Mr. I. A. Johnson, the sole teacher, custodian, and counselor of the Bethlehem School, evidently kept a notebook or journal of his 1887 to 1888 year of instruction there. The Bethlehem School was located between the Bethlehem Methodist Church and today's Celeste Henkel Elementary School on Old Mountain Road in the Shiloh township of Iredell County.
Public school term began in November of 1887 and concluded, with appropriate exercises, in March the following year. Mr. Johnson shared portions of his journal with The Landmark on March 22, 1888, and in case you missed it, here it is again, 131 years later come this Friday. Teacher Johnson probably was paid monthly about a dollar for each day he taught.
There were 70 pupils enrolled at the Bethlehem School, but only about half that number showed up regularly; they were needed to work on the family farm and probably would have preferred to have been in school. The average age of his students was 13 1/4 years. Mr. Johnson was perhaps required to measure the boys' and girls' heights and weights for he reported the average height of his charges to be 4 1/2 feet tall and the average weight of these students to be 90 pounds.
The average attendance for the first month was 38 students. He tells us he began the boys and girls with reading the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles and went from there to reading "Helmes' Readers" for the first through sixth grades, which apparently was as high as his school went.
The iconic "Three R's" were stressed in 1887, but Mr. Johnson does not tell us about his instruction in writing and arithmetic. However, he reported his pupils read portions of the New Testament from Acts and by having two reading lessons a day, covered Matthew through the eighth chapter of Luke. He stated that during the term a total of 223 chapters of the Good Book were read in the Bethlehem School.
"Each [student] was required to have at least one verse memorized to (be) recited at the close of the morning lesson, but they did not stop with one verse," he reported. "Many had from two to eight, some more, at each morning recitation, making a total of over 1,200 verses of the Good Word of Life memorized and recited during the school [term], for which service a New Testament is presented to each of the Bible class."
Perhaps nearby Bethlehem Methodist Church helped with the cost of the New Testaments.
Another textbook was "Webster's Elementary Spelling Book," and his pupils seem to have been divided into two classes for their spelling lessons. At the opening of school Mr. Johnson had promised a prize to the student having the highest average ["greatest number of headmarks"].
"One hundred and forty headmarks appear for each class," Mr. Johnson wrote. "Quite a number in each class polled close together, but Miss Nessie Bost carries the prize in first class and Master Gus Bost in the second." One assumes Nessie and Gus were related, perhaps even siblings. The Bost family must have been proud.
During the school year Mr. Johnson also visited the 24 families of his students, and he reported that he was "very kindly treated at every place." "Bethlehem district,” he wrote, “is certainly an extra [fine] district for good board and clever people.”
Mr. Johnson evidently boarded with a local family. Of the cooking ability of his hosts, he reported, "The cooks have plenty to handle and the old ladies and daughters know exactly how to fix it up to be highly appreciated by one having an excellent appetite, even if the grinders [his teeth] are bad."
It would seem that Mr. Johnson had what he considered to be a successful year. He concluded his report to The Landmark's readers with the words, "Best wishes will certainly follow both parents and children while they live."
Mr. Johnson, who apparently was the only teacher at Bethlehem that year, made no mention of PTA meetings, end-of-grade testing, bus routes, safety officers, computer instruction, guidance counselors, restroom facilities, cafeterias, gymnasiums and other prominent features and concerns of today's elementary schools.