What was it like to teach during the Great Depression? Well, if you were like Ann Marie Low, living in Dust Bowl North Dakota, it was probably pretty tough. $50 a month, no heat in the hotel room you share with another unpaid teacher, when you’re not forced to take another room that a trucker wanders into.

You might have a student like, Dora, whom after sensing that she will never be up to the curriculum, you teach to crochet instead. You might have some leeway when it comes to curriculum, but not much. Consolidation and compulsory education make you march to the same drummer we march to today under Arne Duncan and No Child Left Behind. And just as we have Bill Gates today, you have your own fat cat bully: William Randolph Hearst, whose papers, if they haven’t already pressured you to take an oath of allegiance, soon will. If you’re a Dust Bowl teacher you’ve probably read in the paper what makes a successful rural teacher:

She must be able to build fires, adjust fallen stovepipes, put in windowpanes, sweep, dust, split kindling, drive a car, keep out of neighborhood quarrels, know how and where to whip a bad boy, understand school laws, raise money for libraries, keep all kinds of records, plant trees on Arbor Day, be of good moral character, and pass examination of the branches of modern education.

And if you’re Ann Marie Low, you must do this all while putting your little brother through school and trying unsuccessfully to keep your father’s dust-covered ranch from choking, its yellowing pastureland from scalding, and thoughtless bureaucrats from condemning what’s left. If you’re a woman your choices are slim, even if you make it through college. Your life is a blizzard of misfortune that never seems to end.

Being a teacher in a downturn I know a thing or two about. But being a teacher during the Great Depression… only women like Ann Marie Low can tell you about that.

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