New Mexico's First Schools

By Marc Simmons

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My 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 remembered it.

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 us."

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.

Nevertheless, physical 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.

To order "The WPA Guide to 1930s New Mexico" or other books by Marc Simmons, visit Amazon.com.

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