for Lizzie B. Stewart
Boyds Corners School, Boyds Corners, New York
1934 - 1939
I love goulash. I love the smell of a big, simmering pot of goulash.
I love the taste and texture of this delightful one-dish meal. But most
of all, I love where it takes me in memory. And it has been like that
most of my life—at least since I was seven or eight years old.
Many years ago during the early days of my marriage, my wife, quite unknowing
of my love affair with this food, prepared a tasty goulash dinner for
us and I think she was rather surprised with my response. "Great," I said,
"that reminds me of Mrs. Stewart."
As we shared dinner that evening, I related to her why goulash and Mrs
Stewart seem to me to be inseparable.
I think the year is 1935 and the hard times of these depression years
are making life difficult all around here. It seems especially rough for
my mom and dad and grandparents who moved here to this rural upstate New
York farm just to make a living after dad's sign-painting business in
a bigger city "bellied up" three or four years ago. But all this doesn't
seem to bother me too much. I have plenty to eat and there's lots of fun
things to do around here with my older brother, Tom. One of the things
I enjoy most is going to school. I haven't been going long, but I go almost
everyday now. You see, I don't really know when I started because the
teacher here told my mom I could spend the day at the school with her
whenever I wanted to and, wow, she has so many fun things for me to do
that I like to go a lot.
Our one-room school is about two miles from our house and my brother
and I usually walk there every day. We just follow the county roads until
we cross the creek by the white country church. The narrow macadam road
makes a sharp right turn there as it winds its way alongside the creek
to other small villages quite a ways away. But when we cross the bridge
we follow the dirt road straight ahead past the church and cemetery. Soon
the road goes up quite a steep grade and there, high up on the bank, is
our little white school with bright green painted trim all around. Actually
there are four buildings in all—the schoolhouse itself, the woodshed
and two "outhouses," one for the girls and one for the boys, which are
both sorta hidden behind the school and the woodshed. I guess its pretty
much like any other country schoolhouse around the countryside. I don't
know about that because I haven't been to any other. But what makes my
school special and fun for me is the teacher who I have here every day.
Her name is Lizzie B. Stewart. But, of course, I wouldn't think of calling
her anything but Mrs. Stewart—except in school. Then we just call
Inside the school, the double-desks where we sit are along both sidewalls
of the room. In the middle of the room there are a few single desks but
we usually don't need to use them because there aren't that many of us
who come to school here. Towards the center front of the open room stands
a large wood stove with an ornate metal top that swings to the side exposing
two or three removable stove lids. Arriving early in the morning, Mrs.
Stewart goes to the woodshed and gathers the kindling and the wood to
build the fire, that is, if she has forgotten to have it put in the wood
box in the "ante-way" the day before by one or two of the older boys.
By the time most of us get to school the room is nice and warm and the
smell of the wood-fire fills the air. And a large teakettle of water is
steaming on the stove.
You know, it gets pretty cold early in the fall in these parts and we
often get really chilled walking in the snow and facing the wind. Even
though we carry our lunches, Mrs. Stewart thinks we should have some hot
food every day for lunch to go along with our cold sandwiches. Of course,
sometimes in the early fall or spring she just fixes something hot to
By mid-morning Teacher usually begins to unwrap the meat and the vegetables
and the canned tomatoes and the macaroni, making frequent triangular trips
between her desk, the blackboard and the wood-stove. Now the macaroni
goes into the hot water as she listens to Helen Thompson read the Gettysburg
Address. Then the jars of tomatoes give a 'hiss' and a 'pop' as she pulls
the rubber sealing rings away from the glass lids. Meanwhile, she's helping
Junior Hall who's standing at the blackboard working out an arithmetic
problem while the rest of us are busy at our seats with lots of different
things she has given us to do. And now just smell that goulash as it begins
to simmer and steam on the stove. Excuse me for awhile. Teacher wants
my reading class to come around her desk now. There's only three of us,
so we get lots of help reading fun stories. When we finish, Mrs. Stewart
tells all of us in the school to clean off our desks and put everything
away. Looking at the big clock at the front of the room right under George
Washington's picture, she says it's lunch time. And I'm glad because I'm
really hungry. As we gather around the stove Teacher dips each of us a
big bowl of hot goulash to go along with our cold lunches we've brought
from home. It tastes so good before we go outside to play for noon-hour.
