Charlie Brunt, who attended Ballyhamage, a one-room school south of Calgary, in the late 1930s and 1940s, didn’t mean to get into mischief. Sometimes, though, he couldn’t resist. That’s what happened the day Charlie, pictured above, observed how much the tail of the muskrat in his trap line resembled a snake.

He idly wondered what his fellow student, who was terrified of snakes and rodents, would do if she found it tucked among the books in her desk.

What the heck, he decided. He was going to find out.

The next day, Charlie got to school early because he had been appointed fire boy for the month. He was responsible for stoking the wood stove to heat the schoolroom before the other pupils and teacher arrived. His chore accomplished, Charlie had ample time to open the desktop of his target and carefully arrange the girl’s books so the muskrat’s tapered tail stuck out.

School commenced on time with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Then the teacher instructed her pupils to take out their arithmetic books. 

When the pupil opened her desk, she slammed the lid shut with a bang. Next, she leaped up on the desktop and sat down on it to prevent the snake from escaping.

The teacher looked up at the commotion and calmly said, “Charlie, whatever is in Annette’s desk, take it out and get rid of it.”

So he did.

Elsie’s Misfortune: Sitting in Front of Charlie

When Charlie was in grade seven, a popular trick was setting a thumbtack, sharp end up, on a desk seat when an unsuspecting pupil stepped away. A girl named Elsie, who had the misfortune to sit in front of Charlie, became the target of his treachery one day.

After Elsie left the schoolhouse to go to the outhouse, Charlie leaned over, strategically placing the thumbtack. When he happened to look up and catch the teacher staring at him, Charlie suspected he was in deep, deep trouble. Nevertheless, he left the thumbtack where he’d set it and resumed his schoolwork.

Elsie returned and flopped in her seat before letting out a blood-curdling scream. Outraged at the indignity, she slipped out the other side of the bench. Then she jumped to her feet and started rubbing her backside.

Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!

He didn’t let on that he was belly laughing inside while playacting the innocent on the outside. By that point in the year, he must have worn down the teacher because when he snuck a look at her, the book propped up in front of her face was shaking. The teacher was laughing, too.

Follow Charlie the Leader

Charlie was 12 or 13 years old when he started constructing a fort in the brush. It was on the edge of his family’s property next to the school. To form walls, he cut down young poplar trees measuring about an inch and a half in diameter. Then he shoved them into the spaces between trees growing close together.

He left a small opening on one side for a door.

Of course, before long, Charlie’s project attracted the attention of other pupils, who eagerly pitched in to help. They created a sloping roof by positioning boards side-by-side across the top. Next, the kids picked moss out of the nearby dry slough to stuff between the stick walls to insulate their fort.

To enter the dim fortress that measured about eight feet square, the pupils crawled in on their hands and knees. There wasn’t much room when they all crowded together to eat their lunches. However, it was a welcome relief from sitting in the deary one-room school.

Then came the day a pupil sat down and got a loose porcupine quill stuck in his hand. The student population quickly reached the decision that it was no match for a porcupine. It had been fun while it lasted, but Charlie and company quickly abandoned their rustic lunchroom.

After the first heavy snow in the fall, the roof collapsed and the walls caved in. That made Charlie feel better about the loss of his fort.

What about the porcupine that had requisitioned the humble clubhouse? As far as Charlie was concerned, it was on its own.

*  *  *

Many years later, Charlie shared his memories of laughter and learning at Ballyhamage School in a book. He characterized his one-room school education in these thoughts, “Life was hard. Life was good. Life was rewarding.”

The photograph and artwork by Pauline Brunt are copyrighted. She granted permission for use exclusively to writer Elaine Thomas of Texas (, Sept. 2022.

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