These Happy Golden Years (Chaprer 2)
These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
First Day of School
Laura heard a stove lid rattle. For one instant she was in bed with Mary, and Pa was building the morning fire. Then she saw the calico curtain and she knew where she was, and that today she must begin to teach school.
She heard Mr. Brewster take down the milk pail, and the door slammed behind him. On the other side of the curtain Mrs. Brewster got out of bed. Johnny whimpered, and was still. Laura did not move; she felt that if she lay still enough, she might keep the day from coming.
Mr. Brewster came in with the milk, and she heard him say, “I’m going to start a fire in the schoolhouse. I’ll be back by the time breakfast’s ready.” The door slammed behind him again.
All at once, Laura threw back the covers. The air was biting cold. Her teeth chattered and her fingers were so stiff that she could not button her shoes.
The kitchen was not so cold. Mrs. Brewster had broken the ice in the water pail and was filling the tea-kettle, and she replied pleasantly to Laura’s “Good morning.” Laura filled the wash basin and washed her hands and face at the bench by the door. The icy water made her cheeks tingle, and her whole face was rosy and glowing in the looking glass above the bench while she combed her hair before it.
Slices of salt pork were frying, and Mrs. Brewster was slicing cold boiled potatoes into another frying pan on the stove. Johnny fussed in the bedroom, and Laura quickly pinned her braids, tied on her apron, and said, “Let me fix the potatoes while you dress him.”
So while Mrs. Brewster brought Johnny to the stove and made him ready for breakfast, Laura finished slicing the potatoes, and salted and peppered and covered them. Then she turned the slices of meat and set the table neatly.
“I’m glad Ma told me to bring this big apron,” she said. “I like a real big apron that covers your whole dress, don’t you?”
Mrs. Brewster did not answer. The stove was red now and the whole room was warm, but it seemed bleak. Nothing but short, necessary words were said at the breakfast table.
It was a relief to Laura to put on her wraps, take her books and her tin dinner pail, and leave that house. She set out on the half-mile walk through the snow to the schoolhouse. The way was unbroken, except for Mr. Brewster’s footsteps, which were so far apart that Laura could not walk in them.
As she floundered on, plunging into the deep snow, she suddenly laughed aloud. “Well!” she thought. “Here I am. I dread to go on, and I would not go back. Teaching school cannot possibly be as bad as staying in that house with Mrs. Brewster. Anyway, it cannot be worse.”
Then she was so frightened that she said aloud, “I’ve got to go on.” Black soft-coal smoke rose against the morning sky from the old claim shanty’s stovepipe. Two more lines of footprints came to its door, and Laura heard voices inside it. For a moment she gathered her courage, then she opened the door and went in.
The board walls were not battened. Streaks of sunshine streamed through the cracks upon a row of six homemade seats and desks that marched down the middle of the room. Beyond them on the studding of the opposite wall, a square of boards had been nailed and painted black, to make a blackboard.
In front of the seats stood a big heating stove. Its round sides and top were cherry-red from the heat of the fire, and standing around it were the scholars that Laura must teach. They all looked at Laura. There were five of them, and two boys and one girl were taller than she was.
“Good morning,” she managed to say.
They all answered, still looking at her. A small window by the door let in a block of sunshine. Beyond it, in the corner by the stove, stood a small table and a chair. “That is the teacher’s table,” Laura thought, and then, “Oh my; I am the teacher.”
Her steps sounded loud. All the eyes followed her. She put her books and dinner pail on the table, and took off her coat and hood. She hung them on a nail in the wall by the chair. On the table was a small clock; its hands stood at five minutes to nine.
Somehow she had to get through five minutes, before the time to begin school.
Slowly she took off her mittens and put them in the pocket of her coat. Then she faced all the eyes, and stepped to the stove. She held her hands to it as if to warm them. All the pupils made way for her, still looking at her. She must say something. She must.
“It is cold this morning, isn’t it?” she heard herself say; then without waiting for an answer, “Do you think you can keep warm in the seats away from the stove?”
One of the tall boys said quickly, “I’ll sit in the back seat, it’s the coldest.”
The tall girl said, “Charles and I have to sit together, we have to study from the same books.”
“That’s good; then you can all sit nearer the stove, Laura said. To her joyful surprise, the five minutes were gone! She said, “You may take your seats. School will begin.”
The little girl took the front seat; behind her sat the little boy, then the tall girl and Charles, and behind them the other tall boy. Laura rapped her pencil on the table. “School will come to order. I will now take your names and ages.”
The little girl was Ruby Brewster; she was nine years old. She had brown hair and sparkling brown eyes, and she was as soft and still as a mouse. Laura knew she would be sweet and good. She had finished the First Reader, and in arithmetic she was learning subtraction.
The little boy was her brother Tommy Brewster. He was eleven, and had finished the Second Reader, and reached short division.
