybe even a year or two younger, but already he’d been principal at Yelm. going onto ten years. Standing beside him, talking to him, I got the sudden feeling—Maybe I should call it a premonition—that I had got into the right school system, that with Frank running it, everything was going to go smooth as silk.

He took me over to the high school—Like I said, it was practically a new building—and showed me the room where I would be teaching for the next twenty-two years.

It was a big room with windows running along one side and end and the other two walls with blackboards and cases of maps which pulled down on rollers like window blinds. There were maps of every continent and country. They were practically new, but a lot of them were already obsolete. No map maker could hope to keep up with what was going on in Europe and Asia and Africa. There were maps marking the routes of armies and the sites of battles for almost every war except the one that was going on right then. On the front wall, above the blackboard, were two framed portraits, one of George Washington and the other of Abraham Lincoln.

Frank took an armful of textbooks I would be using during the first semester out of a bookcase and gave me a schedule of classes. I spent most of the days that were left becoming familiar with them and in outlining courses and making lesson plans

But driving the bus made for a long day. Each trip, going and coming, took more than an hour. And I had seven different classes, one of them in general science— I had no background at all in science—and one in Washington history, which I knew less about when I started than the kids I was trying to teach—and not one minute of school time for preparation or grading papers.

No teacher anymore would stand for such a schedule. He’d be out on strike in a minute, and who would blame him?

But things were different back then. There was a war going on. There were only six teachers and a couple of hundred kids to teach. All of us had a lot of classes, and if any of us needed help or inspiration or an example, we had Frank Bower to look to.

It was Frank who got me started off right in that general science class. He taught me how to set up those experiments, and how to prepare slides for the microscope. He lent me his rock collection and his biological displays.

Frank was not only the principal—He had no secretary—he was also coach, football, basketball and baseball, and he taught all the math classes, and the science classes—chemistry and physics—with the exception of the general science class I was teaching.

And that wasn’t all! I was never more surprised in my life than on that Saturday morning when he rousted me out of bed and asked if I would like to help get the field ready for next Friday’s game .

Good Lord! I thought. Saturday too! But I went. I wasn’t the only one either. Bill Thun was there—He was principal of the grade school—and Clancy Jean, the ag man.

We picked the rocks off the field—It produced a new crop every season, Frank said—and we lined it with lime. Then we put up forms for a set of steps and a sidewalk leading from the gymnasium to the field.

The next Saturday we mixed cement, in a box, with shovels, and filled the forms. Working Saturdays got to be a regular thing. Before basketball season started we painted the inside of the gym as well as doing a lot of other little jobs that needed doing. There wasn’t any fooling around like you might think, working without remuneration the way we were. Frank kept us at it. He had everybody’s job laid out and everything ready to go; and he did a lion’s share of the work himself.

But it wasn’t all work with him either. There were Friday evenings when he invited the faculty men over to his house—There were only four of us, including Bill Olson who was the principal of the grade school at McKenna a couple of miles down the road toward Tacoma.

After I’d been teaching at Yelm for a spell—the same room, the same classes, the same maps and pictures on the wall—1 realize looking back that the days and the years somehow got mixed together like they were poured into a blender.

Everything is still up there in my head, bright as a dollar, all the kids-No teacher is ever going to forget kids he’s had in three or four different classes—but it’s almost impossible to fit them into a time frame or even to guess at the order they came in. When I meet one of them on the street these days, sometimes with their kids or grandkids, and he asks, or she asks, “Remember me?”—and he or she tells me what the name is, or used to be, I remember all right, just what each of them looked like back then and where he or she sat in the room, but always I have to ask, “What year did you graduate?”

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