William T. Logan Jr. was principal of Newport Center Vermont High School in 1953-54. While going through some of his things recently, a family member found a typewritten copy of a story he wrote about an experience he had as principal one Christmas. Below is a copy of the story, titled “The Schoolhouse Christmas Tree.”
THE SCHOOLHOUSE CHRISTMAS TREE
In the days before consolidation of schools and the formation of large union districts, Vermont was dotted with small “high schools” which housed the village’s elementary students in the same building as the secondary ones. A High School Principal or Headmaster was employed as a full-time teacher and disciplinarian for the building. Should there be a shortage of volunteer extra-curricular supervisors, the principal filled in with such other duties as basketball and baseball coach, substitute bus driver, and movie projector operator at the local Ladies Aid Society meeting. Life was anything but dull for these budding school administrators.
Much has been written on “Boot Camp” training of military recruits, but little has been recorded on the “hands on” experiences of these neophyte educational leaders. With barely three years experience in the classroom, on the one hand, and a master’s degree diploma in the other, they accepted positions in rural towns throughout the state. They moved their families into unfamiliar communities, for at least a three-year stint, and tried to operate an educational and recreational program that raised the standards of the areas they served.
I was one of the “chosen few” who graduated from the University in Burlington in 1950, had done my three years tour of classroom duty in a central school in New York State, and returned to the Green Mountains to help move the budding school consolidation movement along. I accepted “the call” to go to Newport Town in the Northeast Kingdom as the Teaching—Principal of Newport Center High School.
That school house was a wooden framed building. It stood on a postage stamp size lot about a couple hundred yards from a railroad crossing and the three stores and a bowling alley that made up the commercial center of the community. It was about two stories and a half high. The first floor was a half a story above ground and contained three multigrade elementary classrooms and a home economics room.
The rest of the “high school” consisted of a science laboratory, without running water or Bunsen burners, in the basement next to the wood burning furnace and the entire second floor of the building.
Because the total secondary student population for Grades 7 to 12 never exceeded seventy-five pupils, these kids were assigned “home room” desks in the assembly room – or study hall — and attended academic classes in small adjoining classrooms. Boys who enrolled in vocational agriculture spent half their school day in a separate school facility in the neighboring town of North Troy and traveled back and forth in a school bus which was driven by one of the students frequently. Teaching full time and keeping track of the students required the skills of a professional juggler.
On the tongue-in-cheek advice of Dean Bennett C. Douglass, I obtained the personal, professional library recommended for all high school principals going into school administration for the first time. It consisted of three books. These were a Dictionary to help me spell, the King James Version of the Bible to give my spiritual solace, and an Atlas so I could figure out where I was at any given moment. I followed his other advice and checked the toilet rooms frequently each day.
In a school building where a lithograph of Sir Lancelot and the Holy Grail and a colored picture calendar showing a prize-winning Holstein cow made up the entire art gallery, decorating the assembly room for holiday occasions provided a cultural experience. The Christmas season was an especially exciting time in that land of fir trees and snow.
Christmas trees are a “cash crop” in Orleans County. Thousands of trees have been commercially harvested, bailed, and shipped south by Thanksgiving time each year. Every local family has selected, and left standing for cutting later, the special tree that would decorate its home. The Future Farmers of America at Newport Center High School had located and identified the “perfect” tree to beautify our assembly hall. All that was needed to kick off the holiday season was permission from the Principal to leave school for a long enough time to cut the tree and deliver it to the building. A half hour was the generous time estimate given for this venture and it was granted.
One hour after the FFA Chapter members left on their mission, the pay phone in the Principal’s office rang. The message was concise. The tree had been obtained and loaded on the truck and – as soon as the fellows were through dressing out the ewe — they would be right back to the school.
Unlike the children in Clement Moore’s “Night Before Christmas“ who had “visions of sugar plums“ in their heads, I had visions of the local constable arriving at my door with a summons to appear before a judge to answer the charges on abetting the destruction of property – namely a female sheep! I kept asking myself how could a half dozen young men, sent to do a simple task like cutting a tree, manage to kill an innocent sheep? How could I pay for it? Only time would tell – and it did!
It seems that the “perfect” tree was growing on the property of the parents of one of our elementary school children. The land owner was not at home at that moment and the tree was inconveniently located far enough from the road that a tractor would be desirable in its retrieval. A tractor was parked on the ground-level barn floor – where the farmer also kept a few of his sheep for the winter months. In the process of moving the tractor in an out of the barn, a dung fork was dislodged and fell to the floor where a skittish ewe managed to impale herself. The problem was addressed, the sheep butchered, and the food value of the animal assured. The problem of explaining the situtation to the owner was to be resolved at a future time.
The boys dutifully returned to the school, erected the tree to the delight of the student body, and a festive spirit filled the air – except in the cubby-hole that was known as the Principal’s office. With baited breath I waited for the call from the irate farmer whose generous offer of a tree had resulted in the loss of a valuable animal.
In that season of “Peace on Earth” and “Good Will to Men”, the joyful spirit in the schoolhouse must have emanated through the whole township. At least it reached as far as the farm where my boys had killed the sheep, for in due time the telephone rang and the voice of the farmer was heard. My heart skipped a beat or two when it wished me a “Merry Christmas“, congratulated me for sending such bright young men to get the tree that they were capable of handling a crisis, and offering me the gift of half a mutton for our hot lunch program after the holidays!
Nothing I had studied in college or graduate school had prepared me to deal with that kind of crisis. Nothing I did solved the problem. It was the spirit of Christmas that took over and turned an embarrassing incident into a special symbol of love and generosity that I shall cherish forever.