Schoolmistress

Excerpt from “Meadow Brook” 1857

By Mary Jane Holmes

     Of the many thousand individuals destined to become the purchasers of a copy of this work, the majority have undoubtedly been, or are still teachers, and of these many will remember the time when they fancied that to be invested with the dignity of a teacher was to secure the greatest amount of happiness which earth can bestow; Almost from my earliest remembrance it had been the one great subject which engrossed my thoughts, and frequently, when strolling down the shady hill-side which led to our schoolhouse, have I fancied myself the teacher, thinking that if such were really the case, my first act should be the chastisement of a half a score or more boys, who were in the daily habit of annoying me in various ways. Every word and action of my teacher, too, was carefully noted and laid away against the time when I should need them, and which came much sooner than I anticipated, for one rainy morning when Lizzie and I were playing in the garret, I overheard my father saying there was a chance for Rosa to teach school.

     “What, that child!” was my mother’s exclamation, but ere he could reply, ‘that child’ had bounded down two pairs of stairs, and stood at his elbow, asking, “Who it is? -- Where is it? -- And do you suppose I can get a certificate?”

     This last idea damped my ardor somewhat, for horrible visions came up before me, of the “Abbreviations” and “Sounds of the Vowels”, in both of which I was rather deficient.

     “You teach school! You look like it!” said my sister Juliet. “Why, in less than three days, you’d be teetering with the girls, if indeed you didn’t climb trees with the boys.”

     This climbing was undeniably a failing of mine, there being scarcely a tree on the farm on whose topmost limbs I hadn’t at some time or other been perched, but I was older now. I was thirteen two days before, and so I reminded Juliet at the same time begging of father to tell me all about it. It appeared that he had that day met with a Mr. Randall, the trustee of Pine District, who was in quest of a teacher. After learning that the school was small, father ventured to propose me, who, he said, “Was crazy to keep school.”

     “A dollar a week is the most we can give her,” returned Mr. Randall, “and if you’ll take up with that, mebby we’ll try her. New beginners sometimes do the best.”

     So it was arranged that I was to teach fifteen weeks for four dollars per month and board round at that! Boarding round! How many reminiscences do these two words recall to those who, like myself, have tried it, and who know that it has a variety of significations. That sometimes it is only another name for sleeping with every child in the family where your home for one week may chance to be -- for how can you be insensible to the oft-repeated whisper, “I shall sleep with her to-night -- ma said I might,” and of “ma’s” audible answer, “Perhaps, sis, she don’t want you to.” If “sis” is a clean cubby-looking little creature you do want her, but if, as it not infrequently happens, she is just the opposite, -- I draw a blank which almost every country school teacher in the land can fill merely saying that there is no alternative. We have got the district to please and we must do it some way or other.

     Again, “boarding round” means a quiet, cozy spot, where everything is so pleasant and cheerful, where the words are so kind and the smile of welcome so sweet, that you feel at once at home, and wish, oh, how you do wish, you could stay there all summer long, but it cannot be; -- the time of your allotted sojourn passes away and then with a sigh, if indeed you can repress a tear, you gather up your combs, brushes, and little piece of embroidery, to which some spiteful woman has said “You devote more time than to your school” and putting them in your satchel, depart for another home, sometimes as pleasant as the one you are leaving, sometimes not.

     But of these annoyances I knew nothing, and when Mr. Randall came to see me, calling me Miss Lee, and when I was really engaged, my happiness was complete. In a country neighborhood every item of news, however slight spreads rapidly, and the fact that I was to teach soon became generally known, creating quite a sensation, and operating differently upon different natures. One old gentleman, who, times innumerable, had held me on his knee, feeding my vanity with flattery, and my stomach with sweet-meats, was quite as much delighted as I, declaring, “He always knew I was destined to make something great.”

     Dear old man! When the snows of last winter were high piled upon the earth, they dug for him a grave in the frozen ground, and in the world where he now lives, he will not know, perhaps, that I shall never fulfill his prophesy.

     Aunt Sally Wright, who, besides managing her own affairs, kept an eye on her neighbors’, and who looked upon me as a “pert, forward piece,” gave her opinion freely.

     “What! That young one keep school! Is Deacon Leo crazy? Ain’t Rose stuck up enough now? But never mind. You’ll see who won’t keep out more’n half her time, if she does that.”

     Aunt Sally was gifted with the power of telling fortunes by means of tea-grounds, and I have always fancied she read that prediction in the bottom of her big blue cup, for how could she otherwise have known what actually happened! Ere long the news reached Pine District, creating quite an excitement, the older people declaring “They’d never send to a little girl.” While the juvenile portion of the inhabitants gave a contemptuous whistle or so in honor of the school ma’am elect. Mrs. Capt. Thompson, who boasted the biggest house, handsomest carpet and worst boy in Pine Hill, was wholly incredulous, until she one day chanced to meet with Aunt Sally, who not only confirmed it, but also kindly gave her many little items touching my character as a “Wild, romping minx, who was no more qualified for a teacher than for the Queen of England.” citing as proof of what she said, that only the year before she had seen me “Trying to ride on a cow.”

     Mrs. Capt. Thompson, who was blessed with an overwhelming sense of propriety, was greatly shocked, saying “She’d always thought Mr. Randall knew just enough to hire a child”, and consoling herself with the remark that “It was not at all probable? I’d get a certificate.”

     On this point I was myself a little fearful. True, I had been “sent away” to school, and had been flattered into the belief that I possessed far more book knowledge than I did, but this, I knew, would avail me nothing with the formidable committee who held my destiny in their hands. They were unbiased in my favor, and had probably never heard of me, as they lived in an adjoining town. But “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” and determining not to fail, I ransacked the cupboard, where our school books were kept, bringing thence Olney’s Geography, Colburn’s Arithmetic, History of the United States, Grammars, etc., all of which were for days my constant companions, and I even slept with one or more of them under my pillow, so that with the earliest dawn I could study. Whole pages of Geography were committed to memory, all the hardest problems in Colburn were solved, a dozen or more of compound relatives were parsed and disposed of to my satisfaction at least, and I was just beginning to feel strong in my own abilities when one Monday morning news was brought us that at three o’clock that afternoon all who were intending to teach in the town of S----- were to meet at the house of the Rev. Mr. Parks, then and there to be questioned of what they knew and what they didn’t know. This last referred to me, for now that the dreaded day had come, I felt that every idea had suddenly left me, while, to increase my embarrassment, I was further informed that as there had the year previous been some trouble among the School Inspectors, each of whom fancied that the other did not take his share of the work, the town had this year thought to obviate the difficulty by electing nine.

     One was bad enough, but at the thought of nine men in spectacles my heart sank within me, and it was some time ere I could be persuaded to make the trial. In the midst of our trouble, Aunt Sally, whose clothes on Monday mornings were always swinging on the line before light, and who usually spent the afternoon of that day in visiting, came in, and after learning what was the cause of my flushed cheeks said, by way of comforting me, “That she didn’t wonder an atom if I felt streaked, for ‘twant no ways likely I’d pass!”

     This roused my pride, and with the mental comment that “I’d pass for all her.” I got myself in readiness, Juliet lending me her green veil and Anna her fine pocket handkerchief, while mother’s soft warm shawl was wrapped lovingly about me, and Lizzie slipped into my pocket the Multiplication Table, which she thought I might manage to look at slily in case of an emergency, on our way father commenced the examination by asking me the length of the Mississippi, but I didn’t know as it had a length, and in despair he gave up his questioning.

     Oh, how sombre and dreary seemed the little parlor into which we were ushered by the servant, who, on learning our business, looked rather doubtfully at me, as much as to say, “You surely can’t be one of them?” In a short time the parlor was filled, the entire nine being there. Not one was absent, and in a row directly opposite, they sat, some tipped back in a lounging attitude, some cutting their finger nails with their pen-knives, while others sat up stiff and stern, the whole presenting a most formidable appearance. There were eight of ten candidates present, and unfortunately for me, I was seated at what I called the foot of the class. It seemed that most of them were acquainted. And as I was almost the only stranger present, it was but natural that they should look at me rather more than I liked. My pantalets evidently attracted their attention, but by dint of drawing up my feet and pushing down my dress I hoped to hide my short-comings.

     When, at last, the examination commenced, I found, to my great delight that Geography was the subject introduced, and my heart beat high, for I thought of-the pages I could repeat and ardently longed for a chance to display! Unfortunately for me they merely questioned us from the map, and breathlessly I awaited my turn. At length the young lady who sat next to me was asked “What two rivers unite and form the Ohio?” I looked at her sidewise. The bloom deepened on her cheek, and I was sure she had forgotten. Involuntarily I felt tempted to tell her, but did not, and Mr. Parks, looking inquiringly at me, said, “Perhaps the next one can. Ahem!”

     He caught sight of my offending pantalets and thinking me some child who had come with her sister, was about to pass me by. But I was not to be slighted in that way, particularly when I knew the answer, so, with the air of one who, always at the foot, accidently spells the word right and starts for the head, I spoke out loud and distinctly, “Allegheny and Monongahela “ glancing at my father just in time to catch a nod of encouragement.

     “The Nine” were taken by surprise, and instantly three pairs of eyes with glasses and six pairs without glasses were brought to bear upon me. For reasons best known to themselves, they asked me a great variety of question: All of which I answered correctly, I believe, at least they made no comment, and were evidently vastly amused with their new specimen, asking me how old I was, and exchanging smiles at my reply, “Thirteen, four weeks ago to-day,“ One of my fellow-teachers, who sat near me, whispered to her next-neighbor, “She’s older than that, I know.” for which remark I’ve never quite forgiven her. Arithmetic was the last branch introduced, and as mathematics was rather my forte, I had now no fear of failing but I did! A question in Decimals puzzled me, and coloring to my temples, I replied, “I don’t know.” while two undeniable tears dropped into my lap.

     “Never mind, sis,” said one of the nine. "You know most everything else and have done bravely.”

     I was sure of my certificate then as I was fifteen minutes afterwards when a little slip of paper was given me, declaring me competent to teach a common school. I thought it was all over, and was adjusting mother’s Shaw and tying on Juliet’s-veil, when they asked me to write something that they might see a specimen of my penmanship. Taking the pen, I dashed off with a flourish “Rosa Lee,” at which I thought they peered more curiously than need be -- and one of them, Dr. Clayton, a young man, and a handsome one, too, said something about its being “very poetical”. He hadn’t seen the Negro song then.

     The shadows of evening had long since fallen when we stopped at out door, where we found mother anxiously waiting for us. Very wistfully she looked in my face ere she asked the important question.

     “Yes, I’ve got one,” said I, bounding from the buggy, “and I’d like to be examined every day, it’s such fun.”

     “Didn’t you miss a word?” asked Juliet.

     “Oh, I’m so glad!” cried Lizzie.

     “Feel big, don’t you?” suggested Charlie, while Anna inquired “If I’d lost her pocket-handkerchief?”

     Ere long, exaggerated rumors reached Meadow Brook of the very creditable manner in which I had acquitted myself at the examination, whereupon Aunt Sally Wright was quite taken back. Soon rallying, however, she had recourse to her second prediction, which was that “I should not teach more than half the summer out.” Perhaps I wronged the old lady, but I cannot help thinking that the ill-natured stories concerning-myself, which she set afloat at Pine Hill, were in a measure the cause of her prophecy being fulfilled. Never before, to my knowledge, had she visited at Capt. Thompson but now she spent an entire day there, bringing back to us the intelligence that John Thompson, a boy just one year my senior, was going to stay at home that summer, as “Mis’ Cap’n Thompson hadn’t no idee I could teach him.”

     Added to this was the comforting assurance, that Cap’n Thompson was hoppin mad because Mr. Randall had hired me in preference to his sister Dell, who had herself applied for the school. This, as I afterwards learned, was the secret of the dislike which, from the first, the Thompsons entertained for me. They had no daughter, but the captain’s half sister Dell had lived with him ever since his marriage, and between her and their hopeful son John, the affections of himself and wife were nearly equally divided.

     Dell Thompson was a proud, overbearing girl, about eighteen years of age, who esteemed herself far better than her neighbors, with whom she seldom associated, her acquaintances living mostly at what was called “the Centre” of the town. It seems that she had applied for the summer school, but remembering that she had once called him a “Country clown and his wife ignorant and vulgar.”, Mr. Randall had refused her and accepted me, Notwithstanding that the people of Pine Hill generally disliked the Thompson’s, there was among them a feeling of dissatisfaction when it became known that I was preferred to Dell, who, they thought, would have given tone and character to the school, for, “It wasn’t every big bug who would stoop to teach.”

