Graduations that never happened — Laura Ingalls Wilder

Young Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Young Laura Ingalls Wilder.

by Spencer Howard

In the spring of 1885, 18-year-old Laura Ingalls (soon to be married to Almazo Wilder) did not graduate from high school in De Smet, South Dakota, though perhaps she should have.

Of course, high school in the current sense didn’t exist then, especially in rural areas.  Most Americans had no opportunity to attend school beyond 8th grade, and many never got that far.  In the fall of 1884, the DeSmet public school added “high school” to the curriculum, meaning a 9th grade year.  (The remaining three grades were added gradually — 10th grade in 1893, 11th grade in 1899 and 12th grade in 1908.)  Laura was one of the oldest and most advanced students, and she hoped to earn a diploma in the spring of 1885.

In her memoir, Pioneer Girl (upon which the Little House books were based), Laura said the teacher decided not to offer the end-of-the year examinations because none of the students except Laura were ready.  He assumed that they would finish the next year.  Laura, however, had other plans — she was engaged to be married (the wedding was August 25, 1885) and she had one more term of school to teach that spring.

Yes, teach.  Laura taught three terms of school without graduating from high school.

At the time there were teacher colleges, but many teachers taught without attending college or even high school.  Laura earned her teaching certificate by taking an examination with the county school superintendent in December 1883 and taught her first term at a rural one-room school that winter — at the age of 16.  She taught her second term in the spring of 1884, and her final term in the spring of 1885.  In between, she returned to De Smet and resumed her studies as a pupil in the town school.

Laura was disappointed to leave school without a diploma.  “This was a very great unhappiness to me,” she wrote.  “I had always so longed for an education, and had hoped to at least graduate from High School.”

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