At a very young age, Lela Atwood Peterson set a life goal for herself. Long before she even entered first grade, she had her sights set on being a teacher.
There was no kindergarten in the part of North Dakota where Lela grew up so when her siblings shuffled off to the one room country school she would attend when old enough, she spent her days leafing through her parents’ Dakota Farmer magazine to cut out black and white pictures for her future bulletin boards.
As a tyke, Lela even made files and organized them in a large cardboard box “because I wanted everything saved for my very own students in my very own school. One day,” she writes.
Lela is a dreamer who saw to it that her dream came true. A graduate of both Minot State University and the University of North Dakota, she taught elementary school for many years in North Dakota, Wisconsin and Germany.
But no matter where she studied, where she has traveled and where she taught, Lela’s captivating educational beginnings were within the walls and on the playground of Grover #3, a one-room country school a mile north of the farm where she grew up near Tolley, N.D.
For those who may not know what a one-room school is, let me explain. A one-room school was (or is) a building with just one classroom where one teacher teaches academic basics to several grade levels of elementary-age boys and girls.
Lela is in good company. Other notables whose learning of reading, writing and “rithmetic,” started in a one-room school are Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Herbert Hoover as well as Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie book fame.
Mention Grover #3 to Lela and she fairly melts. It was a place of love and refuge, she says. It’s where she spent her eight elementary school years under the guidance of five different teachers. It’s where so many good things happened and countless life lessons were learned.
Retired and living near Reynolds, N.D., Lela recently published her memoirs in a book titled, “Pencil Shavings – Growing Up in a One-Room Country School on the North Dakota Prairie.”
“Pencil Shavings,” is a collection of stories that happened to Lela just as she remembers them. She uses the real names of people and bases every detail on what she recalls of those precious days.
Thank heavens she didn’t keep these wonderful stories to herself because they sure are fun to read.
Lela chose the title, “Pencil Shavings,” because of an incident she was bullied into carrying out when she was in first grade. She thought for sure she’d be expelled from school and is the first to admit she was in-and-out of more scrapes than anyone else at Grover #3. How the teacher handled the pencil shavings shenanigans is quite remarkable.
Included in the book are 11 stories each from her first and second grades. There are 12 stories from fourth through seventh grade, and seven from grade eight, her last year at Grover #3. Lela then attended and graduated from Tolley High School.
Especially endearing is the story titled, “Basket Social.” Each year the event was held to raise money so equipment and necessary supplies could be purchased for the school. This chapter tells of the lesson Lela learned about the neighbor who purchased her basket. The lesson: That every single person on earth has value and worth.
The story, “Christmas Gifts,” captures a reader’s heart and may be my favorite. It’s about the teacher taking Grover #3 students first to her own parents’ home for an early supper and then to Kenmare, N.D., to Christmas shop for their families. Everyone was to bring money to shop with.
When Lela learned her “shopping buddy,” had no money, she gave him her $3. Then, the night of the Christmas program and student gift exchange, she was the receiver of the most beautiful and unexpected gift of all. She and her shopping buddy’s family had all experienced the wonderful joy of giving.
There’s a sketch of a little pencil sharpener at the top of each chapter. And interspersed throughout the book are sayings from famous people. Such as:
· Aristotle: “Educating the mind without educating the heart, is no education at all.”
· A Japanese proverb: “Everyone makes mistakes. That’s why there is an eraser on every pencil.”
· Martin Luther King Jr., “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
· Lon Watters: “School is a building which has four walls with tomorrow inside.”
· Margaret Mead: “Children should be taught how to think, not what to think.”
· Sam Levenson: “Any kid who has two parents who are interested in him and a houseful of books isn’t poor.”
· Robert Frost: “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”
Because of Lela’s deep Christian faith, there also are a few Bible verses here and there. An example: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” (I Timothy 4:12.)
In the back of the book, Lela shows copies of a teachers’ contract and his or her duties. And even though she didn’t get straight As, she shows her report cards.
“Pencil Shavings” will no doubt rekindle memories for others who may have attended a one-room country school. And for younger folk, it is history in their hands.
Lela will have a book signing from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at Ferguson Books and More in the Grand Cities Mall on S. Washington Street, Grand Forks. If you can’t stop by, you can reach Lela at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Incidentally, “Pencil Shavings,” is not Lela’s first book. In 2015 she published “Selma,” the story of her maternal Swedish grandparents who came from Sweden to settle on the North Dakota frontier.
Both “Pencil Shavings,” and “Selma,” each sell for $20. Lela will mail each book out for an additional $4.
Did you know that “every story has an end, but in life every ending is just a new beginning?”
That’s in Lela’s book, too.