August 2007

Vignettes from OWLTOWN - The Final Excerpt

Author: Dennis Malick

Owltown School. Standing alone. One room. Eight grades. Irish Valley. Paxinos, PA. The mid ’40s.

Owltown School is a cracked school bell, a pot-bellied stove, lockout day, being chased home from school because I reminded the teacher she forgot to assign homework…

Owltown School was pretty much protected from the winter west wind that blew down through Irish Valley. The school, which snuggled against the dirt road that ran along our play hill, had plenty of trees to catch the wind and snow.

Home, a half-mile away, was a different matter. Our house and, most importantly, my bedroom west window, invited the winter wind in. Mom moved the furniture seasonally, with the foot of the bed always at that window. In winter, the head of the bed was rolled around next to the hot-water radiator; and on the coldest, windiest nights, I slept against that radiator. In summer, with the bed rolled around to the opposite wall, I often slept at the foot of the bed to catch that cooling breeze.

The west wind blew over Owltown and snow settled on the school roof, the boys’ and girls’ outhouses, playground and meadow out back, creating areas for playing “Fox Chase the Goose” snow tag. Knee-high snow was best for that.

First kids out at recess made follow-the-leader paths that created a maze of crisscrossing trails for playing tag. You had to stay in the path. Fall or step out, and you were “IT.” The longer the game ran, the more elaborate the paths, crossing the iced-over creek (“crik”) and back, but always with a home base where you were safe from “IT.”

As an Owltown first and second grader, I never thought snowball battles were much fun. With 30 to 35 kids over eight grades, I pretty much knew I was one of the snowball targets.

Around home, snow tag went under the snow. Drifts from the west wind were sometimes three and four feet deep—great for tunneling. The top couple inches would partially melt during daytime then freeze at night, giving the drift a hard roof and making tunneling easier. That’s when it was more fun being a little guy, able to scoot through the tunnels.

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Owltown was in Shamokin Township and one of six one-room schools, each with eight grades. Come graduation day, eighth graders from all the schools gathered in one area church for the ceremony to advance to high school. Before that, each pupil had to pass a final exam in arithmetic, spelling, English, geography and history, passed down from the county (Northumberland) superintendent’s office. “And write five book reports,” cousin Mabel June remembers.

“We are glad to have you with us on this happy occasion,” she told the May 25, 1943, commencement audience, in her “We Say It with Smiles” recitation speech she wrote and then memorized. The faded pencil document remains a keepsake today.

Roger graduated in 1945, the last for the eight-grade school, ending 125 years of learning and growing. “We had to find a ride to high school for a couple of years by private car,” Roger recalls. “Then they put on the buses.” The lower grades were bussed to the two-room Swank School at the other end of the valley, picking up pupils along the way from the vacant Tharp School. The next year Swank also closed.

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Postscript:

Though Owltown still stands, closed and lonely in its history, one township one-roomer has found a new life. Meadowview School, closed along with all the others, is alive again with kids studying and playing. A Christian day school bought Meadowview, and at least one grandchild of Owltown lineage is, unbeknownst to him, reliving his grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ “kidhood.”

“They use a cowbell to signal in the kids from recess,” Sherie says of her son’s school. Like those from a century before, he and his schoolmates do the chores (taking out garbage, sweeping floors, shaking the erasers, cleaning the chalkboard) at the end of the day, just like in the old days.

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