Teacher's wise words calmed shy farm boy's fears

Jerry Apps
Jerry Apps still remembers the fear he felt at having to speak during the annual Christmas program at his one-room schoolhouse back in 1939.

Christmas is a time for remembering.  Some of my most vivid memories go back to 1939, when I was five years old and in first grade.  I was attending Chain O’ Lake one-room country school, located about four miles west of Wild Rose. 

As my fellow students planned for the annual Christmas program at the school, I was terrified to learn that I would have to stand on the stage and say my piece.  I was the shiest of shy little kids at the time.  In fact, when someone stopped by our farmstead, I would hide in the woods back of the house.

Miss Piechowski, our teacher insisted that I, along with everyone else in the school, all eight grades, would be involved in the Christmas Program and be on the stage.  I told Miss Piechowski I couldn’t do it and didn’t want to do it. But she wouldn’t change her mind, she said I must. And she gave me a copy of the words I must memorize.  I practiced the words every night with my mother, worried that I would make a fool of myself in front of all of my classmates, and neighbors as everyone attended the annual Christmas Program at the school.

As the night of the Christmas program loomed every closer, Miss Piechowski noticed how disturbed I was.  She said she’d share a secret with me to make my task easier. And she did.

The night of the Christmas program arrived. I was dressed in a new pair of bib overalls, and a new work shirt.  I even combed my hair. I hated doing that. And now I was worried if my teacher’s secret would work, and if I would remember all the words I had tried to memorize.

In 1939, the school had no electricity.  On this night, two gas lanterns hung from the ceiling on either end of the school room—casting shadows in the dimly lit room. The wood stove in the back of the room was keeping the building warm. The room was packed. All the seats were taken and people were standing in the back of the room.

I was first on the program. Instructed to use my outside voice, and scared to death.  Then I remembered the secret Miss Piechowski had shared with me as I spoke the words I had worked so hard to memorize: “I would like to welcome all of you to our annual Christmas Program.”

Miss Piechowki’s secret, “Don’t look at the people seated in front of you. Look at the stove pipe in the back of the room. Everyone will think you are looking right at them, but you won’t see them.”

I spoke the words, smiled as Miss Piechowski said I should, and ran off the stage to loud clapping. I had my first experience with public speaking. I having been giving talks for more than sixty years, and I continue to look for the stove pipe in the back of the room.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS. A simple lesson can often be an important one.

Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 35 books, many of them on rural history and country life. For further information about Jerry's writing and TV work, go to or contact him