These Happy Golden Years (Chapter 18)

These Happy Golden Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 18
The Perry School

The first March winds were blowing hard on a Thursday when Laura came home from school. She was breathless, not only from struggling with the wind, but from the news she brought. Before she could tell it, Pa spoke.

“Could you be ready to move to the claim this week, Caroline?”

“This week?” said Ma in surprise.

“The school district’s going to put up a schoolhouse on Perry’s claim, just south of our south line,” Pa said. “All the neighbors will help build it, but they want to hire me to boss the job. We ought to be moved out before I begin, and if we go this week, there’ll be plenty of time to finish the schoolhouse before the first of April.”

“We can go any day you say, Charles,” Ma answered.

“Day after tomorrow, then,” said Pa. “And there is something else. Perry says their school board would like to have Laura teach the school. How about it, Laura? You will have to get a new certificate.”

“Oh, I would like to have a school so near home,” said Laura. Then she told her news. “Teachers’ examinations are tomorrow. Mr. Owen announced them today. They will be at the schoolhouse, so there’s no school tomorrow. I do hope I can get a second-grade certificate.”

“I am sure you can,” Carrie encouraged her stoutly. “You always know your lessons.”

Laura was a little doubtful. “I have no time to review and study. If I pass, I have to do it on what I know now.”

“That is the best way, Laura,” Ma told her. “If you tried to study in a hurry you would only be confused. If you get a second grade we will all be glad, and if it is only third grade we will be glad of that.”

“I will try my best,” was all that Laura could promise. Next morning she set out alone, and nervously, to the teachers’ examinations at the schoolhouse. The room seemed strange, with only a few strangers sitting here and there among empty seats, and Mr. Williams at the desk instead of Mr. Owen.

The lists of questions were already written on the blackboard. All morning there was silence, except for the scratching of pens and small rustles of paper. Mr. Williams gathered the papers at the end of every hour, whether they were finished or not, and graded them at his desk.

Laura finished each of her papers in good time, and that afternoon, with a smile, Mr. Williams handed her a certificate. His smile told her, even before she quickly saw the words he had written on it, “Second Grade.”

She walked home, but really she was dancing, running, laughing and shouting with jubilation. Quietly she handed the certificate to Ma, and saw Ma’s smile light her whole face.

“I told you so! I told you you would get it,” Carrie gloated.

“I was sure you would pass,” Ma praised her, “if you didn’t get bothered by your first public examination among strangers.”

“Now I will tell you the rest of the good news,” Pa smiled. “I thought I’d save it as a reward, for after the examination. Perry says the school board will pay you twenty-five dollars a month for a three months’ school, April, May, and June.”

Laura was nearly speechless. “Oh!” she exclaimed. Then, “I didn’t expect… Why! Why, Pa… that will be a little more than a dollar a day.”

Grace’s blue eyes were perfectly round. In solemn awe she said, “Laura will be rich.”

They all burst out laughing so merrily that Grace had to join in, without knowing why. When they were sober again, Pa said, “Now we’ll move out to the claim and build that schoolhouse.”

So during the last weeks of March, Laura and Carrie walked to school again from the claim. The weather was spring-like in spite of March winds, and every evening when they came home they saw that more work had been done on the little schoolhouse that was rising from the prairie a little way to the south.

In the last days of March, the Perry boys painted it white. There never had been a prettier, small schoolhouse.

It stood snowy white on the green land, and its rows of windows shone brightly in the morning sunshine as Laura walked toward it across the short, new grass.

Little Clyde Perry, seven years old, was playing by the doorstep where his First Reader had been carefully laid. He put the key of the new door into Laura’s hand and said solemnly, “My father sent you this.”

Inside, too, the schoolhouse was bright and shining. The walls of new lumber were clean and smelled fresh. Sunshine streamed in from the eastern windows. Across the whole end of the room was a clean, new blackboard. Before it stood the teacher’s desk, a boughten desk, smoothly varnished. It gleamed honey-colored in the sunlight, and on its flat top lay a large Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.

Before this desk stood three rows of new, boughten seats. Their smooth honey-colored finish matched the teacher’s desk. The ends of the outside rows were tight against the walls; between them there was space for the third row and the two aisles. There were four seats in each row.

Laura stood a moment in the doorway, looking at that fresh, bright expensive room. Then going to her desk, she set her dinner pail on the floor beneath it and hung her sunbonnet on a nail in the wall.

A small clock stood ticking beside the big dictionary; its hands stood at nine o’clock. It must have been wound last night, Laura thought. Nothing could be more complete and perfect than this beautiful little schoolhouse.

She heard children’s voices at the door, and she went to call her pupils in.

Besides Clyde, there were two others, a little boy and a girl who said their name was Johnson. They were both in the Second Reader. That was the size of the school. In all the term, no more children came.

Laura felt that she was not earning twenty-five dollars a month, teaching only three children. But when she said this at home, Pa replied that these three were as much entitled to schooling as if there were a dozen, and that she was entitled to pay for the time that she spent teaching them.

