I was going into the sixth grade when we moved to a tiny town called Aguanga, with a population of 50 (we increased it to 56). There I attended nearby Cottonwood Elementary school. This was the last functioning one-room schoolhouse in Riverside County, California.
Yes, I’m so old that I actually attended a one-room schoolhouse. It was built in 1897, and functioned until 1975. Now there’s a more modern Cottonwood Elementary, with multiple rooms, built directly behind the original. But the old schoolhouse still stands as a historical landmark.
Each grade from one through six was represented by at least one student. Altogether we were a body of 27 students. Our principal and teacher was a middle-aged lady named Mrs. Rusk.
It was Mrs. Rusk’s first year at this school, and she had to figure out methods on-the-job, to teach her students in this unique environment. One method involved breaking us up into study groups, based on grade, then making rounds as she supervised each group.
She also wanted to recreate the historical spirit of this academic setting. She encouraged us to play old-time games during recess, such as kick-the-can and capture-the-flag. She held old-fashioned spelling bees. And she made sure our music lessons reflected the history of the Old West, with a songbook taken from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma!
For several minutes of each school day, we set down our books and pencils and belted out tunes like, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” and “Oklahoma.” And every day she’d cast a longing glance at a dusty old piano that sat abandoned in the corner. We had to sing a cappella, because no one knew how to play the piano.
One day on lunch recess I was called in from the playground by Mrs. Rusk, who told me I had some visitors. I was astonished to find my dad and siblings inside. I hadn’t seen my dad in over a year. He was arrears in child support and thus, forbidden by law to visit.
He had sneaked into town and stealthily removed each of his kids from school. I was the only one of his children attending Cottonwood, and also the last intended victim in his kidnapping ploy. But Mrs. Rusk seemed wary, and reluctant to release me. She sensed something wasn’t right. Besides she’d be breaking rules by releasing me to an unauthorized person. Rusk didn’t like the risk. She mumbled something about a very important lesson and said that it wouldn’t be healthy for me to miss this lesson.
It seemed my dad’s kidnapping scheme was unraveling, and that I had just a precious few minutes to visit with him before lunch would be over and class would resume. That’s when Dad spotted the dusty old piano sitting in the corner. He moseyed over and began pecking out a tune.
Mrs. Rusk made a beeline for him, face abeam and hands proffering sheet music from Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Y-you can play?!” she asked excitedly.
Oh yes, he could play. Dad was an ex-pro, having supported his family at one time, playing in a saloon for tips. He drew large crowds of drinkers and tipsy tippers with his zingy, free-wheeling style of pedal-and-key pushing. But he only played by ear. He couldn’t read sheet music very well.
He brushed the sheets aside and suggested that she have her class begin each song a cappella, and then he’d figure out the tune and join in.
It worked like a charm; the same charm that gilded my father’s smooth personality. Soon the rafters of that old schoolhouse were ringing with our bright, cheery voices, accompanied by brattling, blaring riffs ripped from that half-tuned antique.
The “very important lesson” Mrs. Rusk had been planning was thrown out the window. For the next hour we covered Oklahoma! in full-throated glee and harmony. We fulfilled Mrs. Rusk’s historical fantasies by turning the room into a time-machine with our magical music. For one shining hour we transported back to the horse and buggy days, and enwreathed our schoolhouse in the spirit of the 19th century, from which it had been born.
I stood tall and sang proud amongst my 26 classmates, enjoying the reflected glory from having such a dad as this man, tickling the ivories. I’ll always treasure this memory.
After the last song, Mrs. Rusk gratefully released me to my kidnapper. We drove off for an afternoon of sneaking around town, enjoying billiards, dodging my mother, and reuniting with the happy-go-lucky spirit of a beloved father who was usually absent from our lives.
Dad disappeared into the sunset after dropping us off near our house. In our lumpy-throated farewell, we swore secrecy to him. It was only about ten years later, after we were all grown, that we informed our dismayed and chagrined mother about this lawless adventure.
I learned nothing from school that day, except one very important lesson: Screw the law. If you’re not hurting anyone, to hell with following rules. Have fun. Love your family. And create many happy memories in the highlights of your life.
Just be sneaky enough to avoid getting caught.