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THE loss of Master Joel Pierson as our teacher at the district school the following winter, was the greatest disappointment of the year. We had anticipated. all along that he was coming back, and I think he had intended to do so; but an offer of seventy-five dollars a month more than double what our small district could pay to teach a village school in an adjoining county, robbed us of his invaluable services; for Pierson was at that time working his way through college and could not afford to lose so good an opportunity to add to his resources during the winter vacation.
We did not learn this till the week before school was to begin; and when his letter to Addison reached us, explaining why he could not come, there were heartfelt lamentations at the old Squire's and at the Edwards farm.
I really think that the old Squire would have made up the difference in wages to Master Pierson from his own purse; but the offer to go to the larger school had already been accepted.
As several of the older boys of our own district school had become somewhat unruly including Newman Darnley, Alf Batchelder and, I grieve to say, our cousin Halstead the impression prevailed that the school needed a "straightener." Looking about therefore at such short notice, the school agent was led to hire a master, widely noted as a disciplinarian, named Nathaniel Brench, who for years had borne the nickname of "Czar" Brench, owing to his autocratic and cruel methods of school government.
I remember vividly that morning in November, the first day of school, when Czar Brench walked into the old schoolhouse, glanced smilingly round, and laid his package of books and his ruler, a heavy one, on the master's desk; then, coming forward to the box stove in the middle of the floor, he warmed his hands at the stovepipe. Such a big man! Six feet three in his socks, bony, broad-shouldered, with long arms and big hands.
He wore a rather high-crowned, buff-colored felt hat. Light buff, indeed, seemed to be his chosen color, for he wore a buff coat, buff vest and buff trousers. Moreover, his hair, his bushy eyebrows and his short, thin moustache were sandy.
Beaming on us with his smiling blue eyes, he rubbed his hands gently as he warmed them.
"I hope we are going to have a pleasant term of school together," he said, in a tone as soft as silk. "And it will not be my fault if we don't have a real quiet, nice time."
We learned later that it was his custom always to begin school with a beautiful speech of honeyed words the calm before the storm.
"Of course we have to have order in the schoolroom," he said apologetically. "I confess that I like to have the room orderly, and that I do not like to hear whispering in study hours. When the scholars go out and come in at recess time, too, it sort of disturbs me to have crowding and noise. I never wish to be hard or unreasonable with my scholars I never am, if I can avoid it. But these little things, as you all know, have to be mentioned sometimes, if we are going to have a really pleasant and profitable term.
"There is another thing that always make me feel nervous in school hours, and that is buzzing with the lips while you are getting your lessons, I don't like to speak about it, and there may be no need for it, but lips buzzing in study hours always make me feel queer.
It's just as easy to get your lessons with your eyes as with your lips, and for the sake of my feelings I hope you will try to do so.
"Speaking of lessons," he went on, "I don't believe in giving long ones. I always liked short, easy lessons myself, and I suppose you do."
In point of fact he gave the longest, hardest lessons of any teacher we ever had! We had to put in three or four hours of hard study every evening in order to keep up; and if we failed
By this time some of the larger boys Newman Darnley, Ben Murch, Absum Glinds and Melzar Tibbetts were smiling broadly and winking at one another. The new master, they thought, was "dead easy."
Later in the morning, when the bell rang for the boys to come in from their recess, Newman and many of the others pushed in at the doorway, pell-mell, as usual. Before they were fairly inside the room the new master, calm and smiling, stood before them. One of his long arms shot out; he collared Newman and, with a trip of the foot, flung him on the floor. Ben Murch, coming next, landed on top of Newman. Alfred Batchelder, Ephraim Darnley, Absum Glinds, Melzar Tibbetts and my cousin, Halstead, followed Ben, till with incredible suddenness nine of the boys, all almost men-grown, were piled in a squirming heap on the floor!
Filled with awe, we smaller boys stole in to our seats, casting frightened glances at the teacher, who stood beaming genially at the heap of boys on the floor.
"Lie still, lie still," he said, as some of the boys at the bottom of the pile struggled to get out. "Lie still. I suppose you forgot that it disturbs me to have crowding and loud trampling. Try and remember that it disturbs me."
Turning away, he said, "The girls may now have their recess."
To this day I remember just how those terrified girls stole out from the schoolroom. Not until they had come in from their recess and had taken their seats did Master Brench again turn his attention to the pile of boys. He walked round it with his face wreathed in smiles.
"Like as not that floor is hard," he remarked. "It has just come into my mind. I'm afraid you're not wholly comfortable. Rise quietly, brush one another, and take your seats. It grieves me to think how hard that floor must be."
There were at that time about sixty-five pupils in our district, ranging in size and age from little four-year-olds, just learning the alphabet, to young men and women twenty years of age. It was impossible that so many young persons could be gathered in a room without some shuffling of feet and some noise with books and slates. Moreover, boys and girls unused to study for nine months of the year are not always able at first to con lessons without unconsciously and audibly moving their lips.
Buzzing lips, however, were among the seven "deadly sins" under the rιgime of Czar Brench. Dropping a book or a slate, wriggling about in your seat, whispering to a seatmate, sitting idly without seeming to study and not knowing your lesson reasonably well were other grave offenses.
