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WHEN OLD ZACK WENT TO SCHOOL
THIS same week, I think, there was a commotion throughout the town on account of exciting incidents in what was known as the "Mills" school district, four miles from the old Squire's, where a "pupil" nearly sixty years old was bent on attending school — contrary to law!
For ten or fifteen years Zachary Lurvey had been the old Squire's rival in the lumber business. We had had more than one distracting contention with him. Yet we could not but feel a certain sympathy for him when, at the age of fifty-eight, he set out to get an education.
Old Zack would never tell any one where he came from, though there was a rumor that he hailed originally from Petitcodiac, New Brunswick. When, as a boy of about twenty, he had first appeared in our vicinity, he could neither read nor write; apparently he had never seen a schoolhouse. He did not even know there was such a place as Boston, or New York, and had never heard of George Washington!
But he had settled and gone to work at the place that was afterwards known as Lurvey's Mills; and he soon began to prosper, for he was possessed of keen mother wit and had energy and resolution enough for half a dozen ordinary men.
For years and years in all his many business transactions he had to make a mark for his signature; and he kept all his accounts on the attic floor of his house with beans and kernels of corn, even after they represented thousands of dollars. Then at last a disaster befell him; his house burned while he was away; and from the confusion that resulted the disadvantages of bookkeeping in cereals was so forcibly borne in upon him that he suddenly resolved to learn to read, write and reckon.
On the first day of the following winter term he appeared at the district schoolhouse with a primer, a spelling book, a Greenleaf's Arithmetic, a copy book, a pen and an ink bottle.
The schoolmaster was a young sophomore from Colby College named Marcus Cobb, a stranger in the place. When he entered the schoolhouse that morning he was visibly astonished to see a large, bony, formidable-looking old man sitting there among the children.
"Don't ye be scairt of me, young feller," old Zack said to him. "I guess ye can teach me, for I don't know my letters yit!"
Master Cobb called the school to order and proceeded to ask the names and ages of his pupils. When Zack's turn came, the old fellow replied promptly:
"Zack Lurvey, fifty-eight years, five months and eighteen days."
"Zack?" the master queried in some perplexity. "Does that stand for Zachary? How do you spell it?"
"I never spelled it," old Zack replied with a grin. "I'm here to larn how. Fact is, I'm jest a leetle backward."
The young master began to realize that he was in for something extraordinary. In truth, he had the time of his life there that winter. Not that old Zack misbehaved; on the contrary, he was a model of studiousness and was very anxious to learn. But education went hard with him at first; he was more than a week in learning his letters and sat by the hour, making them on a slate, muttering them aloud, sometimes
vehemently, with painful groans. M and W gave him constant trouble; and so did B and R. He grew so wrathful over his mistakes at times that he thumped the desk with his fist, and once he hurled his primer at the stove.
"Why did they make the measly little things look so much alike!" he cried.
He wished to skip the letters altogether and to learn to read by the looks of the words; but the master assured him that he must learn the alphabet first if he wished to learn to write later, and finally he prevailed with the stubborn old man.
"Well, I do want to larn," old Zack replied. "I'm goin' the whole hog, ef it kills me!"
And apparently it did pretty near kill him; at any rate he perspired over his work and at times was near shedding tears.
Certain of the letters he drew on paper with a lead pencil and pasted on the back of his hands, so as to keep them in sight. One day he tore the alphabet out of his primer and put it into the crown of his cap — "to see ef it wouldn't soak in," he said. When, after a hard struggle, he was able to get three letters together and spell cat, c-a-t, he was so much pleased that he clapped his hands and shouted, "Scat!" at the top of his voice.
The effect of such performances on a roomful of small boys and girls was not conducive to good order. It was only with difficulty that the young master could hear lessons or induce his pupils to study. Old Zack was the center of attraction for every juvenile eye.
