Valley Voices

Shirley Bruegman: Two career choices for a country schoolgirl — nurse or secretary

In the past few weeks, I have noticed the department stores increasing their marketing of the latest trends in backpacks and tennis shoes. Yes, another summer is coming to an end. As I looked at the school supplies on display, it caused me to reflect on how things have changed since my growing up years in Nebraska.

One memory delivers another and soon I find myself back at Madison County District No. 8 School — one teacher in charge of all eight grades. At any given time, the number of students varied depending on families moving in or out of the area. I only had one constant classmate the entire time, Larry Walmsley.

Architecturally, the school’s structure was typical Midwestern. Square with wood siding painted white. I can still see the two outhouses — one for boys and one for girls. The door had an interior hook to keep the naughty boys from opening it when one of us girls was inside. On the days when it was freezing cold, I would wait as long as I possibly could, crossing my legs and wiggling around on the seat of my desk.

As country kids, we were required to pass the United States Constitution test, which qualified us to enter high school. I studied hard, took the exam and a week or two late, received a letter stating I would attend Norfolk Senior High School.

Chopping weeds in the cornfields that summer, I imagined what it was going to be like in the big city (to this day, Norfolk has approximately 25,000 population.)

September arrived. My mother had ordered me new clothes from the Sears catalog, and one hot and humid afternoon, she gave me a home permanent. Tiny little rods all over my head were saturated with an evil-smelling solution that penetrated throughout the house. I was ready to take the leap of faith and enter high school.

Dad drove me each morning in his old pickup wearing his usual bib overalls and a baseball cap with John Deere inscribed on its bill. I was embarrassed about what the other students might think and asked to be let out at the corner — a block from the school’s entrance.

There was no way I could compete with the pretty and sophisticated girls who, their entire lives, had lived in the city. They teased their hair into stiffly hair-sprayed beehives and wore store-bought clothing. My mother didn’t approve of back-combed hair or short skirts. But, I had a strategy. Arriving at school, I immediately went to the girls’ bathroom, rolled up my skirt at the waist, and put on some pink lipstick Aunt Mickey had given me. I will never forget her saying, “Just tuck this in your pocket — your Mom doesn’t need to know.”

The vocational counselor gave me a choice of being either a secretary or nurse. Working in the company of blood was not for me. I wanted to throw up watching my mother chop the heads off chickens for our supper. I enrolled in Mrs. Taylor’s shorthand class. Like a thirsty sponge, I absorbed some much-needed attention, oftentimes staying after school, at which time she would dictate the brief forms over and over. I went through dozens of spiral-bound notebooks and won several championships. The hunger to succeed and be named a winner was planted that semester. Setting the bar high became my life’s mantra.

My parents finally gave permission for me to go away to college. I helped pay for tuition and books by working as a secretary. I took notes in my classes, including the one where I met this cute guy, Don, who would later become my husband.

Who would have thought those early years spent attending a one-room school would eventually lead to a doctorate degree and a career as a college administrator? Was it luck? Perhaps a little, but I believe it was mostly through a desire to succeed coupled with a ton of perseverance.

I still return to Nebraska to see my mother who now lives in an assisted care facility. Sometimes I run into classmates while downtown. There we are — dressed in jeans and sweatshirts. Time does help level the playing field. About Larry: He now owns one of the largest farms in the entire state.

Shirley A. Bruegman of Fresno can be reached at