These Happy Golden Years (Chapter 6)
These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
While Pa played the fiddle that evening at home, Laura felt much better. Two weeks were gone, she thought; there were but six more. She could only keep on trying. The music stopped, and Pa asked, “What’s the trouble, Laura? Don’t you want to make a clean breast of it?”
She had not meant to worry them; she intended to say nothing that was not cheerful. But suddenly she said, “Oh, Pa, I don’t know what to do!”
She told them all about that miserable week at school. “What can I do?” she asked. “I must do something; I can’t fail. But I am failing. If only I were big enough to whip Clarence. That’s what he needs, but I can’t.”
“You might ask Mr. Brewster to,” Carrie suggested. “He could make Clarence behave himself.”
“Oh, but Carrie!” Laura protested. “How can I tell the school board that I can’t manage the school? No, I can’t do that.”
“There you have it, Laura!” Pa said. “It’s all in that word, ‘manage.’ You might not get far with Clarence, even if you were big enough to punish him as he deserves. Brute force can’t do much. Everybody’s born free, you know, like it says in the Declaration of Independence. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, and good or bad, nobody but Clarence can ever boss Clarence. You better just manage.”
“Yes, I know, Pa,” Laura said. “But how?”
“Well, first of all, be patient. Try to see things his way, so far as you can. Better not try to make him do anything, because you can’t. He doesn’t sound to me like a really vicious boy.”
“No, he isn’t,” Laura agreed. “But I guess I just don’t know how to manage him.”
“If I were you,” Ma gently began, and Laura remembered that Ma had been a schoolteacher, “I’d give way to Clarence, and not pay any attention to him. It’s attention he wants; that’s why he cuts up. Be pleasant and nice to him, but put all your attention on the others and straighten them out. Clarence’ll come around.”
“That’s right, Laura, listen to your Ma,” said Pa. “‘Wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.’”
“Charles!” said Ma. Pa took up his fiddle and began saucily playing to her, “Can she make a cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy; can she make a cherry pie, charming Billy?”
Sunday afternoon, when Laura was flying over the sunny snow in the cutter, Almanzo Wilder said, “It chirks you up to go home over Sunday. I’ve got an idea it’s pretty tough, staying at Brewster’s.”
“It’s my first school, and I never was away from home before,” Laura answered. “I get homesick. I do appreciate your driving so far to take me home.”
“It’s a pleasure,” he said.
It was polite of him to say so, but Laura saw no pleasure for him in that long, cold drive. They hardly said a word the whole way, because of the cold, and she knew very well that she would not be entertaining, anyway. She could hardly ever think of anything to say to strangers.
The horses were so warm from trotting that they must not stand one moment in the cold wind, so at the Brewsters’ door he stopped them only long enough for Laura to jump quickly out. As they went on, he touched his fur cap with his gloved hand and called through the sleigh bells’ music, “Good-by till Friday!”
Laura felt guilty. She had not expected him to make that long drive every week. She hoped he did not think that she was expecting him to do it. Surely, he was not thinking of… well, of maybe being her beau?
She was almost used to Mrs. Brewster’s miserable house. She had only to forget it, as well as she could; to study until bedtime, and in the mornings to make her bed neatly, swallow her breakfast and wipe the dishes, and get away to school. There were only six weeks more, now.
On Monday morning, school began as glumly as it had ended on Friday. But Laura was determined to make a change, and she began at once.
When Tommy had stumbled through his reading lesson she smiled at him and said, “Your reading is improving, Tommy. You deserve a reward. Would you like to copy your spelling lesson on the blackboard?”
Tommy smiled, so she gave him the spelling book and a new piece of chalk. When he had copied his lesson, she praised his writing and told him that now he could study his spelling from the board. She gave the spelling book to Ruby.
“Your reading lesson was very good, too,” she said to Ruby. “So tomorrow, would you like to copy your spelling lesson on the blackboard?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am!” Ruby answered eagerly, and Laura thought, “There! that’s one thing managed.”
