Little Town on the Prairie (Chaprer 11)
Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Miss Wilder Teaches School
Early on the First Day of School Laura and Carrie set out. They wore their best sprigged calico dresses, for Ma said they would outgrow them before next summer, anyway. They carried their school books under their arms, and Laura carried their tin dinner pail.
The coolness of night still lingered in the early sunlight. Under the high blue sky the green of the prairie was fading to soft brown and mauve. A little wind wandered over it carrying the fragrance of ripening grasses and the pungent smell of wild sunflowers. All along the road the yellow blossoms were nodding, and in its grassy middle they struck with soft thumps against the swinging dinner pail. Laura walked in one wheel track, and Carrie in the other.
“Oh, I do hope Miss Wilder will be a good teacher,” said Carrie. “Do you think so?”
“Pa must think so, he’s on the school board,” Laura pointed out. “Though maybe they hired her because she’s the Wilder boy’s sister. Oh, Carrie, remember those beautiful brown horses?”
“Just because he has those horses don’t make his sister nice,” Carrie argued. “But maybe she is.”
“Anyway, she knows how to teach. She has a certificate,” said Laura. She sighed, thinking how hard she must study to get her own certificate.
Main Street was growing longer. Now a new livery stable was on Pa’s side of it, across from the bank. A new grain elevator stood tall beyond the far end of the street, across from the railroad tracks.
“Why are all those lots vacant, between the livery stable and Pa’s?” Carrie wondered.
Laura did not know. Anyway, she liked the wild prairie grasses there. Pa’s new haystacks stood thick around his barn. He would not have to haul hay from the claim to burn this winter.
She and Carrie turned west on Second Street. Beyond the schoolhouse, new little claim shanties were scattered now. A new flour mill was racketing by the railroad tracks, and across the vacant lots between Second Street and Third Street could be seen the skeleton of the new church building on Third Street. Men were working on it. A great many strangers were in the crowd of pupils gathered near the schoolhouse door.
Carrie timidly shrank back, and Laura’s knees weakened, but she must be brave for Carrie, so she went on boldly. The palms of her hands grew moist with sweat when so many eyes looked at her. There must have been twenty boys and girls.
Taking firm grip on her courage, Laura walked up to them and Carrie went with her. The boys stood back a little on one side and the girls on the other. It seemed to Laura that she simply could not walk to the schoolhouse steps.
Then suddenly she saw on the steps Mary Power and Minnie Johnson. She knew them; they had been in school last fall, before the blizzards came. Mary Power said, “Hello, Laura Ingalls!”
Her dark eyes were glad to see Laura, and so was Minnie Johnson’s freckled face. Laura felt all right then. She felt she would always be very fond of Mary Power.
“We’ve picked out our seats, we’re going to sit together,” said Minnie. “But why don’t you sit across the aisle from us?”
They went into the schoolhouse together. Mary’s books and Minnie’s were on the back desk next to the wall, on the girls’ side. Laura laid hers on the desk across the aisle. Those two back seats were the very best seats. Carrie, of course, must sit nearer the teacher, with the smaller girls.
Miss Wilder was coming down the aisle, with the school bell in her hand. Her hair was dark and her eyes were gray. She seemed a very pleasant person. Her dark gray dress was stylishly made, like Mary’s best one, tight and straight in the front, with a pleated ruffle just touching the floor, and an overskirt draped and puffed above a little train.
“You girls have chosen your seats, haven’t you?” she said pleasantly.
“Yes, ma’am,” Minnie Johnson said bashfully, but Mary Power smiled and said, “I am Mary Power, and this is Minnie Johnson, and Laura Ingalls. We would like to keep these seats if we may, please. We are the biggest girls in school.”
“Yes, you may keep these seats,” said Miss Wilder, very pleasantly.
She went to the door and rang the bell. Pupils came crowding in, till nearly all the seats were filled. On the girls’ side, only one seat was left vacant. On the boys’ side, all the back seats were empty because the big boys would not come to school until the winter term. They were still working on the claims now.
