Little Town on the Prairie (Chapter 15)
Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The School Board’s Visit
Laura thought that Nellie Oleson looked surprised and disappointed when she and Carrie came into the schoolhouse next morning. Nellie might have expected that they would not come back to school.
“Oh, I’m glad you’ve come back!” Mary Power said, and Ida gave Laura’s arm a warm little squeeze.
“You wouldn’t let her meanness keep you away from school, would you, Laura?” Ida said.
“I wouldn’t let anything keep me from getting an education,” Laura replied.
“I guess you wouldn’t get an education if you were expelled from school,” Nellie put in.
Laura looked at her. “I’ve done nothing to be expelled for, and I won’t do anything.”
“You couldn’t be, anyway, could you, with your father on the school board,” said Nellie.
“I wish you’d stop talking about Pa’s being on the school board!” Laura burst out. “I don’t know what business it is of yours if—” The bell began to ring then, and they all went to their seats.
Carrie was carefully good, and in obedience to Pa, Laura was well-behaved, too. She did not think then of the Bible verse that speaks of the cup and the platter that were clean only on the outside, but the truth is that she was like that cup and platter. She hated Miss Wilder. She still felt a burning resentment against Miss Wilder’s cruel unfairness to Carrie. She wanted to get even with her. Outside, she was shining clean with good behavior, but she made not the least effort to be truly good inside.
The school had never been so noisy. All over the room there was a clatter of books and feet and a rustle of whispering. Only the big girls and Carrie sat still and studied. Whichever way Miss Wilder turned, unruliness and noise swelled up behind her. Suddenly there was a piercing yell.
Charley had leaped to his feet. His hands were clapped to the seat of his trousers. “A pin!” he yelled. “A pin in my seat!”
He held up a bent pin for Miss Wilder to see.
Her lips pressed tight together. This time she did not smile. Sharply she said, “You may come here, Charley.”
Charley winked at the room, and went trudging up to Miss Wilder’s desk.
“Hold out your hand,” she said, as she reached inside her desk for her ruler. For a moment she felt about for it, then she looked into the desk. Her ruler was not there. She asked, “Has anyone seen my ruler?”
Not a hand was raised. Miss Wilder’s face went red with anger. She said to Charley, “Go stand in that corner. Face to the wall!”
Charley went to the corner, rubbing his behind as if he still felt the pin-prick. Clarence and Alfred laughed aloud. Miss Wilder turned toward them quickly, and even more quickly Charley looked over his shoulder and made such a face at her that all the boys burst out laughing. Charley was so quick that she saw only the back of his head when very quickly she turned to see what caused the laughter.
Three or four times she turned quickly this way and that, and Charley turned more quickly, making faces at her. The whole school was roaring. Only Laura and Carrie were able to keep their faces perfectly straight. Even the other big girls were strangling and choking in their handkerchiefs.
Miss Wilder rapped for order. She had to rap with her knuckles, she had no ruler. And she could not keep order. She could not watch Charley every minute, and whenever her head was turned, he made a face at her and laughter broke out.
The boys were not breaking their promise to Laura, but they were contriving to be even naughtier than they had promised not to be. And Laura did not care. Truth to tell, she was pleased with them.
When Clarence slid out of his seat and came up the aisle on all fours, she smiled at him.
At recess, she stayed in the schoolhouse. She was sure the boys were planning more mischief, and she meant to be where she could not hear them.
After recess, the disorder was worse. The boys kept paper wads and spitballs flying on their side of the room. All the smaller girls were whispering and passing notes. While Miss Wilder was at the blackboard, Clarence went down the aisle on hands and knees, Alfred followed him, and Charley, lightfooted as a cat, ran down the aisle and leap-frogged over their backs.
They looked for Laura’s approval, and she smiled at them.
“What are you laughing at, Laura?” Miss Wilder asked sharply, turning from the blackboard.
“Why, was I laughing?” Laura looked up from her book and sounded surprised. The room was quiet, the boys were in their seats, everyone seemed to be busily studying.