Of course, Mrs. Stewart doesn't make goulash everyday. She brings lots
of other good things to eat from home. I think she must work very hard
every night getting all that food ready for all twelve or fifteen of us.
Every day she makes something hot for lunch here on the wood stove. But
the goulash is still my favorite.
As I finished relating this story to my wife, I realized, perhaps for
the first time consciously, that goulash means much more to me than an
enjoyable food. It remains a symbol of security and the warmth and love
which filled these early school days making the learning process for me
a joyous and exciting experience. For over four years my young life was
enriched with the energy, enthusiasm, creativity, love of life and caring
qualities of this unusually foresighted and gifted lady there in the little
one-room school at Boyds Corners, Steuben County, New York.
Thank you, Teacher, for the goulash!
The air this morning is very chilly as Tom and I start walking to school.
Down the road, just across the creek we stop at the front gate of Junior
Hall's house to see if he's ready to walk with us. The three of us play
together quite a lot and he often walks to school with Tom and me. They're
both older and bigger than I, so sometimes they walk faster than I do.
They're always telling me to "hurry up," but in the winter I like to make
angels and all kinds of tracks in the snow, but they'd rather have snowball
fights. Sometimes they get to playing and forget what time it is so I
get to school before they do. But today there's no snow because it's only
the middle of October. The sky is blue, the air is crisp and the corn
shocks stacked around that field over there will soon be put on a wagon
and taken to the barn to be cut up and put in the silo for winter ensilage
to feed the cows. Down there on the corner as the road makes a sharp left
turn this side of the bridge is where Glenn Boyd lives. He grows a big
garden with lots of corn and tomatoes, squash and pumpkins. By now its
pretty brown and almost everything is dead and covered with a white frost
this morning. But he has a pile of pumpkins of all sizes sitting out there
along the road. Sometimes he brings a load of them up to the school for
Halloween Jack-o-lanterns. Gosh, I'd better hurry along and get up the
hill to school so I won't be late.
As I begin to climb the dirt road I see the puffs of grayish-white smoke
coming out the chimney on the schoolhouse. Boy, that fire will feel good
this morning. As I get to the concrete slab outside the ante-way, Mrs.
Stewart is just coming out the door to ring the big hand bell. "Good morning,
Rolly," she says. "I have something to ask you when we get inside." Wonder
if I've done something wrong, I think. Hope I'm not in trouble. After
I hang up my jacket in the ante-way, I go in and stand by the stove to
Then Mrs. Stewart comes back in and as she sets the bell on the corner
of her desk, she says, "Rolly, how would you like to be a pumpkin in our
Halloween Program?" I sorta smile and say, "OK, I guess," afraid to show
how excited I really am. As I go over to my desk, Teacher follows me and
when I slide into my seat she leans over my desk, puts the palms of both
hands flat on my desk in front of me and with that winsome smile and twinkle
in her eyes she says: "I'd also like to have you sing a solo. Think you'd
like to do that?" I just nod my head 'cause I like to sing. Except for
a couple times in Sunday School tho, I've never sung alone for big people
sittin' out in the audience. I suppose Teacher has been talking to my
mom or maybe she has heard mom, my brother and me sing around the piano
at home. We do that quite often so I think it'll be a lot of fun to sing
in the Halloween program here at school—especially in a costume.
"Today we're going to plan our Halloween program for all our parents,"
teacher told us this morning. "It's only about two weeks from now, so
we have to begin making our costumes this afternoon after lunch."
Seems to me Mrs. Stewart can somehow get everyone busy making things
all at the same time as she walks around and helps each one of us. Some
of us are making bats, others, cat faces and witches and all sorts of
Halloween costumes. Teacher says these are going to be big paper costumes
that we can get right inside and wear for the program. She's been helping
me make my big pumpkin costume. It's so big that only my head and arms
will stick outside. Maybe I'll get to keep mine to take home after the
The days are going fast and everyone is getting very excited and a little
nervous, too. Every day we're painting costumes, practicing our poems
and readings and trying to put everything all together. A couple of the
older boys are putting up hooks on both sides of the room. Then they will
run a wire from one side to the other so we can have two curtains come
together at the center right there in back of the stove. My mom has been
helping me learn my song at home. She's a piano teacher and plays along
with me there, but we don't have a piano here at school, so Mrs. Stewart
brought a small tambourine for me to shake and thump as I sing my song.
