The Old School-house again — its Appearance the Last Winter — why so long occupied — a New One at last
MY first chapter was about the Old School-house: so shall be my last. The declining condition in which we first found it, has waxed into exceeding infirmity by the changes of thirteen years. After the summer school succeeding my thirteenth winter of district education, it was sold and carried piecemeal away, ceasing forever from the form and name of school-house.
I would have my readers see how the long-used and hard-used fabric appeared and how near to dissolution it came before the district could agree to accommodate their children with a new one.
We will now suppose it is my last winter at our school. Here we are inside, let us look around a little.
The long writing-benches arrest our attention as forcibly as anything in sight. They were originally of substantial plank, an inch and a half thick. And it is well that they were thus massive. No board of ordinary measure would have stood the hackings and hewings, the scrapings and borings, which have been inflicted on those sturdy plank. In the first place, the edge next the scholar is notched from end to end, presenting an appearance something like a broken-toothed mill-saw. Upon the upper surface, there has been carved, or pictured with ink, the likeness of all things in the heavens and on earth ever beheld by a country school-boy; and sundry guesses at things he never did see. Fifty years has this poor timber been subjected to the knives of idlers, and fully the fourth of fifty I have hacked on it myself; and by this last winter their width has become diminished nearly one-half. There are, moreover, innumerable writings on the benches and ceilings. On the boys' side were scribbled the names of the Hannahs, the Marys, and the Harriets, toward whom young hearts were beginning to soften in the first gentle meltings of love. One would suppose that a certain Harriet A., was the most distinguished belle the district has ever produced, from the frequency of her name on bench and wall.
The cracked and patched and puttied windows are now still more diversified by here and there a square of board instead of glass.
The master's desk is in pretty good order. The first one was knocked over in a noon-time scuffle, and so completely shattered as to render a new one necessary. This has stood about ten years.
As to the floor, had it been some winters we could not have seen it without considerable scraping away of dust and various kinds of litter; for a broom was not always provided, and boys would not wallow in the snow after hemlock, and sweeping could not so well be done with a stick. This winter, however, Mr. Ellis takes care that the floor shall be visible the greater part of the time. It is rough with sundry patches of board nailed over chinks and knot-holes made by the wear and tear of years.
Now we will look at the fire-place. One end of the hearth has sunk an inch and a half below the floor. There are crevices between some of the tiles, into which coals of fire sometimes drop and make the boys spring for snow. The andirons have each lost a fore-foot, and the office of the important member is supplied by bricks which had been dislodged from the chimney-top. The fire-shovel has acquired by accident or age a venerable stoop. The tongs can no longer be called a pair, for the lack of one of the fellow-limbs. The bar of iron running from jamb to jamb in front, — how it is bent and sinking in the middle, by the pressure of the sagging fabric above! Indeed the whole chimney is quite ruinous. The bricks are loose here and there in the vicinity of the fire-place; and the chimney-top has lost so much of its cement that every high wind dashes off a brick, rolling and sliding on the roof, and then tumbling to the ground, to the danger of cracking whatever heedless skull may happen in the way.
The window-shutters, after having shattered the glass by the slams of many years, have broken their own backs at length. Some have fallen to the ground, and are going the way of all things perishable. Others hang by a single hinge, which is likely to give way at the next high gale, and consign the dangling shutter to the company of its fellows below.
The clapboards are here and there loose, and dropping one by one from their fastenings. One of these thin and narrow appendages, sticking by a nail at one end, and loose and slivered at the other, sends forth the most ear-rending music to the skillful touches of the North-west. Indeed, so many are the avenues by which the wind passes in and out, and so various are the notes, according as the rushing air vibrates a splinter, makes the window clatter, whistles through a knot-hole, and rumbles like a big bass down the chimney, that the edifice may be imagined uproarious winter's Panharmonicon, played upon in turn by all the winds.
Such is the condition of the Old School-house, supposing it to be just before we leave it forever, at the close of my thirteenth and last winter at our district school. It has been resorted to summer after summer, and winter after winter, although the observation of parents and the sensations of children have long given evidence that it ought to be abandoned.
At every meeting on school affairs that has been held for several years, the question of a new school-house has been discussed. All agree on the urgent need of one, and all are willing to contribute their portion of the wherewith; but when they attempt to decide on its location, then their harmonious action is at an end. All know that this high bleak hill, the coldest spot within a mile, is not the place; it would be stupid folly to put it here. At the foot of the hill, on either side, is as snug and pleasant a spot as need be. But the East-enders will not permit its location on the opposite side, and the West-enders are as obstinate on their part. Each division declares that it will secede and form a separate district should it be carried further off, although in this case they must put up with much cheaper teachers, or much less schooling, or submit to twice the taxes.
Thus they have tossed the ball of discussion, and sometimes hurled that of contention, back and forth, year after year, to just about as much profit as their children have flung snow-balls in play, or chips and cakes of ice when provoked. At length, Time, the final decider of all things material, wearied with their jars, is likely to end them by tumbling the old ruin about their ears.
Months have passed; it is near winter again. There is great rejoicing among the children, satisfaction among the parents, harmony between the two Ends. A new school-house has been erected at last — indeed it has. A door of reconciliation and mutual adjustment was opened in the following manner.
That powerful-to-do, but tardy personage, the Public, began to be weary of ascending and descending Capt. Clark's hill. He began to calculate the value of time and horse-flesh. One day it occurred to him that it would be as "cheap, and indeed much cheaper," to go round this hill at the bottom, than to go round it over the top; for it is just as far from side to side of a ball in one direction as in another, and this was a case somewhat similar. He perceived that there would be no more lost in the long run by the expense of carrying the road an eighth of a mile to the south, and all on level ground, than there would be by still wasting the breath of horse and the patience of man in panting up and tottering down this monstrous hill. It seemed as if he had been blind for years, not to have conceived of the improvement before. No time was to be lost now. He lifted up his many-tongued voice, and put forth his many-handed strength; and, in the process of a few months, a road was constructed, curving round the south side of the aforesaid hill, which, after all, proved to be but a few rods longer from point to point than the other.
The district were no longer at variance about the long-needed edifice. The aforementioned improvement had scarcely been decided on, before every one perceived how the matter might be settled. A school-meeting was soon called, and it was unanimously agreed to erect a new school-house on the new road, almost exactly opposite the old spot, and as equidistant from the two Ends, it was believed, as the equator is from the poles.
Here Mr. Henry taught the District School somewhat as it should be; and it has never since been kept as it was.