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Arlynn O'Connor

Arlynn O'Connor sitting in her Sioux City home in late March. O'Connor began her schoolteacher career in the early 1940s, beginning at a one-room schoolhouse near Obert, Nebraska. 

SIOUX CITY -- The country school where Arlynn O'Connor began her teaching career 78 years ago, south of Obert, Nebraska, had it all: a single room, a furnace, a teacher.

O'Connor was, in effect, also the custodian for the school and did pretty much every other job, since it was only her there. The gig paid $45 per month for the first semester, and a few dollars more for the next semester if she did a good job. 

"The first day of school, I was there, looking at things, opened my desk, and there was a big snake inside the desk," said O'Connor, who turned 98 in March. "I went and got (my brother-in-law), and the snake had curled itself under the back of the desk. I was a little leery of that desk." 

The snake wasn't some prank: "I think it just got in there, somehow." O'Connor ran a tight ship, and wouldn't have allowed such tomfoolery at the school. 

"There was a guy that I blamed. He said, 'Oh, I would never do that to you! I would never do that to you!" 

O'Connor taught 14 students, some of them her relatives, at the school in 1941. At the time, she had one year of college under her belt. 

The students (of varying ages) learned their reading, writing, arithmetic and music all together, all from O'Connor. Some went on to high school. 

Their teacher lived a spartan, Laura Ingalls Wilder-style life. 

"I lived with my sister and her husband, and I walked three-quarters of a mile. Had to do the cleaning and dusting and everything, build the fires," she said.  

She probably would've taught a second year, but school officials in Cedar County wouldn't allow it. 

"I got married, went back to teach the second year, couldn't teach, because I was married," she said. This policy was common in those days. 

For several years after her teaching at Obert ended, she "had to learn to be a farmer's wife" -- driving a tractor and other farm duties. 

In the early 1950s, she got a teaching job at another one-room country school southwest of Newcastle, Nebraska. She stayed there for two years, and one mother told her she was "the best teacher we ever had." 

While there, O'Connor once had her hair singed off by the old-fashioned heat stove, when it woofed out a flame at her. 

"There I had some really rowdy kids," O'Connor said. "I was a pretty good tosser of the softball, and so we went to different schools and played games." 

The students there were probably under-taught by whoever was the teacher before her, O'Connor said. 

"One boy didn't cross his t's or dot his i's -- 'Well, the other teacher didn't have me do that!'" she said. The boy's name, oddly enough, was Timothy. 

She later taught in Wynot, Nebraska, for five years, followed by two years in Sibley, Iowa. 

Teaching in Sioux City, finishing her degree

In 1962, the family moved to Sioux City, and O'Connor began teaching at Webster Elementary, followed in 1965 by Everett Elementary, where she stayed until she retired in 1986. 

Decades after her one-year stint at Wayne State College in 1940, O'Connor got her bachelor's degree in 1968, after years of summer courses. She was in her late 40s by then. 

"My oldest daughter got her degree from Augustana College 45 days after I got mine from Wayne," she said. She later got a Master's Degree from the University of South Dakota and took more classes at Morningside College. 

All five of her children got degrees, and four of them spent time as teachers. 

When the former Reading Lab instructor at Everett retired, O'Connor decided she'd like that job. The principal wanted her to continue teaching first grade, but she persisted and got the Reading Lab job over his objections. 

"I said, 'I think I can help more kids if I do that,'" she told the principal. In her new position, she helped students who struggled with reading: "I just loved it." 

No air conditioning, no cellphones

Back in the old days, long before air conditioning came to school buildings, did officials ever cancel classes during a heat wave like they do today? 

"No, no, no!" O'Connor said firmly. "They came in spite of everything." 

"It was 100 degrees in that room, and my mother-in-law gave me a great big fan, and we tried to blow the heat around." 

O'Connor also has an old-school idea to combat cellphone distraction in classrooms, a problem she never had to deal with. 

"I would abolish them." 

Even after her retirement, she worked as a tutor for 17 students, continuing until she was well into her 80s. 

"I should've gone into subbing," she said. "A lot of teachers do that." 

A number of O'Connor's students -- the oldest of whom would now be in their late 80s -- have died. Some departed while she was still teaching, and she remembers the circumstances: one died young in a car accident, another was murdered, and one young lady passed in her early 20s of unknown causes. 

O'Connor makes a point of attending her students' funerals when she can. 

"I still look at the paper to make sure that anybody hasn't gotten into trouble," she said. "If they have died, I've gone to their funerals." 

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