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Before Elbow merged with Swamp Angel

THERE were not more than a dozen and a half or so farm-steads making up Elbow School District in the first place, and not more than one-third of those were contributing pupils at any given time, so it is no wonder that as long ago as 1953 the county superintendent and the local school boards determined to merge that school with Swamp Angel and create Green Valley out of the two of them. Green Valley school was to feature central heat, two separate classrooms, a cafeteria, and indoor plumbing, novelties all to those of us coming in from Elbow. Still, if it did not have amenities, Elbow had character. It was a solid schoolhouse, built not of whitewashed clapboards but of massive quarrystone blocks, and it seemed to stand for permanence and stability on the hill just above our farm. I learned to read and to count change in Elbow school, and to sing ``Botany Bay.''

In some ways I was sorry to leave it even though Miss Koehler, who had kept the school almost as long as the building had stood and still boarded each term with the family of one school board member or another, was something of a tyrant. She was well past retirement age, tall and gaunt and angular, an imposing figure with a temper that had been shortened considerably by her years in the academic trench. She continued to teach only because the school board could not find anyone willing to take her place on the terms she accepted.

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On the other hand, there were things I did not miss about Elbow school. I did not miss the outhouse, which could be counted on to produce a good-sized snake every day or two during hot weather and which - I think I will not describe the experience of using a privy when the temperature is below freezing. I did not miss Miss Koehler's steely eyes and iron hand, either, or the fact that the first-grade desks were in the front of the room, farthest from the kerosene stove and the door that led to recess. But most of all I did not miss the United States Department of Agriculture's nutrition program for backwoods schools like ours. I do not know where the notion came from that we were a malnourished lot or that USDA's new milk-supplement program would improve our collective health. Certainly no one who had looked at our chubby faces or watched us at play could have come to such an outlandish conclusion, and I do not suspect the superintendent of schools, who came around to observe and question us once a year, for her face seemed not only kindly but also wise. Most families milked their own cows anyway, and those who didn't, such as mine, bought good, whole milk from a local dairy farmer whose wife made a chocolate angel food cake that I still dream about sometimes.

Wherever the idea came from, in the late fall of 1952, my first-grade year, there appeared in the back of the schoolhouse a large, brown cardboard box with a lot of ``penalty for private use'' and ``USDA Property'' and ``directions for use'' writing on it. Inside the box was a dingy, grayish, practically insoluble mass that looked a little like laundry detergent; it was powdered milk, something none of us had ever seen, and each pupil was somehow to ingest his or her full measure of it each school day.

It was for our own good. We were reminded that the stuff was being given to us, free, by our government, that it would make us healthy in case we were not getting enough nourishment at home, and that to refuse it would not only show lack of breeding but also was somehow against the law. The school would be held accountable, and in spite of her shortcomings, no one wanted to see Miss Koehler go to jail.

The only way to get the stuff to dissolve was to boil it. So every morning my brother or Dallas Dietrich or some other one of the older pupils would pump a tin pan full of water and set it atop the stove to heat while morning lessons were being recited. By recess time the water would be simmering, and Miss Koehler would measure the prescribed amount of substance into the pan and stir until something about the color and consistency of dishwater appeared. Then she would dipper out to each child, one by one as we shared a single red-and-white enameled tin cup, the morning milk. The young children were served first. NOW, I like milk. I like it very much, and I always have. I like cold milk, whole milk, cream rising to the top, a little to be skimmed off for coffee or for whipping, but most of it stirred back down into the jug. I like rich, fresh milk.

But not this stuff. Not watery, gray, hot, reconstituted milk that tasted more like rusty pump than anything remotely connected with a cow. We wept. We gagged. We choked. We begged: If the government wanted to know we drank milk, couldn't we please just bring some from home and let Miss Koehler watch us drink it?

Sometimes I would miss recess entirely because I had not been able to swallow my allotted portion. On such days I would watch from a window as my stronger-stomached schoolmates swung or sledded, or played ``Grandma Grey'' or whatever game was currently in season, and I would feel miserable. Miss Koehler would feign sympathy, but in my sore heart I knew better: Miss Koehler didn't have to drink the stuff.

Eventually we were allowed to mix a little powdered chocolate into it, and that helped some, though to this day I have difficulty facing a cup of cocoa. Miss Koehler retired after merger the following fall, and at Green Valley, where there was a refrigerator, the milk came in cartons. It was delicious; I usually asked for seconds.

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