“Well, see that you don’t!” Miss Wilder snapped. She looked sharply at Laura, then turned to the blackboard, and almost everyone but Laura and Carrie burst out laughing.
All the rest of the morning, Laura was quiet and kept her eyes on her lessons, only stealing a glance at Carrie now and then. Once Carrie looked back at Laura. Laura put a finger to her lips, and Carrie bent again over her book.
With so much noise and confusion behind her whichever way she turned, Miss Wilder grew confused herself. At noon she dismissed school half an hour early, and again Laura and Carrie were asked to explain their early arrival at home.
They told of the disorder in school, and Pa looked serious. But all he said was, “You girls be very sure that you behave yourselves. Now remember what I say.”
They did. Next day the disorder was worse. The whole school was almost openly jeering at Miss Wilder. Laura was appalled at what she had started, by only two smiles at naughtiness. Still she would not try to stop it. She would never forgive Miss Wilder’s unfairness to Carrie. She did not want to forgive her.
Now that everyone was teasing, baiting, or at least giggling at Miss Wilder, Nellie joined in. She was still teacher’s pet, but she repeated to the other girls everything that Miss Wilder said, and laughed at her. One day she told them that Miss Wilder’s name was Eliza Jane.
“It’s a secret,” Nellie said. “She’s told me a long time ago, but she doesn’t want anyone else out here to know it.”
“I don’t see why,” Ida wondered. “Eliza Jane is a nice name.”
“I can tell you why,” said Nellie. “When she was a little girl, in New York State, a dirty little girl came to school and Miss Wilder had to sit with her, and”— Nellie drew the others close and whispered—“she got lice in her hair.”
They all backed away, and Mary Power exclaimed, “You shouldn’t tell such horrid things, Nellie!”
“I wouldn’t, only Ida asked me,” said Nellie.
“Why, Nellie Oleson, I did no such thing!” Ida declared.
“You did so! Listen,” Nellie giggled. “That isn’t all. Her mother sent a note to the teacher, and the teacher sent the dirty little girl home, so everyone knew about it. And Miss Wilder’s mother kept her out of school a whole morning to fine-comb her hair. Miss Wilder cried and cried, and she dreaded so to go back to school that she walked slow and was late. At recess her whole class made a ring around her and kept yelling, ‘Lazy, lousy, Lizy Jane!’ And from that day to this, she just can’t bear her name. As long as she was in that school, that’s what anyone called her that got mad at her, ‘Lazy, lousy, Lizy Jane!’”
She said it so comically that they laughed, though they were a little ashamed of doing so. Afterward, they agreed that they would never tell Nellie anything, because she was two-faced.
The school was so noisy that it was not really school any more. When Miss Wilder rang the bell, all the pupils joyfully trooped in to annoy her. She could not watch every one of them at once, she could hardly ever catch anyone. They banged their slates and their books, they threw paper wads and spitballs, they whistled between their teeth and scampered in the aisles. They were all together against Miss Wilder, they delighted in harassing and baffling and hounding her and jeering.
That feeling against Miss Wilder almost frightened Laura. No one could stop them now. The disorder was so great that Laura could not study. If she could not learn her lessons, she could not get a teacher’s certificate soon enough to help keep Mary in college. Perhaps Mary must leave college, because Laura had twice smiled at naughtiness.
She knew now that she should not have done that. Yet she did not really repent. She did not forgive Miss Wilder. She felt hard and hot as burning coal when she thought of Miss Wilder’s treatment of Carrie. One Friday morning Ida gave up trying to study in the confusion, and began to draw on her slate. The whole First spelling class was making mistakes on purpose and laughing at them. Miss Wilder sent the class to the board to write the lesson. Then she was caught between the pupils at the board and those in the seats. Ida was busily drawing, swinging her feet and humming a little tune in her throat without knowing it, and Laura kept her fists clamped to her ears and tried to study.
