Chapter summary: The three 'R's of education: 'Readin', 'Ritin', and 'Rithmetic,' or so I supposed that's what these children though they were here for. I suppose that it was close enough for these simple farmers' children. And it was well: they were good children. For the most part.
"Good morning, children," I said, brimming with confidence, overjoyed, in fact. "My name is Miss Caroline, and I am your new school marm."
"Good morning, Miss Caroline," the school-house full of children droned a reply. Some of them, I could hear, accidently, had begun to intone, "Gute morgan," by mistake before hastily correcting themselves.
Speaking German was illegal.
But I didn't mind it. I was almost euphoric.
I couldn't believe it.
I could not believe it!
I had done it.
I had followed our Manifest Destiny and gone West! But not only that, and, well, even just that was more than enough to cause a fracas so vehement Back East, back home in Boston, that I had been cut off and disowned from my family, forever.
But not only had I gone West, I had done something much more than that: I had secured a position, a paying position. I was one of the very, very few women out in society here and even back in Boston, who was able to support herself through her own means.
Not that I was a suffragette, nor anything so radical as that, but this wild frontier needed a civilizing influence from Back East, and so few women of education and manners dared to make the trek out her to tame these unruly beasts.
I had chafed under the constraints and censure of society. The expectations. 'Oh, you're not married? You're four-and-twenty?'
The looks. I grew tired of having to explain that a woman could choose to follow her own path and have her own tastes, and not just be the ornament on the arm of her husband because that's what she was expected to do.
The dumbfounded silence I got from that declaration! Or, not silence, but a very polite: 'Oh, how ... modern!' And sometimes people expressed themselves rather more ... how shall I say? forthrightly if they were too shocked to be polite.
But that was nothing to the conversations behind closed doors I had had, over and over again, with my parents.
I was being stifled. Smothered.
So when this opportunity to be a teacher of all subjects for children and youths out here on the Plains, I leapt at it, said my 'bon voyages,' and headed West.
This opportunity, being in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, was just a bit under two-thousand miles from Boston, from civilized society and their 'civilized' expectations on how a young lady should comport herself and whom she should marry, and marry now, if not three or five years before now, if you please.
In short, it was my great escape, my adventure into the wild unknown, and I relished standing here in front of these children.
They were a mixed bag, twelve students, aged six to probably six and ten years of age at the utmost, farmer's children, so rough, tough, and they had an air of no-nonsense to them. They looked tired, mostly, and I assumed they had been working with their families to sundown and had probably been up, helping with the farm work before sunrise, too.
So I didn't expect any trouble from them. They were here to learn, otherwise they'd be on the fields, and not here, and I was here to teach them.
We, all of us, wanted to be here.
And I wanted it moreso than all of them.
I was a teacher!
"Well!" I said breezily, trying to hide the smile from my face, and probably failing miserably. "Let's see what we have here. I'd like each of you to introduce yourselves, give me your name and your age, and then I'll go over the rules of the classroom, which I am sure will be no surprise, and then go over what we shall do today. As the older children are in the back, we'll start there. Miss," I pointed to the back row, "let's start with you."
A young woman blinked at me in surprise, but recovered her composure instantly.
Her face was weather-beaten, and her eyes were hard. "Yes, miss," she said coolly, "I'm Sally H-..."
"Please stand when you address me or the class, Sally," I cut in, my tone strong and sure.
You had to enforce discipline right away with children, otherwise they would think you weak and themselves better than you. And how could one teach when the proper order and good discipline were subverted? One couldn't.
Having been in an all-girls' college none too long ago, I knew this rather well.
Sally's eyes widened almost imperceptibly. I heard several titters from around the classroom, and a farm boy on the other side of the class guffawed. I heard one person whisper, softly, 'Sally.' The whisper was derisive, and this caused more laughter.
"Excuse me, children," my voice was clear as a bell with a displeased undercurrent. "Show respect to the person speaking."
The class quieted down right away.
I felt so ... right in my role.
I waved to Sally. "Sally," I commanded.
She regarded me coolly for a full second, but I could see she was seething.
She rose from her seat ... not particularly slowly, or indolently, but it were as if she were trying to maintain an even temperament.
"Yes, miss," she said. "My name is Sally Herbst."
Herbst. A German name. She looked German, with her dun-colored hair going straight down her back and hazel eyes that stared straight back at you, almost rudely in their air of superiority.