The two sitting together were Charles and Martha Harrison. Charles was seventeen; he was thin and pale and slow of speech. Martha was sixteen; she was quicker, and spoke for them both.
The last boy was Clarence Brewster. He, too, was older than Laura. His brown eyes were even brighter and livelier than his little sister Ruby’s, his dark hair was thick and unruly, and he was quick in speaking and moving. He had a way of speaking that was almost saucy.
Clarence, Charles and Martha were all in the Fourth Reader. They had passed the middle of the spelling book, and in arithmetic they were working fractions. In geography they had studied the New England states, and they answered questions so well that Laura set them to learn the Middle Atlantic states. None of them had studied grammar or history, but Martha had brought her mother’s grammar and Clarence had a history book.
“Very well,” Laura said. “You may all begin at the beginning in grammar and history, and exchange the books, to learn your lessons.
When Laura had learned all this, and assigned their lessons, it was time for recess. They all put on their wraps and went out to play in the snow, and Laura breathed a sigh of relief. The first quarter of the first day was over.
Then she began to plan; she would have reading, arithmetic, and grammar recitations in the forenoon, and, in the afternoon, reading again, history, writing, and spelling. There were three classes in spelling, for Ruby and Tommy were far apart in the spelling book.
After fifteen minutes, she rapped on the window to call the pupils in. Then until noon she heard and patiently corrected their reading aloud.
The noon hour dragged slowly. Alone at her table, Laura ate her bread and butter, while the others gathered around the stove, talking and joking while they ate from their dinner pails. Then the boys ran races in the snow outdoors, while Martha and Ruby watched them from the window and Laura still sat at her table. She was a teacher now, and must act like one.
At last the hour was gone, and again she rapped on the window. The boys came briskly in, breathing out clouds of frosty breath and shaking cold air from their coats and mufflers as they hung them up. They were glowing from cold and exercise.
Laura said, “The fire is low. Would you put more coal on, please, Charles?”
Willing, but slowly, Charles lifted the heavy hod of coal and dumped most of it into the stove.
“I’ll do that next time!” Clarence said. Perhaps he did not mean to be impertinent. If he did mean to be, what could Laura do? He was a chunky, husky boy, bigger than she was, and older. His brown eyes twinkled at her. She stood as tall as possible and rapped her pencil on the table.
“School will come to order,” she said.
Though the school was small, she thought best to follow the routine of the town school, and have each class come forward to recite. Ruby was alone in her class, so she must know every answer perfectly, for there was no one to help her by answering some of the questions. Laura let her spell slowly, and if she made a mistake, she might try again. She spelled every word in her lesson. Tommy was slower, but Laura gave him time to think and try, and he did as well.
Then Martha and Charles and Clarence recited their spelling. Martha made no mistakes, but Charles missed five words and Clarence missed three. For the first time, Laura must punish them.
“You may take your seat, Martha,” she said. “Charles and Clarence, go to the blackboard, and write the words you missed, three times each.”
Charles slowly went, and began to write his words. Clarence glanced back at Laura with a saucy look. Rapidly he wrote large and sprawling letters that covered his half of the blackboard with only six words. Then turning toward Laura, and not even raising his hand for permission to speak, he said, “Teacher! The board’s too small.”
He was making a joke of punishment for failing in his lesson. He was defying Laura.
For a long, dreadful moment he stood laughing at her, and she looked straight at him.
Then she said, “Yes, the board is small, Clarence. I am sorry, but you should erase what you have written and write the words again more carefully. Make them smaller, and there will be room enough.”
He had to obey her, for she did not know what she could do if he did not.
Still grinning, good-naturedly he turned to the blackboard and wiped out the scrawls. He wrote the three words three times each, and below them he signed his name with a flourish.
With relief, Laura saw that it was four o’clock.
“You may put away your books,” she said. When every book was neat on the shelves beneath the desk tops, she said, “School is dismissed.”
Clarence grabbed his coat and cap and muffler from their nail and with a shout he was first through the door’ way. Tommy was at his heels, but they waited outside while Laura helped Ruby into her coat and tied her hood. More soberly, Charles and Martha wrapped themselves well against the cold before they set out. They had a mile to walk.
Laura stood by the window and watched them go. She could see Mr. Brewster’s brother’s claim shanty, only half a mile away. Smoke blew from its stovepipe and its west window glinted back the light from the sinking sun. Clarence and Tommy scuffled in the snow, and Ruby’s red hood bobbed along behind them. So far as Laura could see from the eastern window, the sky was clear.
The school shanty had no window from which she could see the northwest. If a blizzard came up, she could not know that it was coming until it struck.
She cleaned the blackboard, and with the broom she swept the floor. A dustpan was not needed, the cracks between the floorboards were so wide. She shut the stove’s drafts, put on her wraps, took her books and dinner pail, and shutting the door carefully behind her, she set out on her morning path toward Mrs. Brewster’s house.
Her first day as a teacher was over. She was thankful for that.