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THE DISTRICT SCHOOL.
SEE the children as they used to come from the village school, — a noisy little mob, ripe for mischief. A wagoner drives along. The boys swarm upon his cart like bees, tangled together and dangling behind with scarred and mud-stained feet. The farmer either "whips behind" or leaves the struggling mass to disentangle by a gradual dropping off. The children who were left stop a moment. Poised, expectant, they all stand, until some foremost fellow plunges his broad bare feet into the hot, soft sand, scoops it along, and flings it aloft. Away they all rush, with a whoop and a hurrah, ploughing along the road, half smothered by the dust they fling about them.
Nothing could be more charming than the groups of school-bound children in early summer mornings, simply clad, chattering like magpies, making the air ring with their laughter. Their prattle was mostly of flowers and birds; of the treasures of fields and pastures and woods, and their many little adventures in their close dealings with nature. They were as hardy and untrained as the mullein and hardhack and wild rose of the unploughed roadside; and they were as sweet to look upon as were the blossoms of these weeds.
In summer the scents of fields and woods used to get into the school-rooms; especially of the ferns, which sprang up all along the stone walls, by the roadside, and in the damp, shady corners of the fields. What country-bred child does not remember these tender, dainty roadside ferns which the children used to stick in the seams of their desks, and into every available crack in the school-house walls? Beds of them grew crisp in a field back of the school-house in my grandfather's district, where the grass around them was above the heads of the smaller children. The man who owned this field was at war with the scholars, for they would pluck the ferns, and the way to these led through his longest grass. A wild cherry-tree stood in the centre of this field, and its ragged wall was covered with berry-bushes. When it was mowed scythes were tripped by hard-trodden trails, and the old farmer was heard to say to his men one summer that "the young cusses" had cut up his field like a checker-board. He hacked up the fern-bed, cut down the cherry-tree, and tore up all the wayside berry-bushes. But dear old Mother Nature outwitted him, and the next year the ferns came up again as rank as ever; strawberries and wild-flowers grew where the tree and bushes had been; the eager children made new trails after new things, and crisscrossed the field worse than ever.
There was something delicious to the children in their stolen marches upon this forbidden field. I see them now, leaping at recess past the gap in the wall (that gap which would never stay mended) into their trails, neck deep in grass, tumbling and tripping as they went. Their faces are beautiful, framed in memory by the ferns and grains and grasses of long since dead harvests; they bring with them an Indian summer after-glow of sentiment.
The school-house yard was a sunny spot, defined by four flat corner-stones, good for the game of goal, crisscrossed by two hard-trodden paths, and littered by loose-lying sticks and pebbles. Its stone wall was jagged, thistle-lined, and much beset by bees. In the corner next to the school-house was an ever-present gap. You know how handy such wall-holes used to be in your childhood; how your bare feet clung to the smooth rocks, which had tumbled to the other side; You have doubtless yourself helped make them in pasture boundaries, or been the bruised victims of unpremeditated breaks. Nobody ever seemed to know how this hole came. It was a school mystery, incessantly mended and as incessantly undone.
Close by this gap was one corner of the goal-ground. The lively game of goal was played by the girls at recess, the largest ones claiming the stones and right of way. They flew eagerly from rock to rock, cheeks aglow and hair streaming. The smaller girls either watched them or strayed alongside forbidden fields for wild forage. The game of goal was too tame for the boys, who, when their turn came, rushed uproariously out, skimmed along the walls, tumbled with somersaults into the fields, hurrahed up and down the highways, irresponsible, dirty, happy; seldom getting through recess without a free fight. The small boys played marbles on the sunny door-steps, or exchanged pocket treasures around the schoolhouse corner. When the teacher's knock put an end to the uproar, they tumbled in as they had tumbled out, marvellously disentangling at the threshold of the school-room.
The teachers of the winter schools were a mixed race. Well-educated farmers sometimes eked out their incomes and filled up their winter leisure by teaching school. Such were always savage disciplinarians. A boy seemed as tough of hide to them as "Cherry" and "Brindle," who drew their carts. They were fertile in punishments and cruel with the ferule, — green, birchen, supple ferule, used for the tingling and blistering of so many outer integuments. These teachers were apt to be nasal readers, but they were infallible in spelling, geography, and book-keeping. They were not much given to oral instruction, but followed one up closely in the multiplication table, abbreviations, and laws of punctuation.
The village teachers were called masters and mistresses, for many of them a fitting title, mimic despots as they were; Often bright young men, for the sake of the meagre pay, taught these schools. They were apt to have a hard time of it, and had to be strong of muscle and will not to get "smoked out," or unmercifully bothered by uncouth tricks. The winter schools were rough. Farmers' boys, freed from work, many of them grown to man's estate, flocked to them with slate and copy-book and text-books, to lay up that stock of school learning which was to make them oracles in the village stores, moderators in town-meetings, and representatives to general courts. They were difficult to manage; puzzled the master with hard sums and knotty questions, and roared out their conceits like young giants. They stamped through the snowy entries, shaggy-coated, puffing like engines, rubbing their frosty ears; uncouth, yet honest, patient, and full of a rude humanity; worthy, hard-working farmers that were to be. Here and there one different from the rest, a "queer fellow," so called, drifted apart from his school-mates, so that, years after, they were wont to turn wearily from their ploughs and boast that in boyhood they had mated with a famous man.
The zeal of all of them was great after learning. Their patience was pathetic. The dullest of them hacked away at their books as doggedly as they did in summer at the rocky soil. Passing along the highway in winter evenings, you might behold, through the exposed windows of farm-houses, young boys deep in their tasks, by the light of tallow-candles and open fires; and it was pleasant to see the "old folks" watching them with a sweet pride, only surpassed by the conceit of the young learners. The books they used were few and seldom changed; but they seemed then to be good enough, and the recitations from them were the best of their kind. These district schools were nurseries of talent and ambition. Their conditions of severity and restriction have sent forth great and famous men. The most laggard scholars were yearly bettered by them, and the bright ones got from their three or four winter months of hard study as much as most boys and girls get nowadays from nine months' tuition.
The discarded books of these schools are often found in the closets and garrets of old farm-houses, with their thick brown covers and worm-eaten leaves. Their text is of quaint lettering, but their sense is unabated by time, and one feels tempted to go back to the use of these potent things of the past, whose obsolete rules have taught so many wise men. Turning them over and following them is like talking with friends who, long ago, helped to make us what we are. Did you never, in later life, run across a reader (long since out of print) which was used by the schools of your youth? Its pages seem as familiar to you as nursery rhymes, and you feel towards it as tenderly almost as if it were a human thing, — this stilted old reader, whose solid literature was one of the stumbling-blocks of your childhood. You have not forgotten its standard declamations and dialogues, thrillingly rendered by loud-voiced boys and girls; and the oft-repeating of its much prose and rhyme made you forever intimate with them. The names of men who made your school-books are household words to you, and when you would teach your children, your tongue trips upon the rules which they taught you.
What unpenned literature is bound up in books! The stories printed on their pages are often less pathetic, less tragic, than the real life scenes which touch or sight of them can bring back to you. I confess to an awe in handling ancient books, and follow their tender, mouldy pages as if I were in the presence of their past owners. The fading names upon their flyleaves have the helpless significance of all memorials of the dead. There is a sad delight in rummaging through an old library, — in dragging out from corners and upper shelves volumes tucked away as worthless, but redeemed into preciousness by past use of them. Books that you used in your school-days, you curiously turn over for the marks you left in them. Gift-books, which have been thrust aside, are taken back, for the memory of him or her who wrote upon their blank leaves pleasant messages. Guide-books and books that you read upon journeys thrust their titles upon you, and set you again on your travels. Books once read with friends quicken your memories of social life. Books with strange names in them, picked up from stalls, affect you like human waifs; and ancient books, of quaint dialect, like ghosts of the past. But before all others are the books which never get tucked away in corners: those which were read last by the loved and lost. How many have such, with marks left in; pencil touches; a stray letter; names scrawled, — pitifully meagre, unsatisfactory traces of hands which can never again turn them! Take from me my books, most of them, if you will, but do not dare to touch the precious volumes in blue and gold turned slowly over by the fingers of my dying child. They left no soil on the page, but their sacred imprint is no less indelible to me. Dear old books, all of you, — no matter how much your printed leaves lie, the overlapping text, legible alone to faithful love, can never be false! You may grow mildewy and musty, but ever tender and beautiful shall be the associations with which you are bound.
Ancient school-houses were not built for comfort. Their seats were high and narrow, their desks awkward and inconvenient. Their chimneys were large, fireplaces broad and smoky, and the floors in front of them were sure to be worn with the tramp of uneasily-seated children, who in winter went up to them in never-ending procession. The worst-used place in the whole district was the schoolroom. Youngsters hewed and hacked at their desks with a revengeful persistence. The plastering of the walls was covered with rude inscriptions, and the ceiling overheard bespattered with ink and paper squibs. No boy or girl ever plead guilty of any of these mars and blots, but many additions went each term into the aggregate of this spontaneous frescoing. The old school-room in my grandfather's district was full of scrawls and names and quaint maxims. Almost every teacher had his or her profile in it, done in tolerable outline by roguish fingers. No law had force against this custom. The scribbling of the school-room had become a second nature to the scholars, and it seemed less culpable because the rough, blotched walls upon near inspection resolved themselves into art exponents of child-life; made up of outline leaves and flowers and birds and scraps of rhyme, — crude pictures of what had gone into and out of the children's days. The marring of school-rooms thus, in one sense, becomes their embellishment. The names, whittled indelibly into desk-lids and door-posts, and all the traces of bygone child possession, — these are the true ghosts of scholars and school-days that arc past.
In summer the rows of small, opposite windows in old school-houses, open upon the children's necks, inured them to drafts; and nothing could be purer than the breezes which blew from every quarter of the heavens into these wide-opened rooms. In winter up the big chimneys went most of the heat, and with it all the bad air; whilst through cracks and chinks without number blew the biting but health-giving north wind. It was hard on little boys and girls in corner-seats; but then they were well wrapped up in homespun suits, and were always going to the fire to warm their tingling fingers and toes. Every comer into the room let in a blast of cold air. At recess the boys tumbled into the snow, and came back shaking it from their garments. Two or three deep in a semicircle they hugged the fireplace, and sucked at snow-balls crushed in their half-frozen fingers till the tap of the master's ferule sent them unwillingly to their desks.
The floor about the fireplaces was always soppy in winter with incoming snow, and in summer was sure to be wet from slate-washings and the careless upsetting of clippers. Close by it, upon a low bench, stood the water-pail, the filling of which on summer days was a rare privilege to the older girls. The spring was quite far away, close by the edge of a wood. It was a pretty sight to see them bursting into the school-room, staggering under their load: rosy, laughing, with their aprons full of flowers and mint from the brookside. The water of the spring had a snaky repute, but it was freely drank of by all the children, and in various ways catered largely to their comfort and delight. On hot summer days the larger girls used to splash it about, and it would trickle down the aisles to scatter in dust-bound globules over the dingy floor.
Peculiar, positive, and unlike any other, was at night the summer odor of these schoolrooms. The thick dust, ground fine by the tramping of restless feet, elsewhere musty, here seemed to be scented with the withered roses and ferns and mint left behind them by the half-wild children. Apple-cores, scraps of paper, and bits of pencil were scattered about, and now and then the sweeper came across something from out the treasures of a boy's pocket. The latter often in school-hours found a way to the floor, and got lodged in the teacher's desk. It was curious to look into the children's boxes, and see in them how mischievous boys and girls had whiled away the laggard hours; how many apples and ginger-cakes had been slyly eaten, and tubby-houses built from books, unbeknown to the teacher. The desk of the latter, fast locked, was always fragrant with confiscated fruit.
The aspect of one of these rooms after the day's work was over was tenderly suggestive; It was a place out of which a jocund life had gone, and the waste scattered around was made up of such things as the children had gotten out of their stay in it. There was something poetical in this leaving behind them the scents of the weeds and blossoms which they had plucked, — the fading memorials of the delights of a day that had passed.
The person who found solid comfort in the winter schools was that master who boarded 'round in country districts, and tasted the cream of kindness in farmers' houses. He sat in the best seat, in the corner, through winter evenings, book in hand, reserved, prim, feared, if not hated, by the youngsters. His presence quickened the life of a household. Best dishes were brought out, and dainties came upon the table. The "fore room" was most likely opened, and neighboring farmers came in of evenings to converse with this son of learning. The housewife was more spruce in her attire, and the children were "fixed up" for the occasion. Some of these masters were like watch-dogs, and from their corner no covert sneer escaped them. The hard school usage of many a boy and girl dated from dislike come of these transient tarryings.
The summer school-mistresses, mostly farmers' daughters, seldom brought much learning to their tasks, but they were generally good-natured, and in favor with their scholars. Hard-worked mothers sent their younger children to them as freely as if they had been hired nurses, and the lower row of seats was always full of the druling, sleepy little things, with legs helplessly dangling. Patchwork and samplers were allowed in these schools, and curious pieces of their faded old needlework are still to be found in country farm-houses. The securing of the summer schools was often the cause of ill-feeling. Much canvassing was done, and committeemen were chosen with reference to particular candidates, who went before them to be examined in arithmetic, grammar, geography, and writing. The school pay was meagre, but a large item then to the girl of simple tastes and habits.
It was astonishing how much the glory of the summer depended, to the children, upon the nature of the mistress. All the sunshine they got in their school-hours seemed to pass through her; and by her disposition, as much as by the book lessons she taught them, she did her work at moulding their characters. A cross mistress turned their sweet into bitter, and made the otherwise happy days long and wearisome. The children took upon such their natural revenges. They brought her no flowers; they lagged at their books, and withdrew from the aspect of the room much of its wild summer adornments. But this was only a transient suppression; outside they were the same romping, riotous, nature-loving children.
If you have fortunately been one of these school-children, you recall the features and accidents of my picture, — the low-roofed schoolhouse; its adjoining wood-shed, littered with chips; the beaten play-ground; the outlying field, full of buttercups; the wayside, thick with thistle and mullein and hardhack; the overhanging trees, the fallen fruit of which was lawful plunder; the near wood; the far-off mountains; the blue sky overhead; the sunlight; the shadows; the moving life of the scene. You see the traveller coming down the thread of a highway on the distant hill; the farmer's daughter spreading her clothes to bleach in the orchard; working-men and oxen in the fields; the shimmer of the near stream. You hear the brook's babble and the hum of the insects; the song of birds and the drowsy undertone of nature. You see and feel it all, — the onward processes of life; the unerring growth of the year; the resistless tramp of time. Very much would you give to leap back for a day upon the old goal-ground, that you might lie upon the grass, a scholar and a dreamer, and again watch that narrow landscape, which grew into you with a fruitful minuteness, and which has been the stable groundwork of the best landscapes of your maturer life.