She sat back down, glaring at me.
"Thank you, Sally," I said from the front of the class, "you were also to state your age."
"I'm ..." she said.
"Sally," I cut in, and raised my eyebrow.
She shut her mouth; I saw her jaw working.
She stood. "Miss, I'm fifteen."
She remained standing, her chest almost heaving, and I could see it was now an effort for her to control her breathing, as if she wanted to answer me back.
She waited for me.
Hm. I thought. This one looks like trouble.
"Thank you, Sally," I said dismissively.
She sat. I looked right back into her eyes for a second. I let her know, with my cool regard, that I see you, I am watching you, I will not let you play your games with me, young lady.
I turned my torso slightly, I was leaning against my desk, and made a very slight notation on my floor chart. It was just a scribble by her name.
But everybody in class saw me do it.
This 'Sally Herbst' was on notice.
I waved to the next girl. "Miss...?" I said.
The girl stood, black hair, black eyes, white, white, pale-white skin, and even skinnier than Sally, almost a malnourished runt of a girl. "Miss," she said, "my name is Helena Rosenzweig. I am sixteen years of age."
She said her name like 'Heleena.'
The class was stoney in its silence. No one looked at her.
It was if she wasn't there.
"Thank you ..." I said, "Heleena."
I tried to say her name as I heard it, but it came out of my mouth in the King's English we spoke in Boston.
Helena looked confused when I said her name, but she sat right back down.
"Well," I said, slightly nonplussed. Two for two, I thought ruefully, but then I shrugged internally. It couldn't get any worse, could it?
"And..." I said, waving to the boy sitting beside her.
He stood, and introduced himself. The rest of the introductions went without indecent, or, more properly, censure from me ... some of the younger children were very shy, and it was like pulling teeth for them to stand, to speak above a mumble or even to make eye contact.
... Actually, I didn't think any of the children had much presence to them, nor poise. They were simple people of the land, and I didn't see any of them going to Boston College to engage in debates in transcendentalism.
But, on the whole, they looked like good children. Hard, and hard working. I smiled at them all.
"Well," I said. "Shall we begin, then? You, Liesl," I indicated the youngest girl in the front row, "please lead us in the prayer to commence our day, and you, Kurt," I nodded to the young boy beside her, "please lead the class in the Pledge of Allegiance."
Ever since the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in the year '93, the Pledge had taken off in our still-growing Country like wildfire. It was new-fangled, but austere and very patriotic.
I was proud to instill devotion for learning, devotion to God, and to our Country into these children. After all, they were our Nation's future.
And we began our first school day together.
It was the end of the school day, and we were all tired.
I was bone-tired. I had never stood up in front of a group of people, even if they were children, for six hours with one little break for lunch, at which time I ate nothing — could eat nothing — I had a bad case of the butterflies as I reviewed the lessons I would be presenting for the afternoon, and I had to keep an eagle eye on the children as they ate their lunches packed from home.
Sally and Helena ate nothing, I observed, although they tried to hide this fact by burying their noses in their textbooks, pretending to be very studious.
The farmers' children ate plain, simple foods, bread and cheese. One child, more refined looking, had a jar of sliced peaches in syrup for her dessert. She got envious looks, which she ignored.
But the rest of the day followed without a hitch, and I felt myself falling into my role with a relieved, contented air.
This was teaching? This was easy! This was fun for me! A delight!
The children weren't exceptional, as I suspected, some of the littler ones where a little too enthusiastic in asking too many questions that strayed from the subject matter, and some of the older students were a little too sullen in their silence, as if they couldn't wait for the lessons to conclude so they could get back to real work, farming, and not this stupid and boring schooling.
Or that was my read of their indifference. I could be wrong. These mid-Westerners were of a very different nature to the very assertive people I knew Back East. Their stolid silence could be just their way.
I just need to remember to pack a thermos of soup for lunch tomorrow and perhaps a jar of some liquid, tea, perhaps, because my throat was sore, and I had to struggle not to show hoarseness as the day came to an end.
"So, class," I said, "for your schoolwork due the morrow ..."
The entire class groaned.
I turned from the chalkboard and gave the class a cautioning glare.
Everybody was mum.
"For your schoolwork," I reiterated, "due on the morrow," I added, "the younger children are to copy out your ABCs both capital and lower case ..."
The eyes of youngest girl in the front grew big and round.