     Of this state of affairs I was fortunately ignorant, and never do I remember a happier morning than that on which I first took upon myself the responsibilities of a teacher. By sunrise, the little hair trunk, which grandma lent me, was packed and stood waiting on the door-step, where I had carried it, thinking thus to accelerate the movements of my father, who did not seem to be in any particular hurry, telling me, “He’d no idea that school would be commenced before we got there!” Grandma had suggested the propriety of letting down my dresses, a movement which I warmly seconded, but mother said “No, she did not like to see little girls dressed like grown up women.” so, in my new plaid gingham and white pantalets, I waited impatiently until the clock struck seven, at which time father announced himself ready.

     “When will you come home?” asked mother, as she followed me to the gate.

     “In three weeks,” was my reply, as I hounded into the buggy, which soon moved away.

     Pine Hill is not at all remarkable for its beautiful scenery, and as old Sorrel trotted leisurely along, down one steep hill and up another, through a haunted swamp, where a man had once, to his great terror, seen his departed wife, and over a piece of road, where little grassy ridges said, as plain as grassy ridges could say, that the travelers there were few and far between, my spirits lowered a little. But, anon, the prospect brightened, and in the distance we saw the white wall of Capt. Thompson’s residence gleaming through the mess of evergreens which surrounded it. This, however, soon disappeared, and for a mile or more my eye met with nothing save white birches, gray rocks, green ferns, and blackberry bushes, until suddenly turning a corner, we came to a halt before one of those slanting-roofed houses so common in New England. It was the home of Mr. Randall, and it was there I was to board the first week. In the doorway, eating bread and molasses, were his three children, who, the moment they saw us, set up a shout of “Somebody’s come, I guess it’s the school-ma’am!” and straightway they took to their heels as if fleeing from the presence of a tigress.

     After a moment, the largest of them ventured to return, and his example was soon followed by the other two, the younger of whom, after eyeing me askance, lisped out, “Don Thompthon thays he ain’t afraid of you, he can lick you like dunder!”

     This was a pleasant commencement, but I smiled down upon the little boy, petting his curly head, while father inquired for Mrs. Randall, who, we learned, was sweeping the school house. Leaving the hair trunk, which was used by the children for a horse ere we left the yard, we again set forward, and soon reached our place of destination, which, without shade-tree or ornament of any kind, stood half-way up a long, sunny hill, commanding a view of nothing save the weathercock of Capt. Thompson’s barn, which was visible across the orchard opposite. We found Mrs. Randall enveloped in a cloud of dust, her sleeves rolled up, and her head covered by a black silk handkerchief.

     “The room wasn’t fit for the pigs,” she said, “and ought to have been cleaned, but somehow nobody took any interest in school this summer, and I’d have to make it answer.”

     I didn’t care particularly for the room, which, in truth, was dirty and disagreeable enough, but the words “nobody took any interest this summer”, affected me unpleasantly, for in them I saw a dim foreshadowing of all that ensued. Father, who was in a hurry, soon left me, bidding me “Be a good girl and not to get with the scholars.” From the window I watched him until he disappeared over the sandy hill, half wishing, though I would not then confess it, that I and the little trunk were with him. I was roused from my reverie by Mrs. Randall, who, for some time, had been looking inquisitively at me, and who now said, “Ain’t you but thirteen?”

     “No, Ma’am.” I answered.

   “Well,” she returned, “It beats all how much older you look I should s’pose you was full sixteen, if not more. But it’s all in your favor, and I guess you’ll be more likely to suit the deestrict though they’re afraid you hayen’t any government, and they’re terribly hard to suit. So, if I’s you,” she continued, “I’d hold a pretty tight rein at first. I give you full liberty to whip my young ones if they don’t behave. They know better than to complain at home.”

     Involuntarily I glanced at the clump of alders which grew near the house, and if they were somewhat diminished ere my reign was over, the “Deestrict” owed it to Mrs. Randall’s suggestion, after sitting awhile, she rose to go, telling me “She would expect me at night,” and then I was alone. I looked at my watch it was half-past eight and not a scholar yet. This was widely different from Meadow Brook, where, by seven, the house was generally filled with children, hallooing, quarreling over seats, and watching eagerly for the first sight of “The new schoolma’am.” Here the tables were turned, and the “schoolma’am” was watching for the scholars!