Clarence fidgeted, dropped his books, and pulled Martha’s hair, but Laura remembered Ma’s advice and did not see him. Poor Martha did not know her grammar lesson at all; she was so hopelessly confused about complex and compound sentences that she had stopped trying to understand them. She answered only, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“I think you must take this lesson over, Martha,” Laura had to say, and then she had an inspiration and went on, “I would like to go over it again myself. I am trying to keep up with my class in town, and grammar is hard. If you would like to, we can go through this lesson together at the noon hour. Would you like to?”
“Yes, I would,” Martha answered.
So at noon, when they had eaten their dinners, Laura took up her grammar and said, “Ready, Martha?” Martha smiled back at her.
Then Clarence asked, “Is that why you study all the time, to keep up with your class in town?”
“Yes, I study at night but I have to study here, too,” Laura answered, passing by him toward the blackboard. Clarence whistled, “Whew!” under his breath, but Laura paid no attention.
At the blackboard she worked with Martha until Martha could diagram a complex compound sentence all by herself. Martha said, “I understand it now! After this, I won’t dread the grammar recitation so much.”
So that was the trouble, Laura thought. Martha had dreaded grammar so much that she could not learn it.
“Don’t dread a lesson,” Laura said. “I’ll always be glad to study any of them with you, if you want me to.” Martha’s brown eyes smiled almost like Ida’s as she said, “I would like to, sometimes. Thank you.” Laura wished that she need not be the teacher; she and Martha were the same age, and might have been friends.
She had decided what to do about Clarence’s history lessons. He was far behind Charles and Martha, but Laura asked him no questions that he could not answer, and when she set the lesson for next day she said, “This doesn’t mean you, Clarence; it would make your lesson far too long. Let me see. How many pages are you behind?”
He showed her, and she said, “How many do you think you can learn? Would three be too much?”
“No,” he said. There was nothing else he could say, no contention he could make.
“Then the class is dismissed,” Laura said. She wondered what Clarence would do. Pa’s advice and Ma’s was working well so far, but would it work with Clarence?
She did not ask him many questions next day, but he seemed to know the three pages perfectly. Charles and Martha were now nine pages ahead of him. Laura set them seven pages more, and said to Clarence, “Would another three pages be too much? You may take that much if you like.”
“I’ll learn it,” Clarence said, and this time he looked at Laura with a friendly smile.
She was so surprised that she almost smiled back. But she said quickly, “Make it shorter if it is too much.”
“I’ll learn it,” Clarence repeated.
“Very well,” Laura said. “Class dismissed.”
She was becoming adjusted to the pattern of the days. A silent breakfast in the chill of early morning, a shivering walk to the cold school shanty; then the usual round of recitations, with recess and noon breaking it into four equal parts. Then the cold walk back to the Brewsters’ house for a cheerless supper, an evening of study, and sleep on the narrow sofa. Mrs. Brewster was always sullen and silent. She seldom even quarreled at Mr. Brewster any more.
The week passed and Friday came again. When the history class came forward to recite, Clarence said, “You may hear me recite as far as Martha and Charles. I’ve caught up with them.”
Laura was amazed. She exclaimed, “But how could you, Clarence?”
“If you can study at night, I can,” Clarence said. Laura smiled at him again. She could have liked him so much, if she had not been the teacher. The brown sparkles in his eyes were like the blue sparkles in Pa’s. But she was the teacher.
“That is good,” she said. “Now you can all three go on together.”
With four o’clock came the music of sleigh bells, and Clarence loudly whispered, “Teacher’s beau!”
Laura’s cheeks grew hot, but she said quietly, “You may put away your books. School is dismissed.”
She dreaded that Clarence might shout again, but he did not. He was well on his way toward home with Tommy and Ruby when Laura shut the shanty door behind her and Almanzo tucked her again into the cutter.