Eighty-eight-year-old Elna Greenfield of rural Birmingham in Van Buren County had heard that the country-school teacher she had at Mt. Zion was still alive and living in Keosauqua. Elna remembered the teacher’s name, it was Veneta Pierce, and she was 10 years older than Elna. So she would be 98. “Lord have mercy!” Elna said to herself.
Elna searched and searched in the Keosauqua phone book, which was hard on her eyes because she has both glaucoma and macular degeneration. Then she remembered—the pretty young school teacher had gotten married. The man would drive by when they were out playing softball at noon and the kids would wave at him and make jokes and kissing sounds. “Oh, what was his name?” Elna wondered. “Leroy? Yes, that was it. Leroy Teal.” And there the name was in the phone book, Veneta Teal. With trembling fingers (she has polymyalgia), Elna dialed the number.
98-year old Veneta Pierce Teal, with fibromyalgia, almost didn’t answer because she thought it was at telemarketer. “Who is this?” she asked.
“Elna. Elna Greenfield. I was Elna Hootman back at Mt. Zion Country School. Do you remember me?”
Did Veneta remember Elna? Oh, how could she forget? Mt. Zion, a tiny town on Highway 1, between Birmingham and Keosauqua, was originally called Summit, because it was the highest point in Van Buren County. The name was changed to Mt. Zion, the place where Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, dwelled.
They had so much to talk about. Veneta taught all eight grades at the two-room country school. And she felt lucky to have two rooms. Most country schools back then were one room. Mt. Zion, like all country schools had outdoor toilets and no running water. It was her job as the teacher, to arrive early, pump water from the well and carry it in to the cooler. She then hand fired the coal furnace in the basement, so the heat would rise up through the 4′ x 4′ register in the middle of the floor, feeling lucky again to even have a furnace. It was the job of the boys to carry out the cinders and put them on the path to the outhouses—the girls’ toilet on one side of the lot, the boys’ on the other. She played softball with the kids at noon and, in the winter, slid down the hill with them on the Workman farm across the road. They never missed any school because of weather. She rang the bell in the steeple when the lunch period was over. Their lunch hour was often a little long.
Elna remembered that it was World War II, because her brother was in the Seabees and came home for Christmas and couldn’t come in the house because they were all quarantined with scarlet fever. She missed 78 days of school that year. Veneta was also stricken with scarlet fever.
In Elna’s eyes Veneta was a natural born teacher. She didn’t teach math, it was arithmetic, and language and geography and civics, penmanship, Iowa History, art (such as it was) and music. Veneta’s favorite subject to teach was reading. She was proud that when “her kids” went on to high school, they could all read, and make change!
They had two plays a year, one at Christmas and one in the spring. They sold sandwiches and cake and pie to raise money, and used the money to go on field trips. They went to Des Moines to the State Capitol, and took all eight grades by train to Ft. Madison and St. Louis. One mother wouldn’t let her son go on the trip, so they used the money from their food sales to buy him a catcher’s mitt because he liked to play ball.
There was never a discipline problem. Like one father told Veneta, “If you ever have a problem with my kids at school, you just let me know and I’ll take care of’m.”
Veneta had graduated from a country school herself, and it was the country school teacher who named her. She had three older brothers. The youngest was 13 years older than her. When her next oldest brother told the teacher he had a baby sister, and she wasn’t named yet, the teacher said the girl should be named Veneta. Veneta was so shy, she told her mother she didn’t want to go to school until she was seven. So, when Veneta turned seven, on March 23, she started to school. It didn’t hurt her any and she graduated when she was 17.
Wanting to be a teacher, she took Normal Training when she was a junior and senior in high school but couldn’t start teaching until she was 18. Normal School Teachers were not allowed to marry and had to live in the community. She made $50 a month. When Veneta discovered that teachers with a college degree earned more, she decided to go to college. Her father wanted to help pay for it but Veneta said she would work her way through. She went to Parsons College in Fairfield from seven in the morning until noon, then worked at the Red and Ruth Cafe in Fairfield that was just down the street from the theater. Red and Ruth were the husband and wife owners of the cafe. When Parsons had trouble, she transferred to Iowa Wesleyan College in Mt. Pleasant where she graduated with a degree in teaching. But it was in the Normal Training where she really learned to teach.
Driving is now tenuous for both Veneta at 98 and Elna at 88. Veneta has been told she will have to take the driving test before her license is renewed. But she never drives on the main road—she only goes to the post office and bank. So, Veneta and Elna may never see each other again. They probably wouldn’t recognize each other if they did. But they talk on the phone a couple of times a week, because “everyday you can feel good, you thank your Heavenly Father!”
Is there anyone out there who can get this country school teacher and pupil together?