When Miss Wilder dismissed school for recess, Ida showed Laura the picture she had drawn. It was a comic picture of Miss Wilder, so well done that it looked exactly like her, only more so. Under it Ida had written,
We have lots of fun going to school,
Laugh and grow fat is the only rule,
Everyone laughs until their sides ache again
At lazy, lousy, Lizy Jane.
“I can’t get the verse just right, somehow,” Ida said. Mary Power and Minnie were admiring the picture and laughing, and Mary Power said, “Why don’t you get Laura to help you, she makes good verses.”
“Oh, will you, Laura? Please,” Ida asked. Laura took the slate and the pencil, and while the others waited she thought of a tune and fitted words to it. She meant only to please Ida, and perhaps, just a little, to show off what she could do. She wrote, in the place of the verse that Ida had erased,
Going to school is lots of fun,
From laughing we have gained a ton,
We laugh until we have a pain,
At lazy, lousy, Lizy Jane.
Ida was delighted, and so were the others. Mary Power said, “I told you Laura could do it.” At that moment Miss Wilder rang the bell. The whole recess had gone, as quickly as that.
The boys came in, making all the noise they could, and as Charley passed by and caught sight of the slate, Ida laughed and let him take it.
“Oh, no!” Laura cried in a whisper, but she was too late. Until noon the boys were slipping that slate from one to another, and Laura feared that Miss Wilder would capture it, with Ida’s drawing and her handwriting on it. Laura breathed a great sigh of relief when the slate came slipping back, and Ida quickly cleaned it with her slate-rag.
When they all went out to the crisp, sunny outdoors to go home for dinner, Laura heard the boys chanting all along the road to Main Street,
“Going to school is lots of fun,
From laughing we have gained a ton,
We laugh until we have a pain,
At LAZY, LOUSY, LIZY JANE!”
Laura gasped. She felt sick for a minute. She cried out. “They mustn’t! We must stop them. Oh, Mary Power, Minnie, come on, hurry.” She called, “Boys! Charley! Clarence!”
“They don’t hear you,” Minnie said. “We couldn’t stop them, anyway.”
Already the boys were separating at Main Street. They were only talking, but Laura had no more than sighed in relief when one began to chant again, and others joined in. “Going to school is lots of fun—” Both up and down Main Street they yelled,
“LAZY, LOUSY, LIZY JANE!”
“Oh, why haven’t they better sense!” Laura said.
“Laura,” said Mary Power, “there’s just one thing to do. Don’t tell who wrote that. Ida won’t, I know. I won’t, and Minnie won’t, will you, Minnie?”
“Cross my heart,” Minnie promised. “But what about Nellie Oleson?”
“She doesn’t know. She was talking with Miss Wilder, the whole recess,” Mary Power reminded them. “And you’ll never tell, will you, Laura?”
“Not unless Pa or Ma asks me, straight out,” said Laura.
“Likely they won’t think to, and then nobody will ever know,” Mary Power tried to comfort Laura.
While they were eating dinner, Charley and Clarence passed by, chanting that frightful verse, and Pa said, “That sounds like some song I don’t know. You ever hear a song before about lazy, lousy, Lizy Jane?”
“I never did,” said Ma. “It doesn’t sound like a nice song.”
Laura did not say a word. She thought she had never been so miserable.
Around the schoolhouse the boys were chanting that verse. Nellie’s brother Willie was with them. Inside the schoolhouse Ida and Nellie were standing at the window farthest from Miss Wilder. She must have known that Nellie had told.
Nellie was furious. She wanted to know who had written that verse, but Ida had not told her and none of the others would. No doubt her brother Willie knew or would find out. He would tell her and then she would tell Miss Wilder.
After school that night, and again on Saturday, the boys could be heard chanting those words. In the bright, clear weather they were all outdoors. Laura could almost have welcomed a blizzard to shut them in. She had never felt so ashamed, for she had spread Nellie’s mean tattle-telling farther than Nellie ever could have. She blamed herself, yet she still blamed Miss Wilder far more. If Miss Wilder had been only decently fair to Carrie, Laura never could have got into such trouble.