It was when the old fellow first began to write his name, or try to, in his copy book, that he caused the greatest commotion. Only with the most painful efforts did his wholly untrained fingers trace the copy that the master had set. His mouth, too, followed the struggles of his fingers; and the facial grimaces that resulted set the school into a gale of laughter. In fact, the master — a good deal amused himself — was wholly unable to calm the room so long as old Zack continued his exercise in writing.
The children of course carried home accounts of what went on at school; and certain of the parents complained to the school agent that their children were not learning properly. The complaints continued, and finally the agent — his name was Moss — visited the school-room and informed old Zack that he must leave.
"I don't think you have any right to be here," Moss said to him. "And you're giving trouble; you raise such a disturbance that the children can't attend to their studies."
Old Zack appealed to Master Cobb. "Have I broken any of your rules?" he asked. The master could not say that he had, intentionally.
"Haven't I studied?" old Zack asked.
"You certainly have," the master admitted, laughing.
But the school agent was firm. "You'll have to leave!" he exclaimed. "You're too old and too big to come here!"
"All the same, I'm comin' here," said old Zack.
"We'll see about that!" cried Moss angrily. "The law is on my side!"
That was the beginning of what is still remembered as "the war at the Mills schoolhouse." The agent appealed to the school board of the town, which consisted of three members, — two clergymen and a lawyer, — and the following day the board appeared at the schoolhouse. After conferring with the master, they proceeded formally to expel old Zack Lurvey from school.
Old Zack, however, hotly defended his right to get an education, and a wordy combat ensued.
"You're too old to draw school money," the lawyer informed him. "No money comes to you for schooling after you are twenty-one, and you look to be three times as old as that!"
Thereupon old Zack drew out his pocketbook and laid down twenty dollars. "There is your money," said he. "I can pay my way."
"But you are too old to attend a district school," the lawyer insisted. "You can't go after you are twenty-one."
"But I have never been," old Zack argued. "I never used up my right to go. I oughter have it now!"
"That isn't the point," declared the lawyer. "You're too old to go. Besides, we are informed that you are keeping the lawful pupils from properly attending to their studies. You must pick up your books and leave the schoolhouse."
Old Zack eyed him in silence. "I'm goin' to school, and I'm goin' here," he said at last.
That was defiance of the board's authority, and the lawyer — a young man — threw off his coat and tried to eject the unruly pupil from the room; but to his chagrin he was himself ejected, with considerable damage to his legal raiment. Returning from the door, old Zack offered opportunity for battle to the reverend gentlemen — which they prudently declined. The lawyer re-entered, covered with snow, for old Zack had dropped him into a drift outside.
Summoning his two colleagues and the schoolmaster to assist him in sustaining the constituted authority, the lawyer once more advanced upon old Zack, who retreated to the far corner of the room and bade them come on.
Many of the smaller pupils were now crying from fright; and the two clergymen, probably feeling that the proceedings had become scandalous, persuaded their colleague to cease hostilities; and in the end the board contented itself with putting a formal order of expulsion into writing. School was then dismissed for that afternoon, and they all went away, leaving old Zack backed into the corner of the room. But, regardless of his "expulsion," the next morning he came to school again and resumed his arduous studies.
The story had gone abroad, and the whole community was waiting to see what would follow. The school board appealed to the sheriff, who offered to arrest old Zack if the board would provide him with a warrant. It seemed simple enough, at first, to draw a warrant for old Zack's arrest, but legal difficulties arose. He could not well be taken for assault, for it was the lawyer that had attacked him; or for wanton mischief, for his intent in going to school was not mischievous; or yet for trespass, for he had offered to pay for his schooling.
There was no doubt that on account of his age he had no business in the school and that the board had the right to refuse him schooling; yet it was not easy to word his offense in such a way that it constituted a misdemeanor that could properly be stated in a warrant for his arrest. Several warrants were drawn, all of which, on the ground that they were legally dubious, the resident justice of the peace refused to sign.
