Nebraska ETV's 'Last of the One-Room Schools'
'Beautiful window' through which to view the rural life

Children and crew in schoolyard

When the camera stopped rolling at Burr Oak School, the students would ask the crew to join them for recess. At back are Stoner, Geyer and Wieser, left to right, with teacher Sarah Jane Graham and students.

Originally published in Current, Dec. 18, 1995

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Communities don't get smaller than the one that centers on the Burr Oak School in Custer County, Neb.

"If you get any smaller you're down to just one house in a prairie," said Joel Geyer, writer, producer and director of the Nebraska ETV miniseries, Last of the One-Room Schools.

In four, half-hour programs, the series documents a year in the life of Burr Oak School, "a beautiful window from which to view the rural landscape," said Geyer.

It is not literally the last one-room schools, but one of the best of the 200 or so that still exist in Nebraska. Back in the 1880s, when settlers rushed in to homestead Custer County, 280 such schools operated within its boundaries. Today, Burr Oak is one of eight.

When the series premiered early this fall in Nebraska, viewers filled up the network's voice-mailbox with messages such as, "Hope this is shown all over America, it's the hope of the future," and "Went to one in Debolt District 29, ought to keep them, they are...the best education, wouldn't trade it."

PBS will offer the series to stations through its PBS Plus service in late January.

Earlier this month the series pledged "like gangbusters," according to Ron Hull, associate g.m. at the Nebraska network.

"The programs are just so redolent of midwestern culture and lifestyle and values that go back two generations, and people just respond to that," said Hull.

Last of the One-Room Schools is not a happy-history nostalgia-fest, however. It is a profile of the rural community that surrounds the seven students of Burr Oak School and its teacher Sarah Jane Graham, a documentary about what will be lost when the American infatuation with bigness finally drives the last of the one-room schools out of existence.

"When this century began and one-room schools were starting their decline, our country was in love with size," said Roger Welsch, host and narrator, during an introductory segment. "Bigger was almost always seen as better. Bigger factories, bigger government and bigger schools were sure signs of progress."

From Burr Oak's "small size and simplicity, we might just see something of our future, in this remaining part of our past," he added.

Rooted in the present

To be sure, there's plenty in here to recommend the series to old folks. Early programs look back at the days when one-room schools dotted the countryside, but firmly acknowledge that not all schoolchildren had reason to remember them fondly.

Grandparents are seen taking an active part in their grandchildren's lives. The moral lessons of the McGuffey Reader are praised. Children are well behaved, do their chores, say grace, and exude an old-time naivete about the larger world.

In one scene, the children climb in their teacher's 1983 Mercury Cougar for a field trip to the Custer County Museum. On the way there, they pass a large white sign that points the directions and lists distances to people's homes. At the museum, white-haired ladies display turn-of-the-century pictures of students dressed in their Sunday best for their eighth-grade graduation. Two boys named B.C. and J.R. examine an apple press.

From footage of this excursion, the program shifts to an explanation of the growth of the county in the 1880s. "At the turn of the century, states with the smallest schools had the highest literacy rates," says Welsch in the narration. Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa still have the smallest schools and the highest literacy rates.

Geyer skillfully blends many different elements of the series. A beautifully shot segment showing Ashley, a rancher's daughter, doing her chores and walking down her long driveway to school on a clean, crisp morning accompanies a voiceover explaining the local economy and the decline of the family ranch. While the program shows J.R. hunting with his dad, the narrator presents the parents' dilemna: will sending him to a consolidated school help J.R. overcome his shyness?

In another scene, B.C. talks about the difficulties he had going to school in Los Angeles, where other kids picked on him because of his small size, and where he was diagnosed as learning disabled. "In California, I don't really want to say it, but I'm gonna say it--it kinda sucked," said B.C. Later, at Burr Oak, he clearly thrives under the guidance of Graham, who was recommended to Geyer as "the best teacher in four counties."

No panel discussions

The future of Burr Oak is a major theme. Coverage of the school board's discussion of the subject brings out the economics of the one-room school, and the dynamics of the community. Burr Oak's annual budget of $32,520 for educating seven children is way below the national average, Welsch notes in the narration. But the landowners pay the property taxes, and the hired hands whose kids attend the school have little say in the matter. "The real boss is the landowner," he notes.

