Mexico's First Schools
Articles by Marc Simmons
friend Ernestine C. Williams of Roswell recently self-published
a history of one-room schoolhouses in Chaves County. She taught
in one of them back in the 1930s.
People today are surprised
to hear that children were able to learn how to read, spell and
cipher under conditions that we would now consider intolerable.
Williams' little book, "Chaves County Schools," shows
that in fact, this was routinely done.
When we look generally
at what New Mexican children put up with in their early struggles
to get an education, we can only marvel. One of the best accounts
of their hardships was left by Cleofas Jaramillo of Santa Fe, who
died in 1956.
She grew up in a small
mountain village north of Taos and received her first schooling
in a bare, single-room adobe structure. There was no furniture,
so students brought their own small chairs or benches at the beginning
of the term. The teacher furnished his own desk.
Blackboards and slates
were unknown. The only textbook belonged to the teacher. He copied
words and sentences on pieces of cardboard and passed them around
the class. School began at 6 a.m. A cast-iron stove supplied heat
in winter. The county failed to provide fuel, so the children brought
with them an armload of firewood.
The education offered
in this primitive classroom was effective, and the boys and girls
went away well versed in the three Rs. At least that was how Jaramillo
No public-school system
existed during the centuries of colonial rule. The Franciscans offered
some instruction, but mainly in religious studies. And occasionally,
when the king's treasury could afford it, the children of Spanish
soldiers got access to a teacher.
During the short Mexican
period (1821-1846), the Republic of Mexico made a gallant effort
to bring formal education to outlying areas like New Mexico. Government
decrees required creation of escuelas primarias (primary schools),
but here there were no taxes or other monies to pay for them.
In a few cases, public
escuelas got started, but none of them lasted long. Census records
of the period identify three teachers in both Albuquerque and Santa
Fe. But none are listed for such important places as Bernalillo,
Belen and Socorro.
Discipline was strict
in those days. Rafael Chacon in 1906 wrote that as a boy of 7 in
1841 he attended the Beginners School in the capital. "I would
take a short cut to school across a field belonging to Gov. Manuel
Armijo. One day he caught me and hit me with his cane, saying his
land was not a public road.
"Even though I was
scared and hurt from the blow, I knelt down and asked his blessing.
Such were the orders of my teacher-always to ask our elders to bless
Cleofas Jaramillo relates
that in her school, children who arrived with dirty hands got them
slapped with a ruler, and those whose hair was uncombed received
a thump on the head.
Finally, after 1850,
Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy began introducing church schools up and
down the Rio Grande, and the territorial government belatedly followed
with public schools late in the century.
hardship continued, especially for rural students on New Mexico's
eastern plains. Those on isolated homesteads or ranches often had
to walk or ride horseback long distances to schools. Only later
did school buses appear, the first ones pulled by a team of mules
or horses. The coming of motorized buses meant improved speed and
comfort, if not safety.
Instances of buses being
stranded on the open plains in a blizzard were not uncommon. Leaving
the children huddled together, drivers might set out on foot to
seek help. Some of them perished in the attempt.
A woman living today
recalls another problem at her little school that sat alone on the
bald prairie. The privy out back occasionally became infested with
rattlesnakes. Classes had to be suspended until fathers of a couple
of the students arrived to "de-snake" the premises.
Reviewing incidents in
the history of education in New Mexico can remind us of the long
road we have traveled.
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Articles by Marc Simmons