“But Pa,” she protested. “Twenty-five dollars a month!”

“Don’t let that worry you,” he answered. “They are glad to have you at that price. Large schools are paying thirty dollars.”

It must be right, since Pa said so. Laura contented herself by giving each little pupil the very best of schooling. They were all quick to learn. Besides reading and spelling, she taught them to write words and figures, and how to add and subtract. She was proud of their progress.

Never had she been so happy as she was that spring. In the fresh, sweet mornings she walked to her school, past the little hollow blue with violets that scented all the air. Her pupils were happy, too, every one as good as gold, and eager and quick to learn. They were as careful as she, not to mar or dim the freshness of their shining new schoolhouse.

Laura took her own books to school, and while her little pupils studied at their desks, between recitations, she studied at hers, with help from the big dictionary. At recess and during the long noon hour, she knitted lace while the children played. And always she was aware of the cloud shadows chasing each other outside the windows, where meadow larks sang and the little striped gophers ran swiftly about their affairs.

After each happy day, there was the walk home past the little hollow where the violets grew, spreading their fragrance on the air.

Sometimes on Saturday Laura walked westward across the prairie to Reverend Brown’s house—on his claim. It was a long mile and a half walk, and she and Ida made it longer by going to the highest point of the rise of ground beyond the house. From there they could see the Wessington Hills, sixty miles away, looking like a blue cloud on the horizon.

“They are so beautiful that they make me want to go to them,” Laura said once.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Ida replied. “When you got there they would be just hills, covered with ordinary buffalo grass like this,” and she kicked at a tuft of the grass where the green of spring was showing through last year’s dead blades.

In a way, that was true; and in another way, it wasn’t. Laura could not say what she meant, but to her the Wessington Hills were more than grassy hills. Their shadowy outlines drew her with the lure of far places. They were the essence of a dream.

Walking home in the late afternoon, Laura still thought of the Wessington Hills, how mysterious their vague shadow was against the blue sky, far away across miles after miles of green, rolling prairie. She wanted to travel on and on, over those miles, and see what lay beyond the hills.

That was the way Pa felt about the west, Laura knew. She knew, too, that like him she must be content to stay where she was, to help with the work at home and teach school.

That night Pa asked her what she planned to do with all her school money when she got it.

“Why,” Laura said, “I’ll give it to you and Ma.”

“I’ll tell you what I have been thinking,” said Pa. “We should have an organ when Mary comes home, so she can keep up the music she’s learning in college, and it would be nice for you girls, too. Some folks in town are selling out and going back east, and they have an organ. I can get it for one hundred dollars. It is a good organ, I tried it to see. If you will pay your school money for it, I can make up the other twenty-five dollars, and besides I can build another room on this house so we will have a place to put it.”

“I would be glad to help buy the organ,” Laura said. “But you know I won’t have the seventy-five dollars till after my school is out.”

“Laura,” Ma put in, “you should think about getting yourself some clothes. Your calicoes are all right for school, but you need a new summer dress for best; your year before last’s lawn is really past letting down any more.”

“I know, Ma, but think of having an organ,” said Laura. “And I think I can work for Miss Bell again, and earn some clothes. The trouble is that I haven’t got my school money yet.”

“You are certain to get it,” Pa said. “Are you sure you want to buy an organ with it?”

“Oh, yes!” Laura told him. “There’s nothing I’d like more than to have an organ, that Mary can play when she comes home.”

Then that’s settled!” Pa said happily. “I’ll pay down the twenty-five, and those folks’ll trust me for the balance till you get it. By jinks! I feel like celebrating. Bring me my fiddle, Half-Pint, and we’ll have a little music without the organ.”

While they all sat in the soft spring twilight, Pa played and sang merrily:

“Here’s to the maiden of bashful sixteen,
Here’s to the woman of fifty,
Here’s to the flaunting extravagant queen,
And here’s to the housewife that’s thrifty!
Here’s to the charmer whose dimples we prize,
Now to the maid who has none, sir!
Here’s to the girl with a pair of blue eyes,
And here’s to the nymph with but one, sir!”

His mood changed, and so did the fiddle’s. They sang,

“Oh, I went down south for to see my Sal,
Sing polly-wolly-doodle all the day!
My Sally was a spunky gal,
Sing polly-wolly-doodle all the day.
Farewell, farewell, farewell my fairy fay,
I’m off to Louisiana
For to see my Susy Anna,
Singing polly-wolly-doodle all the day!”

The dusk was deepening. The land flattened to blackness and in the clear air above it the large stars hung low, while the fiddle sang a wandering song of its own.

Then Pa said, “Here is one for you girls.” And softly he sang with the fiddle,

“Golden years are passing by,
Happy, happy golden years,
Passing on the wings of time,
These happy golden years.
Call them back as they go by,

Sweet their memories are,
Oh, improve them as they fly,
These happy golden years.”

Laura’s heart ached as the music floated away and gone in the spring night under the stars.

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