Third Summer — Mehitabel Holt and Other Instructresses
THIS summer, a person named Mehitabel Holt was our teacher. It was with eager delight that I set out for school on the first morning. I longed for the companionship and the sports of school. I had heard nothing about the mistress, excepting that she was an experienced and approved one. On my way, the image of something like Mary Smith arose to my imagination; a young lady with pleasant face and voice, and a winning gentleness of manner. This was natural; for Mary was the only mistress I had ever been to, and in fact the only one I had ever seen, who made any impression on my mind in her school-keeping capacity. What, then, was my surprise when my eyes first fell on Mehitabel Holt! I shall not describe how nature had made her, or time had altered her. She had been well-looking, indeed rather beautiful once, I have heard; but, if so, the acidity of her temper had diffused itself through, and lamentably corroded this valued gift of nature.
She kept order; for her punishments were horrible, especially to us little ones. She dungeoned us in that windowless closet just for a whisper. She tied us to her chair-post for an hour, because sportive nature tempted our fingers and toes into something like play. If we were restless on our seats, wearied of our posture, fretted by the heat, or sick of the unintelligible lesson, a twist of the ear, or a snap on the head from her thimbled finger, reminded us that sitting perfectly still was the most important virtue of a little boy in school. Our forenoon and afternoon recess was allowed to be five minutes only; and, even during that time, our voices must not rise above the tone of quiet conversation. That delightful exercise of juvenile lungs, hallooing, was a capital crime. Our noonings, in which we used formerly to rejoice in the utmost freedom of legs and lungs, were now like the noonings of the Sabbath, in the restraints imposed upon us. As Mehitabel boarded at Capt. Clark's, any ranging in the fields, or raising of the voice, was easily detected by her watchful senses.
As the prevalent idea in those days respecting a good school was, that there should be no more sound and motion than was absolutely necessary, Mehitabel was, on the whole, popular with the parents. She kept us still, and forced us to get our lessons; and that was something uncommon in a mistress. So she was employed the next summer to keep our childhood in bondage. Had her strict rules been enforced by anything resembling Mary Smith's sweet and sympathetic disposition and manners, they would have been endurable. But, as it was, our schooling those two summers was a pain to the body, a weariness to the mind, and a disgust to the heart.
I shall not devote a separate chapter to all my summer teachers. What more I may have to say of them I shall put into this. They were none of them like Mehitabel in severity, nor all of them equal to her in usefulness, and none of them equal in any respect to Mary Smith. Some were very young, scarcely sixteen, and as unfit to manage that "harp of a thousand strings," the human mind, as is the unskilled and changeful wind to manage any musical instrument by which science and taste delight the ear. Some kept tolerable order; others made the attempt, but did not succeed; others did not even make the attempt. All would doubtless have done better, had they been properly educated and disciplined themselves.
After I was ten years old, I ceased to attend the summer school except in foul weather, as in fair I was wanted at home on the farm. These scattering days, I and others of nearly the same age were sent to school by our parents, in hopes that we should get at least a snatch of knowledge. But this rainy-day schooling was nothing but vanity to us, and vexation of spirit to the mistress. 'We could read and spell better than the younger and regular scholars, and were puffed up with our own superiority. We showed our contempt for the mistress and her orders, by doing mischief ourselves, and leading others into temptation.
If she had the boldness to apply the ferule, we laughed in her face, unless her blows were laid on with something like masculine strength. In case of such severity, we waited for our revenge till the close of the school for the day, when we took the liberty to let saucy words reach her ear, especially if the next day was likely to be fair, and we of course were not to re-appear in her realm till foul weather again.