A one-room school house on a Montana ranch with a teacherage residence that was more a closet, where personal conveniences were nil-no indoor plumbing, no heat, and the barest necessities for furnishings. What would lure a recently graduated woman to teach there? But that question faded into the background by the time I reached page 10 of Horseback Schoolmarm, where "children swarmed out to meet me, 'Mama here comes the schoolmarm'." I just wanted to spend the year in that classroom with Margot Liberty.
This memoir of a first-year teaching experience was drafted in 1953 and tucked away until the author decided to publish in 2016. I'm so glad she did. The dialogue, descriptions, and narrative are pure enjoyment. The simplicity of the written memories versus the author's numerous and impressive accomplishments in later years is fascinating.
Lacking experience and much in the way of official training, Miss Margot's (as she instructed her students to call her) imagination, energy, and love and understanding of what kids need made me want to stand up and cheer. How ironic that her motivation was not to make her mark as a master teacher. In fact, after a crash summer course for teacher certification, she accepted the position to see if she'd like living out West. The attraction was a fellow she was dating who worked on a nearby ranch.
Horseback Schoolmarm is told with lyrical phrasing that is both visual and evocative of over half a century ago. Seven students ranging from first to seventh grade made up her school population. The book chronicles a year of building a school, sometimes literally, from bookshelves, to a playground, to fixing the roof. She accomplished this with her students measuring (math), planning (conflict resolution), hammering (phys ed), and salvaging (environmental studies). Her understanding of children's needs to feel safe and comfortable made this a heartwarming read.
Many of the activities reminded me of my early years' teaching in the late 60s and early 70s in suburban New Jersey. Peabody Draw-a-Man assesses readiness in most any child; repurposing old shirts for smocks was still a hit. This beginning teacher's common sense, humor, and integrity makes me put this on my must read list for any new teacher, regardless of geographical location.
Miss Margot's zeal for empowering her students, along with the energy of her youth, made for an almost dizzying lineup of dawn-to-midnight activities. The choice to ride her horse into town when driving wasn't possible becomes typical of this teacher's approach to life situations. I found myself applauding her assertive actions to get supplies for the school. Her expectation that her students would rise to the level of her standards was inspiring. Along the way she forged relationships with the families in her adopted community. Most endearing were conversations and simple observations from her students. The student-written Christmas script held brilliant dialogue about the baby Jesus quite possibly being naughty as a boy, but certainly not as an adult.
The author's approach to teaching was as simple and profound as her father's advice for writing her book. "Place the seat of the pants in the seat of the chair." Chapter titles are equally to the point. What you read is what you get, and what you get is a thoroughly enjoyable and honest story.
After teaching for several years, Margot Liberty pursued her doctorate and is an acclaimed anthropologist specializing in Northern Plains Indians and ranching culture. She is the author of several books, poetry, and articles. She returned to the academic venue as a faculty member at Universities of Nebraska, Missouri, and Pittsburgh.
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