That afternoon Mary Power came to visit. Often on Saturday afternoons she and Laura visited and worked together. They sat in the pleasant, sunny, front room.
Laura was crocheting a nubia of soft white wool, for Mary’s Christmas present in college, and Mary Power was knitting a silk necktie for her father’s Christmas. Ma rocked and knitted, or sometimes read interesting bits to them from the church paper, The Advance. Grace played about, and Carrie sewed a nine-patch quilt block.
Those were such pleasant afternoons. The winter sunshine streamed in. The room was pleasantly warm from the coal heater. Kitty, grown now to a cat, stretched and lazily purred in the sunshine on the rag rug, or curved purring against the front door, asking with a mrrreow to be let out to watch for dogs.
Kitty had become famous in town. She was such a pretty cat, such a clean blue and white, with slender body and long tail, that everyone wanted to pet her. But she was a one-family cat. Only the family could touch her. When anyone else stooped to stroke her, she flew snarling and clawing into his face. Usually someone screeched, “Don’t touch that cat!” in time to save him.
She liked to sit on the front doorstep and look about the town. Boys, and sometimes the men, would set a new dog on her to see the fun. Kitty sat placidly while the dog growled and barked, but she was always ready. When the dog rushed, she rose in air with a heart-stopping yowl and landed squarely on the dog’s back with all claws sunk into it. The dog went away from there.
They went in a streak, Kitty silently riding and the dog ki-yi-yowling. When Kitty thought she was far enough from home she dropped off, but the dog went on. Then Kitty walked home with proudly upright tail. Only a new dog could be set on Kitty.
Nothing could be a greater pleasure than those Saturday afternoons, when Mary Power’s friendliness was added to the coziness of home, and Kitty might furnish exciting entertainment. Now Laura could not truly enjoy even this. She sat dreading to hear the boys chanting that verse again, and in her chest was a gloomy weight.
“I should make a clean breast of it, to Pa and Ma,” she thought. She felt again a scalding fury against Miss Wilder. She had not meant to do harm when she wrote that verse; she had written it at recess, not in school hours. It was all too difficult to explain. Perhaps, as Ma had said, it would blow over. Least said, soonest mended. Yet at that moment perhaps someone was telling Pa.
Mary Power was troubled, too. They both made mistakes and had to unravel stitches. Never had they accomplished so little in a Saturday afternoon. Neither of them said a word about school. All the pleasure was gone from school. They were not looking forward to Monday morning.
That Monday morning was the worst yet. There was no pretense of study. The boys whistled and catcalled, and scuffled in the aisles. All the little girls but Carrie were whispering and giggling and even moving from seat to seat. Miss Wilder’s, “Quiet, please! Please be quiet!” could hardly be heard.
There was a knock at the door. Laura and Ida heard it; they sat nearest the door. They looked at each other, and when the knock came again, Ida raised her hand. Miss Wilder paid no attention.
Suddenly a loud knock sounded on the entry’s inner door. Everyone heard that. The door opened and the noise died away to silence. The room grew deathly still as Pa came in. Behind him came two other men whom Laura did not know.
“Good morning, Miss Wilder,” said Pa. “The school board decided it was time to visit the school.”
“It is about time that something was done,” Miss Wilder returned. She flushed red and then went pale while she answered, “Good morning,” to the other two men and welcomed them, with Pa, to the front of the room. They stood looking over it.
Every pupil was perfectly still, and Laura’s heart pounded loud.
“We heard you have been having a little trouble,” the tall, solemn man said gravely but kindly.
“Yes, and I am very glad of this opportunity to tell you gentlemen the facts of the case,” Miss Wilder replied angrily. “It is Laura Ingalls who makes all the trouble in this school. She thinks she can run the school because her father is on the school board. Yes, Mr. Ingalls, that is the truth! She brags that she can run this school. She didn’t think I would hear of it, but I did!” She flashed a glance of angry triumph at Laura.