Laura saw that Carrie was sitting happily with Mamie Beardsley, near the front where younger girls should sit. Then suddenly she saw a strange girl hesitating in the aisle. She seemed about as old as Laura, and as shy. She was small and slim. Her soft brown eyes were large in a small round face. Her hair was black and softly wavy, and around her forehead the short hairs curled. She was flushing pink from nervousness. Timidly she glanced at Laura.
Unless Laura would take her as a seatmate, she must sit alone in the empty seat.
Quickly Laura smiled, and patted the seat beside her. The new girl’s great brown eyes laughed joyously. She laid her books on the desk and sat down beside Laura.
When Miss Wilder had called the school to order, she took the record book and went from desk to desk, writing down the pupils’ names. Laura’s seatmate answered that her name was Ida Wright, but she was called Ida Brown. She was the adopted daughter of Reverend Brown and Mrs. Brown.
Rev. Brown was the new Congregational minister who had just come to town. Laura knew that Pa and Ma did not like him very much, but she was sure she liked Ida.
Miss Wilder had put the record book in her desk and was ready to begin school, when the door opened again. Everyone looked to see who had come tardily to school on this First Day.
Laura could not believe her eyes. The girl who came in was Nellie Oleson, from Plum Creek in Minnesota.
She had grown taller than Laura, and she was much slimmer. She was willowy, while Laura was still as round and dumpy as a little French horse. But Laura knew her at once, though it was two years since she had seen her. Nellie’s nose was still held high and sniffing, her small eyes were still set close to it, and her mouth was prim and prissy.
Nellie was the girl who had made fun of Laura and Mary because they were only country girls, while her father was a storekeeper. She had spoken impudently to Ma. She had been mean to Jack, the good and faithful bulldog, who was dead now.
She had come late to school, yet she stood looking as if the school were not good enough for her. She wore a fawn-colored dress made with a polonaise. Deep pleated ruffles were around the bottom of the skirt, around her neck, and falling from the edges of the wide sleeves. At her throat was a full jabot of lace. Her fair, straight hair was drawn smoothly back from her sharp face, and twisted into a tall French knot. She held her head high and looked scornfully down her nose.
“I would like a back seat, if you please,” she said to Miss Wilder. And she gave Laura a nudging look that said, “Get out and give me that seat.”
Laura sat more solidly and firmly where she was, and looked back at Nellie through narrowed eyes.
Everyone else looked at Miss Wilder to see what she would do. Miss Wilder cleared her throat nervously. Laura kept on looking at Nellie, till Nellie looked away. She looked at Minnie Johnson, and said, nodding toward Minnie’s seat, “That place will do.”
“Will you change, Minnie?” Miss Wilder asked. But she had promised that Minnie might sit there.
Slowly Minnie answered, “Yes, ma’am.” Slowly she picked up her books and went forward to the vacant seat. Mary Power did not move, and Nellie stood waiting in the aisle; she would not go around the seat to the place that Minnie had left.
“Now, Mary,” Miss Wilder said, “if you will move over and make room for our new girl, we will all be settled.”
Mary stood up. “I’ll go with Minnie,” she said shortly. “I’d rather.”
Nellie sat down smiling. She had the best seat in the room, and the whole desk for her own use.
Laura was meanly glad to hear her tell Miss Wilder, for the record book, that her father was living on a claim north of town. So Nellie herself was a country girl now! Then suddenly Laura realized that Pa was moving to town for the winter; she and Carrie would be town girls.
Miss Wilder rapped the desk with her ruler, and said, “Attention, boys and girls!” Then she made a little speech, smiling all the time.
She said, “Now we are all ready to begin the school term, and we’re all going to do our best to make it a success, aren’t we? You know you are all here to learn as much as you possibly can, and I am here to help you. You must not look upon me as a taskmistress, but as a friend. We are all going to be the very best of friends, I’m sure.”
The small boys were squirming, and Laura wanted to. She could not look at Miss Wilder’s smiling any more.
She only wished that Miss Wilder would stop talking. But Miss Wilder went on in her smiling voice: “None of us will ever be unkind or selfish, will we? I am sure that not one of you will ever be unruly, so there need be no thought of punishments here in our happy school. We shall all be friends together and love and help each other.”
