First Summer at School — Mary Smith
I WAS three years and a half old when I first entered the Old School-house as an abecedarian. I ought, perhaps, to have set foot on the first step of learning's ladder before this; but I had no elder brother or sister to lead me to school, a mile off; and it never occurred to my good parents, that they could teach me even the alphabet; or, perhaps, they could not afford the time, or muster the patience for the tedious process. I had, however, learned the name of capital A, because it stood at the head of the column, and was the similitude of a harrow frame; of O, also, from its resemblance to a hoop. Its sonorous name, moreover, was a frequent passenger through my mouth, after I had begun to articulate; its ample sound being the most natural medium by which man, born unto trouble, signifies the pains of his lot. X, too, was familiar, as it seemed so like the end of the old saw-horse that stood in the woodshed. Further than this my alphabetical lore did not extend, according to present recollection.
I shall never forget my first day of scholarship, as it was the most important era which had yet occurred to my experience. Behold me on the eventful morning of the first Monday in June, arrayed in my new jacket and trowsers, into which my importance had been shoved for the first time in my life. This change in my costume had been deferred till this day, that I might be " all nice and clean to go to school." Then my Sunday hat of coarse and hard sheep's wool adorned my head for the first time in common week-day use; for my other had been crushed, torn, and soiled out of the seemliness, and almost out of the form, of a hat. My little new basket, too, bought expressly for the purpose, was laden with 'lection-cake and cheese for my dinner, and slung upon my arm. An old Perry's spelling-book, that our boy Ben used at the winter school, completed my equipment.
Mary Smith was my first teacher, and the dearest to my heart I ever had. She was a niece of Mrs. Carter, who lived in the nearest house on the way to school. She had visited her aunt the winter before; and her uncle, being chosen committee for the school at the town-meeting in the spring, sent immediately to her home in Connecticut, and engaged her to teach the summer school. During the few days she spent at his house, she had shown herself peculiarly qualified to interest, and to gain the love of children. Some of the neighbors, too, who had dropped in while she was there, were much pleased with her appearance. She had taught one season in her native State; and that she succeeded well, Mr. Carter could not doubt. He preferred her, therefore, to hundreds near by; and for once the partiality of the relative proved profitable to the district.
Now Mary Smith was to board at her uncle's. This was deemed a fortunate circumstance on my account, as she would take care of me on the way, which was needful to my inexperienced childhood.
She used to lead me to school by the hand, while John and Sarah Carter gamboled on, unless I chose to gambol with them; but the first day, at least, I kept by her side. All her demeanor toward me, and indeed toward us all, was of a piece with her first introduction. She called me to her to read, not with a look and voice as if she were doing a duty she disliked, and was determined I should do mine too, like it or not, as is often the manner of teachers; but with a cheerful smile, as if she were at a pastime.
My first business was to master the A B C, and no small achievement it was; for many a little learner waddles to school through the summer, and wallows to the same through the winter, before he accomplishes it, if he happens to be taught in the manner of former times. This might have been my lot, had it not been for Mary Smith. Few of the better methods of teaching, which now make the road to knowledge so much more easy and pleasant, had then found their way out of, or into, the brain of the pedagogical vocation. Mary went on in the old way indeed; but the whole exercise was done with such sweetness on her part, that the dilatory and usually unpleasant task was to me a pleasure, and by the close of that summer, the alphabet was securely my own.
That hardest of all tasks, sitting becomingly still, was rendered easier by her goodness. When I grew restless, and turned from side to side, and changed from posture to posture, in search of relief from my uncomfortableness, she spoke words of sympathy rather than reproof. Thus I was won to be as quiet as I could. When I grew drowsy, and needed but a comfortable position to drop into sleep and forgetfulness of the weary hours, she would gently lay me at length on my seat, and leave me just falling to slumber, with her sweet smile the last thing beheld or remembered.
Thus wore away my first slimmer at the district school. As I look back on it, faintly traced on memory, it seems like a beautiful dream, the images of which are all softness and peace. I recollect that, when the last day came, it was not one of light-hearted joy — it was one of sadness, and it closed in tears. I was now obliged to stay at home in solitude, for the want of playmates, and in weariness of the passing time, for the want of something to do; as there was no particular pleasure in saying A B C all alone, with no Mary Smith's voice and looks for an accompaniment.