"And," I continued, "the older children are to do their multiplication tables; we'll start with the sevens for this assignment."
A couple of the older children blanched.
"Understood?" I said.
A boy in the middle of the class raised his hand.
"Yes ..." I said, forgetting the boy's name.
"Miss," he said.
"I'm sorry," I said, "your name again, please, and stand up, young man."
He stood quickly, blushing. "Miss, I'm Anders. I ... uh ..." He hesitated.
"I'm ..." he said, "I'm not good with my figurin'."
I grimaced at his country accent.
"Anders," I said. "And, actually, this is for all of you. The assignment isn't to be something graded against you, but to see the proficiency of the class, as a whole. Write out the table, and work on every one, answer as well as you can, understood?"
Anders said, "Yes, miss."
I smiled warmly to the whole class, paused for a second, then said: "Class dismissed."
The entire room whooped and exited en masse. You would think, from their reaction, I had just declared there were free candies for all of them at the five and dime.
In the mass exodus, Anders, blushing still, dropped an apple on my desk and tried to make a quick escape.
"Anders," I said. He froze, the bigger kids pushed past him. "What is your Christian name?"
He blushed harder. "Anders, Miss. That is my Christian name."
"Oh," I said, surprised. "And your family name?"
"Miller, miss," he said.
I looked down at my seating chart. Yes, there he was.
But, no: wait. "Isn't your last name 'Meuller,' young man?" I looked up at the lad.
He blushed harder. "Yes, Miss," he said, and then looked away, "it's pronounced 'Miller.'"
"Ah," I said. "Quite." I made a quick notation by his name, a little marked '(i)' to remind myself of the pronunciation. So many German children, or, more correctly, American children of German descent. So different from the so many Irish back home in Boston, but that's why I came out here in the first place: to be different and surrounded by something new and different. I was. I would just have to get used to the people here, the way they spoke and their ways, and revel in it, not be put off by it.
"Thank you for the apple," I said smiling nicely at the boy, then commanded sternly: "Work hard on your assignment."
"Yes, miss," he said, still blushing. He wouldn't make eye-contact.
I don't think he could have run faster than he did to leave the school house.
You get warned about such things. Children ... 'crush' on their teachers, sometimes.
Nothing to do about it. One simply had to ignore it, present the lessons, and wait for them to mature beyond their devoted affection.
Best for everybody that way. Calling attention to it only embarrassed all parties and exposed the child to ridicule from his peers.
"Thank you for the lesson today, Miss Caroline."
Sally stared down at me, coolly. Helena by her side, looking down. Both were in simple frocks.
I noticed that Sally, now standing, wasn't ... tall, per se. But she did stand a head taller than her companion, and she looked to be, perhaps, five and a half feet, so perhaps a bit, or more than a bit, taller than me, too.
That annoyed me, as well. Taller people tended to be dismissive of me, and I didn't want this to be another point of contention, that she thought she was my better simply because of her height, and my lack.
After all, I was the adult. I was the figure of authority here, not her.
"You're welcome, Sally," I responded politely.
If she were going to be polite, I could respond in kind, and ignore the rebellious undertone.
I could show her I didn't need to descend to pettiness.
Sally glared at the apple on my desk for a second, made to say something, but turned, abruptly, to Helena and almost snarled. "C'mon, Leena, let's go."
The both exited the school house, backs stiffly straight, but Sally's angry, sullen or bitter, and Helena's cowed, resigned, or sad, I couldn't tell which.
I sighed, gathering my lesson plans, then picked up the apple, taking a large bite out of it with gusto. I was famished!
And the apple was sweet, tangy-tart, and o-so-juicy!
I returned to my flat at the boarding house.
The county provided me room and board. Hot supper tonight after my first day of schooling these children: I almost salivated in anticipation.
Then bed! I was exhausted from not the lessons, so much, but standing out in front of the students, being correct and proper the entire day.
I'd wake early on the morrow to review the lesson plans for that day. As tomorrow would be a continuation of today, and I flattered myself that I did really well teaching today, I felt confident already about tomorrow, and, well, about my entire new life out here.
I was a teacher now!
A/N: New story! From moi-self! (that is French) (no, it's not) with, gasp! all original characters! I can safely say, "I own all the characters in this story," 'cause that's how I'm rollin' here! Wowzers! ... This is just another shy and quiet story, a Western, from this shy and quiet authoresse. Nothing will happen in it. Nothing at all. La-di-dah.