Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 6


My boy had not a great deal to do with schools after his docile childhood. When he began to run wild with the other boys he preferred their savage freedom; and he got out of going to school by most of the devices they used. He had never quite the hardihood to play truant, but he was subject to sudden attacks of sickness, which came on about school-time and went off towards the middle of the forenoon or afternoon in a very strange manner. I suppose that such complaints are unknown at the present time, but the Young People's fathers can tell them how much suffering they used to cause among boys. At the age when my boy was beginning to outgrow them he was taken into his father's printing-office, and he completed his recovery and his education there. But all through the years when he lived in the Boy's Town he had intervals of schooling, which broke in upon the swimming and the skating, of course, but were not altogether unpleasant or unprofitable.

They began, as they are apt to do, with lessons in a private house, where a lady taught several other children, and where he possibly learned to read; though he could only remember being set on a platform in punishment for some forgotten offence. After that he went to school in the basement of a church, where a number of boys and girls were taught by a master who knew how to endear study at least to my boy. There was a garden outside of the schoolroom; hollyhocks grew in it, and the boys gathered the little cheeses, as they called the seed-buttons which form when the flowers drop off, and ate them, because boys will eat anything, and not because they liked them. With the fact of this garden is mixed a sense of drowsy heat and summer light, and that is all, except the blackboard at the end of the room and a big girl doing sums at it; and the wonder why the teacher smiled when he read in one of the girls' compositions a phrase about forging puddings and pies; my boy did not know what forging meant, so he must have been very young. But he had a zeal for learning, and somehow he took a prize in geography—a science in which he was never afterwards remarkable. The prize was a little history of Lexington, Mass., which the teacher gave him, perhaps because Lexington may have been his native town; but the history must have been very dryly told, for not a fact of it remained in the boy's mind. He was vaguely disappointed in the book, but he valued it for the teacher's sake whom he was secretly very fond of, and who had no doubt won the child's heart by some flattering notice. He thought it a great happiness to follow him, when the teacher gave up this school, and took charge of one of the public schools; but it was not the same there; the teacher could not distinguish him in that multitude of boys and girls. He did himself a little honor in spelling, but he won no praise, and he disgraced himself then as always in arithmetic. He sank into the common herd of mediocrities; and then, when his family went to live in another part of the town, he began to go to another school. He had felt that the teacher belonged to him, and it must have been a pang to find him so estranged. But he was a kind man, and long afterwards he had a friendly smile and word for the boy when they met; and then all at once he ceased to be, as men and things do in a boy's world.

The other school was another private school; and it was doubtless a school of high grade in some things, for it was called the Academy. But there was provision for the youngest beginners in a lower room, and for a while my boy went there. Before school opened in the afternoon, the children tried to roast apples on the stove, but there never was time, and they had to eat them half raw. In the singing-class there was a boy who wore his hair so enviably long that he could toss it on his neck as he wheeled in the march of the class round the room; his father kept a store and he brought candy to school. They sang "Scotland's burning! Pour on water" and "Home, home! Dearest and happiest home!" No doubt they did other things, but none of them remained in my boy's mind; and when he was promoted to the upper room very little more was added. He studied Philosophy, as it was called, and he learned, as much from the picture as the text, that you could not make a boat go by filling her sail from bellows on board; he did not see why. But he was chiefly concerned with his fears about the Chemical Room, where I suppose some chemical apparatus must have been kept, but where the big boys were taken to be whipped. It was a place of dreadful execution to him, and when he was once sent to the Chemical Boom, and shut up there, because he was crying, and because, as he explained, he could not stop crying without a handkerchief, and he had none with him, he never expected to come out alive.

In fact, as I have said, he dwelt in a world of terrors; and I doubt if some of the big boys who were taken there to be whipped underwent so much as he in being merely taken to the place where they had been whipped. At the same time, while he cowered along in the shadow of unreal dangers, he had a boy's boldness with most of the real ones, and he knew how to resent an indignity even at the hands of the teacher who could send him to the Chemical Room at pleasure. He knew what belonged to him as a small boy of honor, and one thing was, not to be tamely put back from a higher to a lower place in his studies. I dare say that boys do not mind this now; they must have grown ever so much wiser since my boy went to school; but in his time, when you were put back, say from the Third Reader to the Second Reader, you took your books and left school. That was what the other boys expected of you, and it was the only thing for you to do if you had the least self-respect, for you were put back to the Second Reader after having failed to read the Third, and it was a public shame which nothing but leaving that school could wipe out. The other boys would have a right to mock you if you did not do it; and as soon as the class was dismissed you went to your desk as haughtily as you could, and began putting your books and your slate and your inkstand together, with defiant glances at the teacher; and then when twelve o'clock came, or four o'clock, and the school was let out, you tucked the bundle under your arm and marched out of the room, with as much majesty as could be made to comport with a chip hat and bare feet; and as you passed the teacher you gave a twist of the head that was meant to carry dismay to the heart of your enemy. I note all these particulars carefully, so as to show the boys of the present day what fools the boys of the past were; though I think they will hardly believe it. My boy was once that kind of fool; but not twice. He left school with all his things at twelve o'clock, and he returned with them at one; for his father and mother did not agree with him about the teacher's behavior in putting him back. No boy's father and mother agreed with him on this point; every boy returned in just the same way; but somehow the insult had been wiped out by the mere act of self-assertion, and a boy kept his standing in the world as he could never have done if he had not left school when he was put back.

The Hydraulic ran alongside of the Academy, and at recess the boys had a good deal of fun with it, one way and another, sailing shingles with stones on them, and watching them go under one end of the culvert and come out of the other, or simply throwing rocks into the water. It does not seem very exciting when you tell of it, but it really was exciting; though it was not so exciting as to go down to the mills, where the Hydraulic plunged over that great wheel into the Miami. A foot-bridge crossed it that you could jump up and down on and almost make touch the water, and there were happier boys, who did not go to school, fishing there with men who had never gone. Sometimes the schoolboys ventured inside of the flour-mill and the iron-foundry, but I do not think this was often permitted; and, after all, the great thing was to rush over to the river-bank, all the boys and girls together, and play with the flutter-mills till the bell rang. The market-house was not far off, and they went there sometimes when it was not market-day, and played among the stalls; and once a girl caught her hand on a meat-hook. My boy had a vision of her hanging from it; but this was probably one of those grisly fancies that were always haunting him, and no fact at all. The bridge was close by the market-house, but for some reason or no reason the children never played in the bridge. Perhaps the toll-house man would not let them; my boy stood in dread of the toll-house man; he seemed to have such a severe way of taking the money from the teamsters.

Some of the boys were said to be the beaux of some of the girls. My boy did not know what that meant; in his own mind he could not disentangle the idea of bows from the idea of arrows; but he was in love with the girl who caught her hand on the meat-hook, and secretly suffered much on account of her. She had black eyes, and her name long seemed to him the most beautiful name for a girl; he said it to himself with flushes from his ridiculous little heart. While he was still a boy of ten he heard that she was married; and she must have been a great deal older than he. In fact he was too small a boy when he went to the Academy to remember how long he went there, and whether it was months or years; but probably it was not more than a year. He stopped going there because the teacher gave up the school to become a New Church minister; and as my boy's father and mother were New Church people, there must have been some intimacy between them and the teacher, which he did not know of. But he only stood in awe, not terror, of him; and he was not surprised when he met him many long years after, to find him a man peculiarly wise, gentle, and kind. Between the young and the old there is a vast gulf, seldom if ever bridged. The old can look backward over it, but they cannot cross it, any more than the young, who can see no thither side.

The next school my boy went to was a district school, as they called a public school in the Boy's Town. He did not begin going there without something more than his usual fear and trembling; for he had heard free schools and pay schools talked over among the boys, and sharply distinguished: in a pay school the teacher had only such powers of whipping as were given him by the parents, and they were always strictly limited; in a free school the teacher whipped as much and as often as he liked. For this reason it was much better to go to a pay school; but you had more fun at a free school, because there were more fellows; you must balance one thing against another. The boy who philosophized the matter in this way was a merry, unlucky fellow, who fully tested the advantages and disadvantages of the free-school system. He was one of the best-hearted boys in the world, and the kindest to little boys; he was always gay and always in trouble, and forever laughing, when he was not crying under that cruel rod. Sometimes he would not cry; but when he was caught in one of his frequent offences and called up before the teacher's desk in the face of the whole school, and whipped over his thinly jacketed shoulders, he would take it without wincing, and go smiling to his seat, and perhaps be called back and whipped more for smiling. He was a sort of hero with the boys on this account, but he was too kind-hearted to be proud, and mingled with the rest on equal terms. One awful day, just before school took up in the afternoon, he and another boy went for a bucket of drinking-water; it always took two boys. They were gone till long after school began, and when they came back the teacher called them up, and waited for them to arrive slowly at his desk while he drew his long, lithe rod through his left hand. They had to own that they had done wrong, and they had no excuse but the one a boy always has—they forgot. He said he must teach them not to forget, and their punishment began; surely the most hideous and depraving sight, except a hanging, that could be offered to children's eyes. One of them howled and shrieked, and leaped and danced, catching his back, his arms, his legs, as the strokes rained upon him, imploring, promising, and getting away at last with a wild effort to rub himself all over all at once. When it came the hero's turn, he bore it without a murmur, and as if his fortitude exasperated him, the teacher showered the blows more swiftly and fiercely upon him than before, till a tear or two did steal down the boy's cheek. Then he was sent to his seat, and in a few minutes he was happy with a trap for catching flies which he had contrived in his desk.

No doubt they were an unruly set of boys, and I do not suppose the teacher was a hard man, though he led the life of an executioner, and seldom passed a day without inflicting pain that a fiend might shrink from giving. My boy lived in an anguish of fear lest somehow he should come under that rod of his; but he was rather fond of the teacher, and so were all the boys. The teacher took a real interest in their studies, and if he whipped them well, he taught them well; and at most times he was kind and friendly with them. Anyway, he did not blister your hand with a ruler, as some teachers did, or make you stand bent forward from the middle, with your head hanging down, so that the blood all ran into it. Under him my boy made great advances in reading and writing, and he won some distinction in declamation; but the old difficulties with the arithmetic remained. He failed to make anything out of the parts of speech in his grammar; but one afternoon, while he sat in his stocking feet, trying to ease the chilblains which every boy used to have from his snow-soaked boots, before the days of india-rubbers, he found something in the back of his grammar which made him forget all about the pain. This was a part called Prosody, and it told how to make verses; explained the feet, the accents, the stanzas—everything that had puzzled him in his attempts to imitate the poems he had heard his father read aloud. He was amazed; he had never imagined that such a science existed, and yet here it was printed out, with each principle reduced to practice. He conceived of its reasons at the first reading, so that I suppose nature had not dealt so charily with him concerning the rules of prosody as the rules of arithmetic; and he lost no time in applying them in a poem of his own. The afternoon air was heavy with the heat that quivered visibly above the great cast-iron wood stove in the centre of the schoolroom; the boys drowsed in their seats, or hummed sleepily over their lessons; the chilblains gnawed away at the poet's feet, but heaven had opened to him, and he was rapt far from all the world of sense. The music which he had followed through those poems his father read was no longer a mystery; he had its key, its secret; he might hope to wield its charm, to lay its spell upon others. He wrote his poem, which was probably a simple, unconscious imitation of something that had pleased him in his school-reader, and carried it proudly home with him. But here he met with that sort of disappointment which more than any other dismays and baffles authorship; a difference in the point of view. His father said the verses were well made, and he sympathized with him in his delight at having found out the way to make them, though he was not so much astonished as the boy that such a science as prosody should exist. He praised the child's work, and no doubt smiled at it with the mother; but he said that the poem spoke of heaven as a place in the sky, and he wished him always to realize that heaven was a state and not a place, and that we could have it in this world as well as the next. The boy promised that he would try to realize heaven as a state; but at the bottom of his heart he despaired of getting that idea into poetry. Everybody else who had made poetry spoke of heaven as a place; they even called it a land, and put it in the sky; and he did not see how he was to do otherwise, no matter what Swedenborg said. He revered Swedenborg; he had a religious awe of the seer's lithograph portrait in a full-bottom wig which hung in the front-room, but he did not see how even Swedenborg could have helped calling heaven a place if he had been making poetry.

The next year, or the next quarter, maybe, there was a new teacher; they seem to have followed each other somewhat as people do in a dream; they were not there, and then they were there; but, however the new one came, the boys were some time in getting used to his authority. It appeared to them that several of his acts were distinctly tyrannical, and were encroachments upon rights of theirs which the other teacher, with all his severity, had respected. My boy was inspired by the common mood to write a tragedy which had the despotic behavior of the new teacher for its subject, and which was intended to be represented by the boys in the hayloft of a boy whose father had a stable without any horse in it. The tragedy was written in the measure of the "Lady of the Lake," which was the last poem my boy had heard his father reading aloud; it was very easy kind of verse. At the same time, the boys were to be dressed as Roman conspirators, and one of them was to give the teacher a petition to read, while another plunged a dagger into his vitals, and still another shouted, "Strike, Stephanos, strike!" It seemed to my boy that he had invented a situation which he had lifted almost bodily out of Goldsmith's history; and he did not feel that his lines,

"Come one, come all! This rock shall flee
From its firm base as soon as we,"

were too closely modelled upon Scott's lines,

"Come one, come all! This rock shall fly
From its firm base as soon as I."

The tragedy was never acted. There may have been some trouble about the hayloft; for the boy whose father owned the stable was to have got the use of it without his father's knowing it; and the poet found that the boys themselves scarcely entered into the spirit of his work. But after that there came a real tragedy, which most of them had part in without realizing it, and that was their persecution of a teacher until he had to give up the school. He must have come next after that usurper, but at any rate the word had been passed round, even before school took up the first morning he began, that he was to be resisted to the death. He could not have had any notion of what was in the air, for in that opening speech to the school which a new teacher always used to make, he talked to the boys in the friendliest manner, and with more sense and reason than they could feel, though I hope they felt some secret shame for the way they meant to behave. He took up some old, dry rods, which he had lying on his desk, and which he said he had found in it, and he told them he hoped never to use such a thing as a rod in that school, and never to strike any boy a blow. He broke the rods into small pieces and put them into the stove, and called the school to order for the studies before it. But the school never came to order, either then or afterwards. As soon as the teacher took his seat, the whispering and giggling, the scuffling and pushing began. The boys passed notes to the girls and held up their slates with things written on them to make the girls laugh; and they threw chewed-paper balls at one another. They asked to go out, and they stayed out as long as they pleased, and came back with an easy air, as if they had done nothing. They would not study; they did not care how much they missed in the class, and they laughed when they had to go to the foot. They made faces at the teacher and mocked him when his back was turned; they even threw paper wads at him.

It went on day after day till the school became a babel. The teacher tried reasoning, and such mild punishment as standing up in the middle of the floor, and keeping in after school. One big boy whom he stood up winked at the girls and made everybody titter; another whom he bade stay after school grabbed his hat and ran out of the room. The fellows played hookey as much as they wanted to, and did not give any excuse for being late, or for not coming at all. At last, when the teacher was driven desperate, and got in a rod (which he said he was ashamed to use, but they left him no hope of ruling them by reason), the big boys fought him, and struck back when he began to whip them. This gentle soul had not one friend among all those little savages, whom he had given no cause to hate, but only cause to love him. None of them could have told why they used him so ill, for nobody knew; only, the word had gone out that you were not to mind him, but to mock him and fight him; nobody knew where the word first came from.

Not even my boy, I grieve to say, was the poor man's friend, though he too had received only kindness from him. One day, when the teacher had set him his copy, and found him doing it badly as he came by, he gave him a slight tap on his head with his penknife, and addressed him some half-joking reproof. This fired my boy's wicked little heart with furious resentment; he gathered up his books after school, and took them home; a good many other boys had done it, and the school was dwindling. He was sent back with his books the next morning, and many other parents behaved as wisely as his. One of the leading men in the town, whose mere presence in the schoolroom sent a thrill of awe through the fellows, brought his son in after such an escapade, and told the teacher that he had just given him a sound thrashing, and he hoped the teacher would give him another. But the teacher took the hand of the snivelling wretch, and called him affectionately by name, and said they would try to get along without that, and sent him to his seat forgiven. It ought to have touched a heart of stone, but in that barbarous republic of boys there was no gratitude. Sometimes they barred the teacher out by nailing the doors and windows; and at last he gave up the school.

But even then his persecution did not end. The word went out that you were not to speak to him if you met him; and if he spoke to you, you were not to say anything back. One day he came up to my boy where he sat fishing for crawfish in the Hydraulic, with his bare legs dangling over the edge of a culvert, and, unawed by this august figure, asked him pleasantly what luck he had. The boy made no sign of seeing or hearing him, and he ignored some other kindly advances. I hope the teacher thought it merely his shyness. The boy went home and told, gleefully, how he had refused to speak to Old Manton; but here he met his reward. He was made to feel how basely rude he had been, and to tingle with a wholesome shame. There was some talk of sending him to the teacher, to ask his forgiveness; but this was given up for fear of inflicting pain where possibly none had been felt. I wish now the boy could have gone to him, for perhaps the teacher is no longer living.

One day he came up to my boy where he sat fishing.

William Dean Howells

Sorry, no summary available yet.