Then at last she said, “You may take your books.” There were no recitations that morning, for Miss Wilder was sorting the pupils into their classes. Laura and Ida, Mary Power and Minnie, and Nellie Oleson, were the only big girls. They were the most advanced class, and the whole class until the big boys would come to school.
At recess they stayed in a group, getting acquainted. Ida was as warm and friendly as she looked. “I’m only an adopted child,” she said. “Mother Brown took me out of a Home, but she must have liked me to do that, don’t you think so?”
“Of course she liked you, she couldn’t have helped it,” Laura said. She could imagine what a pretty baby Ida must have been, with her black curls and big, laughing brown eyes.
But Nellie wanted all attention for herself.
“I really don’t know whether we’ll like it out here,” Nellie said. “We are from the East. We are not used to such a rough country and rough people.”
“You come from western Minnesota, from the same place we did,” said Laura.
“Oh, that?” Nellie brushed away Minnesota with her hand. “We were there only a little while. We come from the East, from New York State.”
“We all come from the East,” Mary Power told her shortly. “Come on, let’s all go outdoors in the sunshine.”
“My goodness, no!” said Nellie. “Why, this wind will tan your skin!”
They were all tanned but Nellie, and she went on airily, “I may have to live out in this rough country for a little while, but I shan’t let it spoil my complexion. In the East, a lady always keeps her skin white and her hands smooth.” Nellie’s hands were white and slender.
There was no time to go outdoors, anyway. Recess was over. Miss Wilder went to the door and rang the bell.
At home that night, Carrie chattered about the day at school until Pa said she was as talkative as a bluejay. “Let Laura get a word in edgewise. Why are you so quiet, Laura? Anything go wrong?”
Then Laura told about Nellie Oleson and all she had said and done. She finished, “Miss Wilder shouldn’t have let her take the seat away from Mary Power and Minnie.”
“Nor should you ever criticize a teacher, Laura,” Ma gently reminded her.
Laura felt her cheeks grow hot. She knew what a great opportunity it was, to go to school. Miss Wilder was there to help her learn, she should be grateful, she should never impertinently criticize. She should only try to be perfect in her lessons and in deportment. Yet she could not help thinking, “Just the same, she shouldn’t have! It was not fair.”
“So the Olesons came from New York State, did they?” Pa was amused. “That’s not so much to brag about.”
Laura remembered then that Pa had lived in New York State when he was a boy.
He went on, “I don’t know how it happened, but Oleson lost everything he had in Minnesota. He hasn’t a thing in the world now but his homestead claim, and they tell me his folks back East are helping him out, or he couldn’t hang on to that till he makes a crop. Maybe Nellie feels she’s got to brag a little, to hold her own. I wouldn’t let it worry me, Laura.”
“But she had such pretty clothes,” Laura protested. “And she can’t do a bit of work, she keeps her face and her hands so white.”
“You could wear your sunbonnet, you know,” said Ma. “As for her pretty dresses, likely they come out of a barrel, and maybe she’s like the girl in the song, who was so fine ‘with a double ruffle around her neck and nary a shoe to wear.’”
Laura supposed she should be sorry for Nellie, but she wasn’t. She wished that Nellie Oleson had stayed in Plum Creek.
Pa got up from the supper table and drew his chair near the open door. He said, “Bring me the fiddle, Laura. I want to try a song I heard a fellow singing the other day. He whistled the chorus. I believe the fiddle will beat his whistling.”
Softly Laura and Carrie washed the dishes, not to miss a note of the music. Pa sang, low and longingly, with the sweet clear voice of the fiddle.
“Then meet me—Oh, meet me,
When you hear
The first whip-poor-will call—”
“Whip-poor-will,” the fiddle called, and fluting, throbbing like the throat of the bird, “Whip-poor-will,” the fiddle answered. Near and pleading, “Whip-poor-will,” then far and soft but coming nearer, “Whip-poor-will,” till all the gathering twilight was filled with the wooing of the birds.
Laura’s thoughts untangled from their ugly snarls and became smooth and peaceful. She thought, “I will be good. It doesn’t matter how hateful Nellie Oleson is, I will be good.”