A hundred or so years ago, schooling was compulsory in Massachusetts but not in every state. Mississippi became the last state to require its children to attend school in 1918. Life differed so from New England to Nebraska, or from New York City to New Orleans, that children growing up in various regions of the country had very different experiences of school.
Systems in cities like Boston and New York were coping with massive immigration. With a hundred or more children entering its schools every day, New York City crowded pupils into dirty, foul-smelling buildings where plaster fell from classroom ceilings and where there were too few toilets, fire escapes, and playgrounds. Teachers who had been instructed to "Americanize" their charges punished children for speaking Yiddish or Italian, even if the guilty parties knew no other tongue.
In towns of the more recently settled states to the west, schools were built of wood, brick, or stone, as in the East, but some prairie children stilll attended sod schools. The last one, in Decatur County, Kansas, remained in use in 1907. So much of the country was rural that most U.S. schools were of the one-room variety, with pupils of all ages learning together. Some states required teachers to demonstrate competency, but not all did, which meant that a country teacher might be a girl of fourteen or fifteen with an eighth-grade education who wanted to escape hard work on the farm.
The U.S. Supreme Court had indirectly sanctioned school segregation when deciding the case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. This historic decision permitted southern communities to operate two school systems, one for white children and one for black. Stretching resources in this way generally kept the quality of education lower in the South than in the North, but it hurt African American children more than whites. The schools were to be "separate but equal," yet those for African Americans were shabbier, their supplies were fewer and older, and their teachers earned less.
The federal government, meanwhile, had undertaken to educate--or, more properly, reeducate--children of another minority group, the Native Americans. The government transported American Indian children far from their western homes to places like Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and there stripped them of their names and traditional dress and taught them to speak and comport themselves like "Americans." The heartbroken, homesick children reaceived a largely vocational education. Boys learned trades like carpentry, printing, and blacksmithing, and girls were trained in "domestic science," or housework. The entire experience left graduates ill prepared for life in white society or on the reservations to which most returned.
In Massachusetts, David Deeley learned to read and spell, to add and subtract. He memorized the rules of grammar and the multiplication tables, and he practiced his penmanship. I don't know if he went on to high school--barely a third of Americans of his generation did. I am curious to know what he learned of geography, though, because when he left Caryville as a young man and traveled to Buffalo, New York, where he would meet my grandmother and spend the rest of his life, he decided that when he got off the train and walked among the cowboys and Indians, he would act cool, as if he had seen it all before.