Because of the length of the lessons, there were frequently failures in class; the punishment for that was to stand facing the school, and study the lesson diligently, feverishly, until you knew it. There were few afternoons that term when three or four pupils were not out there, madly studying to avoid remaining after school. For no one knew what would happen if you were left there alone with Czar Brench!
He seemed to care for little except order and strict discipline. He used to take off his boots and, putting on an old pair of carpet slippers, walk softly up and down the room, leisurely swinging his ruler. First and last that winter he feruled nearly all of us boys and several of the girls. "Little love pats to assist memory," he used to say, as he brought his ruler down on the palms of our hands.
Feruling with the ruler was for ordinary, miscellaneous offenses; but Czar Brench had more picturesque punishments for the six or seven "deadly sins." If you dropped a book, he would instantly cry, "Pick up that book and fetch it to me!" Then, when you came forward, he would say, "Take it in your right hand. Face the school. Hold it out straight, full stretch, and keep it there till I tell you to lower it."
Oh, how heavy that book soon got to be! And when Czar Brench calmly went on hearing lessons and apparently forgot you there, the discomfort soon became torture. Your arm would droop lower and lower, until Czar Brench's eye would fall on you, and he would say quietly, "Straight out, there!"
There were many terribly tired arms at our school that winter!
But holding books at arm's length was a far milder penalty than "sitting on nothing," which was Czar Brench's specially devised punishment for those who shuffled uneasily on those hard old benches during study hours.
"Aha, there, my boy!" he would cry. "If you cannot sit still on that bench, come right out here and sit on nothing."
Setting a stool against the wall, he would order the pupil to sit down on it with his back pressing against the wall. Then he would remove the stool, leaving the offender in a sitting posture, with his back to the wall and his knees flexed. By the time the victim had been there ten minutes, he wished never to repeat the experience. I know whereof I speak, for I "sat on nothing" three times that winter.
Czar Brench's most picturesque, not to say bizarre, punishment was for buzzing lips. Many of us, studying hard to get our lessons, were very likely to make sounds with our lips, and in the silence of that schoolroom the least little lisp was sure to reach the master's ear.
"Didn't I hear a buzzer then?" he would ask in his softest tone, raising his finger to point to the offender. "Ah, yes. It is it is you! Come out here. Those lips need a lesson."
The lesson consisted in your standing, facing the school, with your mouth propped open. The props were of wood, and were one or two inches long, for small or large "buzzers."
I remember one day when six boys and I believe one girl stood facing the school with their mouths propped open at full stretch, each gripping a book and trying to study! Inveterate "buzzers" those who had been called out two or three times had not only to face the school with props in their mouths but to mount and stand on top of the master's desk.
If Czar Brench had not been so big and strong, the older boys would no doubt have rebelled and perhaps carried him out of the schoolhouse, which was the early New England method of getting rid of an unpopular schoolmaster. None of the boys, however, dared raise a finger against him, and he ruled his little kingdom as an absolute monarch. At last, however, towards the close of the term, some one dared to defy him and it was not one of the big boys, but our youthful neighbor Catherine Edwards.
That afternoon Czar Brench had put a prop in Rufus Darnley, Jr.'s mouth. Rufus was only twelve years old and by no means one of the bright boys of the school. He stuttered in speech, and, being dull, had to study very hard to get his lessons. Every day or two he forgot his lips and "buzzed." I think he had stood on the master's desk four or five times that term.
It was a high desk; and that afternoon Rufus, trying to study up there, with his mouth propped open, lost his balance and fell to the floor in front of the desk. In falling, the prop was knocked out of his mouth.
At the crash Czar Brench, who had been hearing the grammar class with his back to Rufus, turned. I think he thought that Rufus had jumped down; for, fearing the teacher's wrath, the frightened boy scrambled to his feet and, with a cry, started to run out of school.
With one long stride the master had him by the arm. "I don't quite know what I shall do to you," he said, as he brought the boy back.
He shook Rufus until the little fellow's teeth chattered and his eyes rolled; and while he shook him, he seemed to be reflecting what new punishment he could devise for this rebellious attempt.
To the utter amazement of us all, Catherine, who was sitting directly in front of them, suddenly spoke out.
"Mr. Brench," she cried, "you are a hard, cruel man!"
The master was so astounded that he let go of Rufus and stared down at her. "Stand up!" he commanded, no longer in his soft tone, but in a terrible voice.
Catherine stood up promptly, unflinching; her eyes, blazing with indignation, looked squarely into his.
"Let me see your hand," he said.
Instead of one hand, Catherine instantly thrust out both, under his very nose.
"Ferule me!" she cried. "Ferule both my hands, Mr. Brench! Ferule me all you want to! I don't care how hard you strike! But you are a bad, cruel man, and I hate you!"
Still holding the ruler, Czar Brench gazed at her for some moments in silence; he seemed almost dazed.
"You are the first scholar that ever spoke to me like that," he said at last. A singular expression had come into his face; he was having a new experience. For another full minute he stared down at the girl, but he apparently had no longer any thought of feruling her.
"Take your seat," he said to her at last; and, after sending the still trembling Rufus to his seat, he dismissed the grammar class.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened afterwards. There were but three weeks more of school, and the term ended about as usual.
The school agent and certain of the parents in the district who believed in the importance of rigid discipline wished to have Czar Brench teach there another winter; but for some reason he declined to return. At the old Squire's we thought that it was, perhaps, because he had failed to conquer Catherine.