During the 15-mile ride from Rockville to Seneca, at the western edge of Montgomery County, the fourth-grade class traveled 100 years back in time. In pigtails and calico, knickers and suspenders, they tumbled from Volvo station wagons and Honda hatchbacks and filed into the one-room Seneca Schoolhouse Museum.
"As you walk through that door, it isn't 1990 anymore," teacher Patricia Griffiths told the students from Christ Episcopal School. "There is no refrigeration, no electric heat. And the bathroom is over yonder in that outhouse."
Each day during the spring and fall in much the same way, Griffiths welcomes fourth-grade students from across the Washington area who have come on field trips. She uses the school as a time machine, propelling students back to an era before Nintendo, Nikes and Ninja Turtles.
"They're all studying history at school and getting all these facts and figures. But coming back and being there is something totally different," she said. "Fourth grade is a good age. They're not jaded yet. They've got active imaginations and really get into 1888."
When Griffiths began teaching at the school five years ago, she made the date of each class exactly that of a century before. But two years ago, she fixed the year at 1888 because she "wanted to keep it remote, a time still uncluttered by cars and all that."
At school, each student takes on a new persona for the day. In this way, a class full of Nicoles, Desirees and Jasons are transformed to Betsys, Ellas and Neds, who lived on nearby tobacco farms or whose fathers worked at the grist mill on Seneca Creek.
The Seneca School was built as a private
school in 1866 with sandstone from nearby quarries,
and the Montgomery County Board of Education administered it as a public school from about 1876 to 1910, when it closed. In the 1940s, the school was converted to a residential house, but was restored in 1982 by the local historical society, the Historic Medley District, which borrows its name from that of the old election district for the area. Griffiths is employed by the society.
The schoolhouse is owned by the Maryland
Department of Natural Resources and is part of Seneca Creek State Park.
A local woman, Mary Ann Kephart, spearheaded the effort to renovate the school. "We looked at the schoolhouse as a neighbor, and we went by it all the time," she said. "It was abandoned and in just horrible condition. There was no front door, and kids would burn fires in the middle of the floor."
Because of the building's relative isolation and sporadic break-in attempts, Kephart has made concessions to the realities of modern life by adding a burglar alarm and replacing the windows with shatterproof plastic.
The town of Seneca is rapidly disappearing, with only a handful of cottages remaining along Seneca Creek, between River Road and Riley's Lock on the C&O Canal. Senceca's decline began with two devasting floods in 1971 and 1972. Since them, the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission has bought many of the houses and torn them down because of the health and safety problems of a town on a major flood plain.
Back in the classroom it is perpetually 1888, a time when the town was bustling and the girls went to school through the fourth grade, if they were lucky, and most boys rarely made it beyond the sixth.
"A sloppy body bespeaks a sloppy mind," Griffiths admonished students from Christ Episcopal.
They tittered for a second, then their spines straightened and in a chorus they replied, "Yes, Ma'am."
The clack of slender slate pencils on slate boards echoed across the room as students copied vocabulary words and division problems. Griffiths called small groups to the front of the room for lessons.
When Griffiths asked what war had recently ended when the school was built, one student answered World War II and another volunteered that John F. Kennedy had just been shot.
"For kids this age, it's so hard for them to grasp the concept of time. They think we're the Revolutionary era when we're Victorian," Griffiths said. "We're making the passage of time more real for them . . . . "
Debbie Davis, the students' teacher at Christ Episcopal, agreed. This is the second year she has brought her class to the schoolhouse. "They get to live it rather than read about it. They've been excited for weeks about coming here," said Davis, dressed in a high-necked blouse and ankle-length skirt, complete with bustle.
But would the students really want to live in 1888 and learn their three R's in a room where the only heat comes from a pot-bellied stove and where a dunce hat sits ominously in the corner?
"Well, the teacher's nice and the work is easy," said Ashleigh Bowling, 9. "But I don't like the slate pencils and the outhouse."
"Yeah," chimed in Desiree Gavilan, 10, "the outhouse. Yuck."