     Suddenly a large bumble-bee came buzzing in, and alighted on the window opposite. Like Sir Thomas the Good, in the Ingoldsby Legends, I have a passion for capturing insects, especially white-faced bumble-bees, and now I felt strongly inclined to mount the desks in pursuit of the intruder, but the thought “What if the scholars should detect me?” prevented, and to this day, I have never known whether that bumble-bee had a face white or belonged to the class of colored brethren! Ten minutes of nine, and I began to grow fidgety. I should have been more so, had I known how much is sometimes said about teachers not keeping their house. Five minutes of nine, and round the corner at the foot of the hill appeared a group of children, while from another direction came others, shouting for those in advance to “wait” which they did, and the whole entered the house together. A few of the girls made a slight obeisance, while the boys laughed, and throwing down their books in a very consequential manner, looked distrustfully at me. My age had preceded me, and in many of these childish hearts there was already a spirit of rebellion.

     Here I would speak about the impropriety of discussing a teacher’s faults in the presence of pupils, who will discover them soon enough, many a teacher starts disadvantageously because of some idle tale, which may or may not be true, but which, borne on the wings of gossip, reaches its place of destination, and is there thoughtlessly canvassed in the hearing of the children, who thus become prejudiced against a person they have never seen, and whom they otherwise might have liked, In my case the fault was my age which had evidently been discussed in the neighborhood, for, on opening my desk, I found inscribed upon the lid, in a bold schoolboy style, “Rosa Lee, aged 13“ to which was appended, in a more delicate hand, "Ancient—very!”

     Taking my India-rubber, I erased it while my scholars were settling the matter of seats, which, strange to say, they did without disputing, then there ensued a perfect silence and the eyes of all present turned inquiringly upon me, while, with sundry flourishes with my silver pencil, I proceeded to take down upon a big sheet of foolscap the names, ages, and “What studies do you intend to pursue?” of my pupils. After much talking and arranging the school was organized, but the first morning dragged heavily, and when l2 o’clock came, and I drew from my sachel the nice ginger snaps which mother had made, the sight of them, or the taste or something else, choked me so much that I was obliged to wink hard, and count the rows of trees in the orchard twice, ere I could answer the question addressed to me by one of the little girls.

     In the rear of the house was a long strip of dense woods, and wishing to be alone and out of sight of the sports in which I felt I must not join, I took my bonnet and wandered thither. Seating myself upon a mossy log, I tried to fancy that I was at home beneath the dear old grape-vine, the faintest rustle of whose broad green leaves would, at that moment, have been to me like the sweetest music. But it could not be. I was a school mistress -- -Miss Lee, they called me, and on my brow the shadows of life were thus early making their impress. Slowly to me dragged the hour which always before had been so short, and when at last I took my way back to the school, it seemed that in that short space I had lived an age. Often since, when I have looked upon young teachers hastening to their task, I’ve pitied them, for l knew full well how long and wearisome would be their first day’s labor.

     As I approached the schoolhouse I saw that something was the matter, for the scholars were greatly excited, and with voices raised to the highest pitch, were discussing something of importance. Thinking that my presents would perhaps restrain them from such noisy demonstrations, I hastened forward, but the babel rather increased than diminished, and it was with difficulty that I could learn the cause of all the commotion. George Randall was crying, while a little apart from him stood two boys, one of them apparently fourteen and the other twelve. They were strangers to me and instinctively I felt that they were in some way connected with the disturbance, and that the larger and more important looking was John Thompson a surmise which proved to be correct.

     It seemed that Isaac Ross, one of the new comers, had some weeks before selected for himself a corner seat, which, as he was not present in the morning, had been taken by George Randall, who knew nothing of Isaac’s intentions, and who now refused to give it up. A fight was the result, most of the scholars taking sides with George, while Isaac was urged on and encouraged by John Thompson, who, though not a pupil, had come up “To see how he like thee schoolma’am.” As a matter of course an appeal was made to me, to know “If George hadn’t the best right to the seat!”

     Perhaps I was wrong, but I decided that he had, at the same time asking Isaac, “If he were coming to school.”

     “I ain’t goin’ to anything else.” said he, glancing towards John, who with a wicked leer at me, knocked off one of the little boys’ hats and then threw it up in air.


     Continued with Scribbling Women ~ pt. 5.4.1


"The Scribbling Women"
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
Online Rights - Andre-Norton-Books.com
Donated by - Estate of Andre Norton

 Digitized and edited by Jay Watts aka: “Lots-a-watts” ~ May 2015

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