It's bright orange and about six or seven inches across with three sets
of metal rattles around the edge of the rim. It's perfect for Halloween
because it's got a witch in a tall, pointed hat riding a broomstick painted
in black right on the face of it where you hit it.
Well, the day has finally arrived and tonight all of our parents and
the whole neighborhood will be here. We went through the program this
afternoon and Mrs. Stewart said she was proud of us all and that she thinks
we'll have a good program.
It's now close to seven o'clock and almost time to begin. Some of the
moms and dads have had to hurry to get the chores done to get up here
to the school on time. It's getting pretty dark in here now so Mrs. Stewart
and Rell Alliger's dad are lighting the kerosene lamps that sit on swinging
brackets around the walls. I think there are seven or eight lamps altogether.
The room is getting full of people. Don't these big people look funny
sitting in our little desks? Some of them won't even fit. It's a good
thing Mrs. Stewart asked to borrow some folding chairs from the church
at the bottom of the hill so no one will have to stand. The dull yellowish
light from the lamps in the room makes lots of flickering shadows--really
good and spooky-like for a Halloween program. After Mrs. Stewart says
a few words to the audience, the curtains open and we begin. I'm too excited
and nervous to pay much attention to the ones before me. Now there's only
one more and then I have to sing my song. Yep, the big black bat just
finished, here she comes, and, a-n-d—here I go! "Walk slowly," I
hear Teacher say, "so not to tear your costume." I clutch my tambourine
as I hear the curtain slide open again and suddenly there I am facing
all those people. Boy, am I glad I can't see them very well. Then I give
my tambourine a shake and a rattle and two or three thumps and start to
Bee-dle-ee um-bum-bum, Bee-dle-ee um-bum-bum,
Here comes the man with the mandolin…
Then I repeat the words again to end the song. I hear clapping as I walk
off and the curtain closes quickly in front of me. There are several more
students yet to perform in our little program but, you know, my heart
is thumping too hard to pay much attention to who they are or what they're
doing. Then I hear Mrs. Stewart say, "That's the end of our program. We
hope you've enjoyed it. Please join us now for some donuts and hot cider.
Well, I did get to keep my pumpkin costume and now and then for many
years I would come across it hanging on a nail in my grandmother's cob-webby
closet in an upstairs bedroom. "Grandma," I'd say in my emerging adult
sophistication, not wanting to be reminded of childhood things, "Why are
you keeping all that stuff from the Hedgesville school?"
"You just never mind," she'd snap back at me. "Those are my things up
there." Somehow, in the many changes that the years inevitably bring about,
the pumpkin costume disappeared. However, after my mother died several
years ago, it was necessary for me to clean out the many boxes of keepsakes
and family memorabilia in her attic. One afternoon, weary of the seemingly
endless process of sorting this "stuff," I hurriedly grabbed another of
the many boxes desiring only to finish this tiresome task. As I opened
the flaps, my attention was drawn to a rather flat, oblong box tucked
at one side. As I pulled it out I noticed my name written in my mother's
handwriting on the outside. I quickly opened the box. There, carefully
wrapped in yellowing tissue paper was the little orange tambourine with
the black witch still riding her broomstick. As I turned it over in my
hand a small piece of paper fell on my lap. "Roland's tambourine," it
read, "given to him by Mrs. Stewart at Boyds Corners School for his first
public solo. Age 6." How quickly my mind relived that important evening
so many years ago. The tambourine today has a very prominent place on
a very visible shelf in our home.
As a vocal musician, public performances became common occurrences during
my professional life. But sometimes, while standing in "green rooms" before
a particular performance and feeling somewhat apprehensive, knowing the
unpredictability of the success of the task before me, questions would
often arise in my mind. "Why am I here doing this?" or "What were the
events of my life which brought me to this lifestyle?"
It was then I would see again the one-room schoolhouse at Boyds Corners
and Teacher's caring eyes full of encouragement and expectation tenderly
looking into mine over my desk. Once again I'd feel the reassuring warmth
conveyed so lovingly by her magic smile so many years ago. "I'd like to
have you sing," she said. My questions are answered…"Beedle-ee-um-bum-bum"
is in my ear…I smile from way down deep as Teacher and I walk briskly
into the lights.
More Stories by Roland Bentley about Teacher Lizzie Stewart