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Stephanie Rollag


Stephanie RollagPiecing It Together

In 1947, my Grandma Anna walked into a traditional, one-room school-house in the open prairie of Northwestern Iowa.  Two sides of the square, white building were lined with four large windows to let light shine onto the desks inside the school classroom.  The front of the building had neat steps that stretched to the main door.  Inside, she wore a grey and navy blue, plaid dress, and her hair was neatly pulled back.  She started the furnace, said a short prayer, and waited for the neighbor children, her students, to enter the room.  

My grandmother, the teacher.  

When I was young, her kitchen table became the central location for my cousins, my siblings, and me.

 “Who’s ready to play Rumicube?” she challenged a crew of her energetic grandkids. We pushed our chairs around her dining room table, spreading the lettered and numbered tiles out on the table.  

 “I’ll read the rules,” one of us announced.  My grandmother patiently encouraged us to build patterns of words and numbers together. We cheered each other on, shoved a few elbows, and took turns circling the competition around the table.  Our laughter and conversation filled the room.

On summer days, we were students of her fishing skills and patience.  With poles in hand, we fought for my grandma’s attention:

 “Grandma, I have a fish!  What’s that? I have to go to the bathroom.  This is kind of gross.”

She assisted patiently at the end of an assembly-line of hooks that needed worms, fish that needed to be thrown back, or fishing lines that waited to be untangled.  We left the dock with a few fish and stories of our adventure. She and my grandpa brought us back to their farm.  She celebrated our success by cooking up our fish and assuring us that we had each caught at least one portion of our meal.

In high school, I followed the gravel road to her house in search of advice.  

She waited for me in her kitchen with a glass of lemonade, a piece of her apple pie, and her listening ear.

 “What is it, Stephy?” she asked, a nickname that only she could call me without it making me feel younger than I wanted to be.

 “I don’t know what to do,” I  whined about whatever essay topic I was trying to choose, minor decision I was over-analyzing, or new realization about life I was unraveling.

Then, she sat down next to me and reassured me, “You’re so smart,” encouraged me, “I believe in you,” loved me, “I will be thinking of you,” and offered honest advice, “Work hard.  Do your best.  Pray.”

In the comfort zone of my mind, I cart around these memories of her teaching me how to learn, to love, and to have faith.  

When I was home from my first teaching job I found myself at my grandma’s kitchen table, this time flipping through a photo album.  As my life extended past the lessons of fishing trips, board games, and high school drama, the conversations shifted, but I still looked for her advice and her comforting, calm demeanor.  It was this visit that brought me to the black and white photograph of a sturdy schoolhouse in the open prairie.        

 “Tell me about this picture,” I nudged my grandmother, as she filled both of our coffee cups.   

She touched the edges of the photograph with one hand and placed her other hand on my shoulder.  She paused for a moment before saying, “That was the first schoolhouse that I taught in.” She pointed to the other page, “And those were my first students.”

She sat down next to me and pulled the photo album closer to both of us.  I listened  to her tell me for the first time, “It was always my dream to be a teacher, you know, but I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”  

My grandmother started to tell her story.  It was the first time that I heard about her life before my mom, before sharing all of the responsibilities of living on a farm, before she was married to my grandpa.  With each visit since then, we talk about teaching and this newfound connection.         

 “You had to teach eight grades?” I wonder.

 “You teach 130 students?” she counters.  

Now, I look forward to one October day each fall.  I wait by the ironing board for directions. My mother stands by the kitchen table, armed with a pile of pins.  My grandmother sits in a chair and holds a stack of quilt squares. These squares are designed and decorated by each of my students. My grandmother, my mother, and I sew these squares together and make a class quilt.   We work steadily until we have a new creation to bring back to my students.  All the while, we share our memories and our stories.