Thursday, May 17, 2012

A wonderful, wonderful teacher

Genevieve (left) and Corinne during their teaching days

By the time the Stock Market actually crashed in 1929, Genevieve had already known a decade of privation on the farm, which is perhaps what led her to pursue a teaching degree. Or possibly it's just that she came from a family that highly valued education, long before it was in vogue for women to be educated. (As we'll see later, her two aunts, including Corinne's mother, had been teachers in Elkhorn as young women.) As a result, both Genevieve and Corinne decided to attend teacher's college. Genevieve went to Whitewater Normal School (now UW-Whitewater) and Corinne attended the Wisconsin State Teacher's College (now UW-Milwaukee.)

A few years ago, I wrote an article about the history of UW-Whitewater and the important role the teacher's colleges played in the state educational system and in the education of women in general:

The school began as the Whitewater Normal School in 1868, when a large crowd of Whitewater businesspeople and politicians gathered to dedicate the fledgling teacher’s college. The school was intended to train teachers at both the elementary and secondary level, and was one of several normal schools chartered throughout the state of Wisconsin following a state legislative decision in 1865 to locate one normal school in each congressional district.

Normal schools, which got their name from their French counterparts, the Écoles Normales, were intended to "normalize," -- or in modern parlance, standardize -- teaching practices. They proliferated in the aftermath of Horace Mann’s educational reforms of the 1840s, which called for a strong push toward universal public education in the United States.

In Wisconsin, the normal schools had a close relationship with the University of Wisconsin. The original charter for the University in 1848 contained a provision to include a normal school, but financial concerns and disagreement about admitting women to the institution bogged down plans to enact that provision. During the interim time, individual congressional districts began to establish their own normal schools as a response to a local need for teachers, so that by 1865 legislation was necessary to establish the one-per-district precedent.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the Wisconsin State Legislature awarded charters for the normal schools to individual locations. In fact, the formation of a normal college within the University of Wisconsin (now UW-Madison) in 1866 is what finally prompted the university to admit women to what had previously been an all-male institution — though for two more years, the university operated a separate “female college” within the normal college, choosing to run every lecture twice daily, once for men and again for women -- until they abandoned the practice and integrated the classes in 1868. 

Like most normal schools of the time, the program Genevieve completed at Whitewater was a two-year program. But I believe Corinne's program in Milwaukee had recently expanded to a four-year program. According to Wikipedia, the Wisconsin State Teacher's College was a leader in teacher training at the time Corinne would have been there: "Known for its innovative and experimental programs in teacher education, the Wisconsin State Teacher’s College was a national prominence at that time and was considered one of the top teacher training colleges in the nation..." (Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel, was an alumna.)

When Genevieve finished college, she accepted a placement teaching in Evansville, Wisconsin, a small town west of Janesville. The 1930 census tells me that while she lived there, she lodged with a family whose last name was Green. I don't know if she spent one or two school years there, but she always referred to those years as very lonely. As someone who never got a driver's license, she didn't like being so isolated and far from home. So I imagine it was a great relief to her when she was offered a teaching position at an elementary school in Lake Geneva, much closer to her extended family. She was the kindergarten teacher at the Third Ward School in Lake Geneva - a K-3 school located on Henry Street. (It is now the Lake Geneva American Legion building.)
The Third Ward School in Lake Geneva was a four-room, K-3 school in Lake Geneva from the 19th century through the 1960s. Now it is the home of the American Legion in Lake Geneva.

I went to the library to try to learn a little about the history of the Third Ward School, and the record is remarkably silent on the subject. An 1882 "History of Walworth County" mentions a school "near the fire-house" -- Third Ward was practically across the street from the Lake Geneva fire station -- but it doesn't say anything about when that school was built or what it looked like, so I can't be sure it's the same school (though I suspect it is.) My dad went to the Third Ward School for first, second and third grade, so I know it was still in use in the 1950s - to the best of his memory, it didn't close until the mid-1960s, but he's not certain. 

 The back of the Third Ward School in Lake Geneva - I believe this was the main door when it was a school.

I'm not positive on the dates, but I believe Genevieve would have started teaching there around 1932, and she worked there until she married my grandfather, at which point she was expected to vacate the position for "someone who needed it." (Ah, how far we've come in such a short time - now working families can't even get by without two wage earners.) 

As crazy as this sounds, I have still not been able to find out when my grandparents were married. (They divorced in 1976, and I never met my grandfather.) But I believe they were married in the late 1930s or early 1940s. One of the few things I know about my grandfather was that he had had tuberculosis as a young man and that the army wouldn't take him during World War II as a result. As one of the few men of eligible marrying age in the town during that time, perhaps he looked especially appealing to Genevieve. I will probably never know things like how they met or what drew them together, though I can say from photographs that he was a handsome man in his younger days, and probably the fact that he was a lawyer in Lake Geneva was a selling point as well. 

So when she got married, Genevieve retired from teaching, but her legacy lived on through the kids she taught. When I was working at the Barrett Memorial Library in Williams  Bay in 2008, one of my co-workers, a woman who was close to 80 years old at the time, asked me if my grandmother's maiden name had been Potter. When I said yes, she said, "Your grandma was my kindergarten teacher. She was a wonderful, wonderful teacher."

"I know," I said. "She taught me how to read." Because, of course, though Genevieve retired from teaching, she never really gave it up. She just waited for the right pupils to come along; first my dad, and then me.

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