The series is beautifully shot. Imagery of abandoned one-room schools, a grasshopper climbing a weathered building, a herd of cattle frosted and steaming on a cold winter morning, girls riding their horses into the sunset, make imprints in viewers' minds.

Don Welch, a humanities educator and "poet of rural life," as Geyer describes him, offers commentary throughout the series. His presence is reminiscent of Shelby Foote, the historian whose stories added personal appeal to Ken Burns' The Civil War. But instead of telling anecdotes, Welch offers little essays on education and the one-room school experience.

"Slow down," Welch says. "Take a good piece of literature, find out if it has any virtue, and if it has virtue, ask the kids to reflect on it momentarily. Just maybe they'll take it into their lives."

Footage accompanying this advice showed Graham on the floor, reading a story to her students about treating others with the courtesy you'd extend to a family member. Their faces are intent on the story; their hands rise when Graham asks them what it means.

One of the program's strengths is that it discusses some "rather thorny" educational issues, such as property taxes, school prayer, multicultural education (or the lack of it in an all-white community), and preparing children for the future workforce, said Gene Bunge, Nebraska ETV's program manager. "All of us in public television are searching for ways to present educational issues in effective and appealing ways." Last of the One-Room Schools "does that without being didactic or hammering down your throat or having a panel discussion. It raised the issues in a natural context."

Capturing rural virtue

Producing the series was a "labor of love," said Geyer. His background in cultural anthropology and documentary filmmaking, and an appreciation of Nebraskan culture that he gained by marrying a Nebraska native, led him to the project.

Geyer recalled the state slogan, "Nebraska--the good life." As hokey as it may sound, "There is something that's good about life in Nebraska, and it doesn't have anything to do with mountains and oceans. It's the human landscape, not the physical landscape. It's a place where family values and community values still function. That's not to say there aren't alcoholics or abusive people, but in the plains states, the sense of family and community is very strong."

Geyer had been looking for a way to "talk about rural culture and rural life and not over-romanticize it but capture the virtues of it." He pondered projects on county fairs and six-man football, a game played among schools that lack enough boys to field a full team, before stumbling upon an article about Nebraska's one-room schools.

After raising money to do the series, Geyer traveled to central Nebraska where seed-company caps "start giving way to cowboy hats" and "things start to spread out." He "ping-ponged" around to five different schools on a tour of their Christmas programs. With seven students, Burr Oak put on a show that was over an hour a long and "hands down the best."

"Moreover, the room was packed to the gills with people," Geyer recalled. "There was a powerful community ambiance you could feel."

Slipping into the background

"A crucial part of the production design was finding a team that could slip into the school, be accepted and slip into the background," said Geyer. "We don't get to do a lot of cinema verite. It's a fine art form of being able to fit into a group and not overwhelm it." With seven students and a teacher in a one-room school, adding three people into the mix became an even more delicate task.

Both videographer/editor Perry Stoner and audio technician Mike Wieser came from rural backgrounds. Being from Indiana, Geyer said, he might as well have been from Brooklyn.

On the first day of school, the three-man crew began videotaping events before they'd even had a chance to meet the children personally, recalled Stoner. Later they introduced themselves and Geyer explained the equipment and what the team did with it.

"I put them in front of the camera and let them say 'Hi Mom!' and 'We're number one!'," said Geyer. After the students had had their fill, he told them " 'Okay, we're not going to do that the rest of the year.' "

Soon the children became sophisticated about whether the camera was rolling or not. Stoner would put it up to his eye and the kids would go about their normal business, said Geyer. When he put it down, the students would invite the crew to join them at recess.

"As the school year went on it became easier and easier," said Stoner. "We became a part of the school, and the camera more or less an extension of myself, and the audio equipment an extension of Mike."

The production team visited the school at least once a month during the school year, spending up to five days there at a time. They captured the "big events" in the school, such as grandparents' day, field trips and the Thanksgiving dinner, said Geyer.

Footage of the spelling bee, county music contests, and a track meet didn't make it in the series, even though they were charming. "We focussed on events that had content beyond charm."

"We were concerned about over-romanticizing or being too sentimental," he added. "We knew that we wanted to identify the virtues of the one-room school before they're gone, while not neglecting the vices."

"We became so attached to the kids, their families and the teacher," added Stoner. "At the end of the school year ... we saw them as friends. It was a little bit hard to not react when something funny happened, to remain neutral or a bystander with the camera."



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