Laura sat dumbfounded. She had never thought that Miss Wilder would tell a lie.
“I am sorry to hear this, Miss Wilder,” said Pa. “I am sure that Laura did not intend to make trouble.”
Laura raised her hand, but Pa lightly shook his head at her.
“She encourages the boys to be unruly, too. That is the whole trouble with them,” Miss Wilder declared. “Laura Ingalls eggs them on, in every kind of mischief and disobedience.”
Pa looked at Charley and his eyes were twinkling. He said, “Young man, I hear you got punished for sitting on a bent pin.”
“Oh, no, sir!” Charlie replied, a picture of innocence. “I was not punished for sitting on it, sir, but for getting up off it.”
The jolly member of the school board suddenly choked a laugh into a cough. Even the solemn man’s mustache twitched. Miss Wilder flushed dark red. Pa was perfectly sober. No one else felt like smiling.
Slowly and weightily, Pa said, “Miss Wilder, we want you to know that the school board stands with you to keep order in this school.” He looked sternly over the whole room. “All you scholars must obey Miss Wilder, behave yourselves, and learn your lessons. We want a good school, and we are going to have it.”
When Pa spoke like that, he meant what he said, and it would happen.
The room was still. The stillness continued after the school board had said good day to Miss Wilder and gone. There was no fidgeting, no whispering. Quietly every pupil studied, and class after class recited diligently in the quiet.
At home Laura was quiet, too, wondering what Pa would say to her. It was not her place to speak of what had happened, until he did. He said nothing about it until the supper dishes were washed and they were all settled for the evening around the lamp.
Then laying down his paper he looked at Laura and said slowly, “It is time for you to explain what you said to anyone, that you could give Miss Wilder the idea that you thought you could run the school because I am on the school board.”
“I didn’t say such a thing, and I did not think so, Pa,” Laura said earnestly.
“I know you didn’t,” said Pa. “But there was something that gave her such an idea. Think what it could have been.”
Laura tried to think. She was not prepared for this question, for she had been defending herself in her mind and declaring that Miss Wilder had told a lie. She had not looked for the reason why Miss Wilder told it.
“Did you speak to anyone about my being on the school board?” Pa prompted her.
Nellie Oleson had often spoken of that, but Laura had only wished that she wouldn’t. Then she remembered the quarrel, when Nellie had
almost slapped her. She said, “Nellie Oleson told me that Miss Wilder said you haven’t much to say about the school, even if you are on the school board. And I said—”
She had been so angry that it was hard to remember exactly what she had said. “I said that you have as much to say about the school as anybody. Then I said, It’s too bad your father doesn’t own a place in town. Maybe if you weren’t just country folks, your father could be on the school board.’”
“Oh, Laura,” Ma said sorrowfully. “That made her angry.”
“I wanted to,” said Laura. “I meant to make her mad. When we lived on Plum Creek she was always making fun of Mary and me because we were country girls. She can find out what it feels like, herself.”
“Laura, Laura,” Ma protested in distress. “How can you be so unforgiving? That was years ago.”
“She was impudent to you, too. And mean to Jack,” Laura said, and tears smarted in her eyes.
“Never mind,” Pa said. “Jack was a good dog and he’s gone to his reward. So Nellie twisted what you said and told it to Miss Wilder, and that’s made all this trouble. I see.” He took up his paper. “Well, Laura, maybe you have learned a lesson that is worth while. Just remember this, ‘A dog that will fetch a bone, will carry a bone.’”
For a little while there was silence, and Carrie began to study her spelling. Then Ma said, “If you will bring me your album, Laura, I would like to write in it.”
Laura fetched her album from her box upstairs, and Ma sat at the desk and carefully wrote in it with her little pearl-handled pen. She dried the page carefully over the lamp, and returned the album to Laura.
On the smooth, cream-colored page, in Ma’s fine handwriting, Laura read: