SCHOOL AND ME
ERNEST BUCKLER, M.A.
Idon’t think there was ever another school, anywhere, like that one in the tiny village of Dalhousie West, N.S., around 1916. I don’t mean it was one of those quaint affairs that writers dream up who wouldn’t know a pollywog’s nest from a tapioca pudding; and we weren’t the proverbial barefoot boy, whistling as if he’d swallowed a bobolink. We wore shoes the year around (only a fool would walk over that stubble and granite in his bare feet), and the only expert whistler I can recall was a girl. The one with the bubble under her tongue which she used to’exhibit to our unflagging delight every recess.
Teachers weren’t the coy, applecheeked gals of fiction, either. Remember old Helen Hirt.le who got so groggy setting up with a different boy every night that some days she didn’t know cube root from board feet, and finally the Trustees had to speak to her?
Remember the morning Annie’s
father “came to the door” and told her her brother was home from France, and Miss Gillis marked everyone’s scribbler 100 that day, and we all knew she set the clock ahead?
Remember the day the stove fell down?
Lord knows the schoolhouse wasn’t red, either. It was pure mouse. It was a one-room structure, set on an isolated expanse of solid granite midway between up-the-road and downthe-road, so that both ends of the section could be appeased by a mutual inconvenience. The toll that rock took on woolen drawers was responsible for half the hooked rugs in the community.
The teacher had a table desk with dining room chair; and our two rows of great-bellied double desks faced hers. There were also two blackboards, a globe, a clock, a “room” stove with a long sausage of overhead pipe, a row of nails for the coats, and three maps so chapped with age that the reinforcement of gingham soaked in flour paste on their backs made the whole world look like a huge delta.
There were no samples of precocious kindergarten art on the windowpanes then. (It seems to me we never drew anything but pears, and crayons were unknown anyway.) We did with a picture of the reigning king and a feed calendar.
What did we learn? Well, in grammar we learned that “the subject is what we’re . . .? talking about” (the teacher would give us a start and everyone would chorus the ending); “the predicate is what we . . .? say about the subject”; “the object answers the question . . .? who or what.” Not that a very little inversion of sentence structure wouldn’t trip us up. In “O for the touch of a vanished hand!” “O” was nominated for subject every time. Whereas “analyzing” that sentence (along with the cost of papering a room) even the teacher flinched at.
In literature, we learned poetry as well as prose, but I’m afraid the poetry remained pretty obscure—even after we’d looked up the long words and written their meanings over the top. “Like a feather is wafted downward by an eagle in its flight,” doesn’t gain much by becoming, as it did in an old Reader of mine, “Like a feather is ‘to convey effortlessly through air or water’ downward by an eagle in its ‘act or manner of hasty departure.’
The only poem we really went for was the one beginning, “A wind came up from the Pernambuco . . .”. That word Per-nam-6u-ko really sent us. It was like “Noch nicht” (“notch nitched,” according to the teachers), or the arch tickler of all, “Popocata petl.” These were the sort of
bywords in all our conversation. “Hi, Stan, how’s your Popocatepetl?” Convulsive laughter.
The Tudor Time Was Swell
In geography we learned that the world is round, because if you “sailed constantly in the same direction . . .,” or was it if you “dropped something from a high tower . . .?” But no one really swallowed that.
We could rattle off the capitals of Europe without thinking. Spain? Madrid. France? Paris. Bulgaria? Sofia. (Sophia who? ha ha.) We learned that England has a temperate? climate and exports? cutlery; that India lies on the Equator and exports? precious stones; that Asia is inhabited by? Mongols anti uses the yak as a? beast of burden. “Hi, Stan, how’s your yak?”
History was our favorite subject. We learned that everyone was cruel in olden times — waging war, smothering little boys, setting out on expeditions, and burning off someone’s hand for “recanting.” (Recanting. That must be one of those secret words like “fornication” and “adultery” in the scripture readings. If you looked up “fornication” in the dictionary it said “adultery” and if you looked up “adultery” it said “fornication.”)
History wasn’t so hot up to Henry VIII only Richards and Edwards succeeding each other — Henry, of course, had six wives, including Katharine - Parr - Who - Outlived -Him. In fact the Tudor period was swell right through. With Elizabeth sailing against the Spanish A r may da, and all that gory cut-and-come-again in the Tower.
We remembered Mary because she had a “callous” on her heart, and
Cromwell because he had a wart on his nose, and Anne because she had twenty - children - all - oí - which -died - in - infancy.
On the other hand we merely exchanged smirks when the teacher mentioned the Rump Parliament; we always confused the Reformation with the Gunpowder Plot; and the Industrial Revolution held nothing significant for us but the spinning jenny. “Hi, Stan, how’s your spinning jenny?”
Shirttails for Slates
In mathematics we learned how to arrive at an H.C.F. or an L.C.M., even if we weren’t quite sure which was which after we got it; when to “set the decimal over”; how much change to bring back if eggs were selling at 15c per doz.; how to “express” £5 12s in terms of pence; and that A rather than B, and definitely rather than C, was the guy to hire to paint a house. To say nothing of the exotic information gleaned from the backs of our “Big Beaver” scribblers. That they weighed with grams in Troy (was that where they had the wooden horse?); that a stone was 14 lbs.; an ell 49 ins.; and that 5V2 yds. was, of all things, a perch !
Standard equipment for mathematics was a slate, a slate pencil, a slate rag, and two vanilla bottles for water—one a spare in case we forgot to empty the water overnight and it froze. Shirttails were favored for slate rags by the children themselves. But for reasons of maternal pride we were usually issued a swatch of the starchiest apron remnant in the house.
If we got stuck on a problem we multiplied everything in sight by 4.86 or 3.1417. If that didn’t help, we had to give up.
Of course what the “D”s and “C”s (that is, Grades 9 and 10) learned was right out of this world. We touched their compasses and protractors with as gingerly a reverence as if they were Geiger counters. The things we overheard were transparently preposterous —how could x plus y, two letters, be the number of days it took to build a house?
The teacher’s laboratory equipment, a test tube and a little ball of sodium, fascinated us. She’d put the sodium in the washbasin of water and say that “hydrogen was escaping,” although you couldn’t see a thing.
It was wonderful . . . for a while. Finally the Trustees put a stop to such dangerous business, with all those young children there!
There was no French, but the visiting rector (educated at Oxford incidentally ) taught one of the boys Latin. He told us that Latin people called a table a mensa. “Put the dishes on the mensa.” Imagine!
Except in arithmetic our exams consisted of a set of questions, each beginning, “Write a note on . . .”. The arithmetic questions were simply copied on the blackboard straight from the book. Do you remember the day the teacher made a mistake and asked us to express one third as a decimal and App was still adding naughts and dividing like mad when the bell rang?
No one worried the least bit about exams. You knew you’d grade no matter what you put down, public feeling against failing anyone was so strong. Most of us dropped out, however, before we got too far beyond where we belonged. Defection would start with excuses, “Please let Lennie home at noon to help drop potatoes,” and wind up with the philosophy, “What good is education to a boyP’ Grading everyone was one of the earmarks of a good teacher. The other two were: She was “strict”; and if the boy where she boarded tried to go with her, she went with him. Violation of these unwritten rules meant that she wouldn’t be asked for another term.
This business of ask or be asked was quite a proposition. If a teacher had to. “apply” it was a sort of humiliation. Sometimes as late as June people were still saying, “Maybe she don’t want the school, but I think they ought to ask her, they’re makin ’ a fool of the girl.” If the girl did swallow her pride and ask, a definite verdict was still a long way off.
The secretary was no help. He only functioned five times a year. Quarterly, when he made a drive on delinquent taxpayers to meet her salary (saddest casualty: the boy whose stipend for making fires had to “go on his father’s rates”); and on the night of the lanternlit school meeting when he pumped, unsuccessfully, to have them vote $25 for repairs.
If she asked him he’d say, “It’s all up to the Trustees.” If she asked Trustee Sam he’d go right on paring his apple with a jackknife and say, “It’s all right with me if it’s all right with Bill.” Bill would say, “It’s all right with me, if it’s all right with Sam.” And so on. It’s a wonder we ever had a teacher at all.
Naturally, a local girl must under no circumstances apply for the schoolmarm’s post—even for a first term. She could let it be known, by tactful grapevine, that she was available; but if the Trustees passed her up for “that thing from West Pubnico the inspector recommended,” she must suffer the snub in inviolate silence.
Perhaps the commonest criticism of a teacher was that “she put all her time on the higher grades.” That is, the “D”s and “C”s who had to write the Provincial Tests in town.
She didn’t actually—and yet there was something clannish between her and the “C”s that the rest of us didn’t
share. When she heard their lessons she sat on the top of an empty desk facing them, or squeezed in alongside.
There was a sense of conspiracy in their brazen plotting of every conceivable ruse to trick the examiner. “C”s were told to write something about everything, whether they knew what they were talking about or not. (I once described the Renaissance as “one of the greatest battles ever fought, both sides advancing and retreating, and the ground covered with slain.”) And “C”s were enjoined, no matter what, to leave the last sentence of their answers incomplete and write “Not sufficient time to finish” at the bottom of the page.
The week the “C”s went to write was the Week of the Year. Ginghams w'ere shed and caps put away. 1 was, I remember, in a reefer suit of brown corduroy, matching brown stockings and sneakers, and a brand-new snapbrim straw hat the likes of which I’ve never seen before or since. And you should have seen the girls—with the semitransparent organdie, and the black velvet ribbon run through the necks of their camisoles.
When the Inspector Grinned
Or perhaps, on second thought, the Week of the Year was the week they “heard.” If the “top wasn’t torn off” their papers (that is, the scrolly part proclaiming it a high school PASS certificate) a shout went relaying from hayfield to hayfield, and the “licenses” were brandished aloft in the Postoffice doorway until the aprons of running women filled the August air like a swarming of butterflies. If one ux’re torn off, “a gloom was cast over the whole community.”
There was nothing comparable to the disgrace of a failed “C” save that of the teacher whose “Returns” (after three days and nights of blood, sweat, and tears over the Average Daily Attendance section) came back from the inspector incorrect. Even Grade One “felt for her.”
On one other occasion the barrier of discipline disappeared altogether between teacher and student. The day the inspector called. The new inspector, that is. The old one used to tether his nag to a ring in the clapboard, doze a few minutes by the stove, “sign the Register,” and then beat it without asking a question. But his successor was prying as a new broom, with a terrifying reputation for inducing hysterics in greenhorns.
The schoolhouse was swept twice on danger days, the stove got a coat of “Rising Sun” stove polish, the molasses bottles were taken off the window sills, and every one of us sported a clean blouse.
Each grade always had a “lesson” prepared in advance. The only hitch, this boy called his own shots—he’d ask for Grade 7 arithmetic, when they’d been rehearsed for the War of the Roses. Do you remember he asked Bill the sum of 1 V¿ and 2%, and Bill said, “That’d be about 8”?
After the inspector had gone, order was blown sky high. “Dick, what was it he said when you said . . .?” “I knew it, Miss Morehouse, but I couldn’t think.” “I saw him grin. He grinned twice.”
1 have emphasized the more pedestrian aspects of our education but that’s not to say the Arts were neglected. We had Music. No coy confetti like, “Lazy Willie, will you get up,” though. We sang rugged stuff like “Jim Blake your wife lies dying, Come over the wires tonight . . .” with the teacher taking “top line.” (Due to the coloquial grammar we had visions of an inconsolable Jim speeding along the wires in something like a ski lift.)
We sang another wonderful ditty whose* title escapes me, but whose most vivid lines, at the part where a jilted sweetheart hangs herself, still cling: “He took his knife and he cut her down, And in her bosom these words he found . . .”
And do you remember those duets in the Christmas concert with the convulsing allusions to local couples who were about to be married?
Our reading was as rugged as our music. The teacher, bless her, read us whatever she was reading. We had all of Zane Grey, right from “Wildfire” to “Betty Zane.” We had Rider Haggard’s “She.” (No rabbit she!) And we had a wonderful yarn called “Flames in the Wind,” which opened, “My God! Oh My God!” although the teacher diluted this to “My Goodness, Oh My Goodness.”
In the realm of current events discussion centred largely on such matters as whether Mrs. Gillis would lose the Postoffice if the Government went over; and whether Tom Todd was going to sell that heifer he just led by, or whether she had, as the line in Grade 7’s Reader so daringly put it, “an engagement with the bull.”
What kind of children were we? For the most part we were strangely adult. Tom Sawyer gave us a pain. We weren’t cut-ups or bullies. There was no “Stinker” or “Butch.” Instead there were “Moose” (size), “Bright” (in honor of his father’s prize ox), “Poop” (not for the deck of a ship but for a famous physical accident), and in the case of a cute brunette trick in Grade 6, “Little Nellie Black-Eye.”
We rassied; but if we really fought it was as serious as if our fathers had fought. More often than not because they had fought. For this reason the teacher never interfered. It would mean adjudicating a far larger issue.
How did the children play, then, who so rarely fought? Well, ball was our only game which had any recognizable counterpart elsewhere. And barely recognizable at that. The ball itself was a solid sphere of yarn, as often as not trailing an eerie umbilicus where an end had broken loose. There were no bases, only fielders. You hit the ball and then leg-bailed it for the duplex outhouse. If the fielders couldn’t retrieve the ball and strike you with it, literally, before you got back, you stayed at bat until they did. There was no score, no technicalities. A good pitcher was simply one who had the knack of tossing balls easy to connect with. “No wonder you got us out” (contemptuously) “you didn’t give good balls!”
Gee! They Got Sandwiches!
When ball palled there was “Moose.” The moose were given a five-minute start over the barrens and then hunters came after them, hell-forleather, with their alder Mausers.
And there was “Oxen.” Do you know how to make an ox? It’s simple. Fill a bottle almost to the neck with water. Girdle the bottle, at the level of the water, with a piece of yarn dipped in kerosene. Set a match to the yarn, lift off the top of the bottle (which will separate in a perfect circle), and you have an ox. Strap it into the hollow of a miniature yoke, attach a string to the yoke, stuff the bottle with twigs and it’s no trouble at all to imagine that you’re hauling logs together and piling them in a “brow,” as the men do.
As for the girls, they spent most of their noon and recess with dolls. They didn’t seem to find it at all pathetic that these dolls were oblong rocks, dressed up in scraps of hemstitched petticoat.
I should mention, however, the fillip of the exotic injected into all our doings by my “avant garde” cousins. They showed us our first funny paper. They brought oranges to school, not only at Christmas time, but in June! They also brought the first sandwiches. Deviled ham (a name almost as fascinating as “Popocatapetl”) and peanut butter. To the rest of us such stuff was like humming birds’ tongues.
Our general lunch staples were bread, hash, molasses, and tea. Each family had its own molasses bottle on the window sill, and each took its weekly turn in providing tea for the communal pot. (Coffee was in a class with Napoleon brandy.)
Around noon almost every hand that shot up meant, “Please, may I stir my hash?” Tins of hash literally lined the stove. Sometimes the onion was already in the mixture. Sometimes it was added on the spot.
If we did have cake (with “showers” in the frosting, say) or a particularly intriguing spot of cabbage pickle, we were directed to share it with the teacher, now don’t forget. And the poor girl didn’t dare to leave a single crumb of any offering uneaten for fear of parent-teacher repercussions. How she must have longed to be a diabetic.
As for us, we didn’t know Vitamin A from a split infinitive, or an adenoid from an acorn; cleaned our teeth with ashes and soda; all drank from the pail of spring water with the same dipper— and were as healthy as horses.
Well, our schooldays were something of all this—and more.
Oh, That Boy at Ratisbon
How can you tell such things as how it was the morning the mote-thickened spring sunshine slanted through the open window, over the map and over the globe, and touched your morningcool slate with the first real touch of warmth, and you saw that the figure you were dividing with was the same as the figure in the denominator of the answer, and you thought in the same moment about the lady slippers in the cool green shadow, waiting to be picked at noon . . .?
Or the day the hot hum of the locust sounded in the pencil-tappingstill afternoon, though the summer was really gone, and the brave, brave, boy who brought the news of victory to Napoleon was dying so sadly at Ratisbon, and the black shine of the huckleberries was just outside the wall . . .?
Or the day when school was really out, but you were waiting for the men to come and take you home through the window - lashing bluster (with the “clouds” pulled up over your face and your breath warm and wool-smelling inside them), and the seats were all drawn up in a circle near the stove on the larrigan-blackened softwood floor, and you were all together somehow.
1 understood that just after I left, and the teachers came back from Normal, things changed. They sang “Farmer in the Dell” and read “Winnie the Pooh.” If the Trustees didn’t actually say “No” to a teacher, she could consider herself hired for another term, automatically. The children pasted crayoned tulips on the windowpanes and mounted little sprigs of shepherd’s purse. They played jacks. They wore combinations.
When they multiplied by 25 they added two zeros and divided by 4. Each one had his own drinking cup, and molasses became a social error. They were all authorities on the International Situation, and even'Grade One believed that the world was round. They went in their bare feet!
I guess I just got out in time.