"I am not going to get the town mixed up in a lawsuit for damages," said the justice. "Lurvey is a doughty fighter at law, as well as physically, and he has got the money to fight with."
The proceedings hung fire for a week or more. The school board sent an order to the master not to hear old Zack's lessons or to give him any instructions whatever. But the old fellow came to school just the same, and poor Cobb had to get along with him as best he could. The school board was not eager again to try putting him out by force, and it seemed that nothing less than the state militia could oust him from the schoolhouse; and that would need an order from the governor of the state! On the whole, public opinion rather favored his being allowed to pay his tuition and to go to school if he felt the need of it.
At any rate, he went to school there all winter and made remarkable progress. In the course of ten weeks he could read slowly, and he knew most of the short words in his primer and second reader by sight. Longer words he would not try to pronounce, but called them, each and all, "jackass" as fast as he came to them.
In consequence his reading aloud was highly ambiguous. He could write his name slowly and with many grimaces.
Figures, for some reason, came much
easier to him than the alphabet. He learned the numerals in a few days, and by
the fifth or sixth week of school he could add and subtract on his slate. But
the multiplication table gave him serious trouble. The only way he succeeded in
learning it at all was by singing it. After he began to do sums in
multiplication on his slate, he was likely to burst forth singing in school
"Seven times eight are fifty-six
— and carry five.
Seven times nine are sixty-three
— and carry seven.
No, no, no, no, carry six!"
"But, Mr. Lurvey, you must keep quiet in school!" the afflicted master remonstrated for the hundredth time. "No one else can study."
"But I can't!" old Zack would reply. "'Twouldn't come to me 'less I sung it!"
Toward the last weeks of the term he was able to multiply with considerable accuracy and to divide in short division. Long division he did not attempt, but he rapidly learned to cast interest at six per cent. He had had a way of arriving at that with beans, before he came to school; and no one had ever succeeded in cheating him. He knew about interest money, he said, by "sense of feeling."
Grammar he saw no use for, and did not bother himself with it; but, curiously enough, he was delighted with geography and toward the end of the term bought a copy of Cornell's text-book, which was then used in Maine schools.
What most interested him was to trace rivers on the maps and to learn their names. Cities he cared nothing for; but he loved to learn about the mountain ranges where pine and spruce grew.
"What places them would be for sawmills!" he exclaimed.
Much as he liked his new geography, however, he had grown violently angry over the first lesson and declared with strong language that it was all a lie! The master had read aloud to him the first lesson, which describes the earth as one of the planets that revolve round the sun, and which says that it is a globe or sphere, turning on its axis once in twenty-four hours and so causing day and night.
Old Zack listened incredulously. "I don't believe a word of that!" he declared flatly.
The master labored with him for some time, trying to convince him that the earth is round and moves, but it was quite in vain.
"No such thing!" old Zack exclaimed. "I know better! That's the biggest lie that ever was told!"
He quite took it to heart and continued talking about it after school. He really seemed to believe that a great and dangerous delusion had gone abroad.
"It's wrong," he said, "puttin' sich stuff as that into young ones' heads. It didn't oughter be 'lowed!"
What old Zack was saying about the earth spread abroad and caused a great deal of amusement. Certain waggish persons began to "josh" him and others tried to argue with him, but all such attempts merely roused his native obstinacy. One Sunday evening he gave a
somewhat wrong direction to the weekly prayer meeting by rising to warn the people that their children were being taught a pack of lies; and such was his vehemence that the regular Sabbath service resolved itself into a heated debate on the contour of the earth.
Perhaps old Zack believed that, as a recently educated man, it had become his duty to set things right in the public mind.
The day before school closed he went to his late antagonist, the lawyer on the school board, and again offered to pay the twenty dollars for his tuition. After formally expelling him from school, however, the board did not dare to accept the money, and old Zack gave it to the long-suffering Master Cobb.