While writing my recent article on our current teacher shortage and the relationship of that problem to some public attitudes, I was also reminded of a local teacher I knew many years ago, who had started her career in 1930 and had struggled with many regulations that impacted women in the profession back then. Martha Graham was a talented writer, whose experience and insights are especially appropriate during March, for this is Women’s History Month.
Martha was born in the village of Roseville, back in 1910. Her father, Herbert King, was a blacksmith with just a fifth-grade education, but their small house was across the street from the local grade school and high school, so her family knew much about the local teachers. As she later said in a short memoir titled, “Growing Up In Roseville, Illinois, in the Early 1900s,” her mother de ella was a housewife in a poor family who read stories and poems to the King children. And as Martha grew up, she also loved to visit the Roseville Library and read books.
Like so many children, she was also impacted by teachers. For example, as she says of her first-grade teacher, Julia Anderson, “I absorbed her interest in many things—art, poetry, music, reading, writing, nature, and teaching—all of which became important parts of my life. ” So, her early teacher of her was a great model of a more broadly focused, and very committed, life.
It is not surprising that in 1928, at age 18, Martha enrolled at Macomb’s Western Illinois State Teachers College, where she completed the two-year curriculum for grade school teachers. Then she got her first job as a teacher in 1930, at Prairie City, which had only 600 people.
Fortunately, although Martha often wrote poetry—mostly about nature and small-town life—during her career, she also produced another memoir, “Living and Teaching in Prairie City, 1930-1935.” It’s an insightful look at how young teachers coped during the Depression, as well as an account of the repressive forces that she and other female teachers often struggled with. She shared a rented room with another young teacher who lived with the Decker family, and she taught grades three and four. Her memoir of her reflects her economic situation of her:
“My beginning salary was $75 per month. . . . Out of it came $30 for room and board, and $10 to the Roseville PEO (Pass Education On) organization, until my two years of college were paid for. Most of the remainder found its way to my family in Roseville—six people in the throes of the Depression.”
Martha also provides some interesting comments about her Prairie City students:
“I was concerned about the wide differences in my students, as to their financial and social status, which was reflected in the way they dressed for school, etc. Some were definitely unwashed and always smelled. . . . The children were either excessively shy or extremely boisterous, depending, I suppose, on their reaction to their life situation.”
She understood that home background had an impact on the children, in various ways.
One of the most interesting aspects of her memoir is the list of regulations for teachers, from the school board—such as, “Three weekends out of four were to be spent in Prairie City,” “Regular church attendance was mandatory,” and they also had to lead “young people’s groups.”
And there were some other, unwritten, but “tacitly understood requirements”:
“1. Teachers shall not smoke, drink, or swear. 2. Teachers shall not keep late hours, even on weekends. 3. Teachers shall seldom date, and then only outside Prairie City. 4. Teachers shall dress and conduct themselves in a sober, restrained manner. 5. And (the clincher): Female teachers shall remain single or be fired.”
Although Martha doesn’t say so, the last of those restrictions was surely because the school board didn’t want pregnant women in front of a class—or even young mothers who might mention their babies. Reproduction was not a suitable class topic. And in general, under such rules, some female teachers “became afraid to have an original thought, and conformed utterly.”
But Martha King eventually fell in love with a local high school teacher and coach, Burdette Graham. Their dating attracted the attention of Prairie City school board members—who decided they “were probably going to get married,” as she indicates—and so, she was fired, after five years of very successful teaching.
Martha was greatly disappointed, but she did marry Burdette Graham in August of that year (1935), and she got another job as a country school teacher, not far from town. However, her husband remained as a Prairie City teacher. There was no consequence for him.
But Martha’s situation had a remarkable ending, as she indicates later in her memoir:
”During the following spring, a school board election took place, and write-in ballots made me a member of the board that had fired me! I was astounded, and I wanted to refuse the position, but teachers, friends, and the school principal insisted that they had worked too hard to make it happen—all the while without my knowledge—for me to refuse [the position].”
Of course, the other school board members, who had fired her, were at first “shocked and hostile,” but as Martha says, “They began to listen to what I had to say as a teacher. . . and they eventually removed some of their unreasonable regulations that impacted women teachers.”
Ultimately, Martha Graham’s memoir is an engaging story about what teachers often had to cope with generations ago—when most grade school teachers were female, and the male-dominated culture in some places still assumed that women outside the home needed close supervision. It also shows one woman’s positive impact on such gender-based regulations.
So, lack of respect for teachers is an old problem. Today, we just have another variety.
Writer and speaker John Hallwas a columnist for the McDonough County Voice.