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Chapter IV
First Winter at School

HOW I longed for the winter school to begin, to which I looked forward as a relief from my do-nothing days, and as a renewal, in part at least, of the soft and glowing pleasures of the past summer! But the schoolmaster, the thought of him was a fearful looking-for of frowns and ferulings. Had I not heard our Ben tell of the direful punishments of the winter school; of the tingling hand, black and blue with twenty strokes, and not to be closed for a fortnight from soreness? Did not the minister and the schoolmaster of the preceding winter visit together at our house, one evening, and did I not think the schoolmaster far the more awful man of the two? The minister took me in his lap, gave me a kiss, and told me about his own little Charley at home, whom I must come to see; and he set me down with the impression that he was not half so terrible as I had thought him. But the schoolmaster condescended to no words with me. He was as stiff and unstooping as the long kitchen fire-shovel, and as solemn of face as a cloudy fast-day.

The winter at length came, and the first day of the school was fixed and made known, and the longed-for morning finally arrived. With hoping, yet fearing heart, I was led by Ben to school. But my fears respecting the teacher were not realized that winter. He had nothing particularly remarkable about him to my little mind. He had his hands too full of the great things of the great scholars to take much notice of me, excepting to hear me read my Abs four times a day. This exercise he went through like a great machine, and I like a little one; so monotonous was the humdrum and regular the recurrence of ab, eb, ib, ob, ub, &c., from day to day, and week to week. To recur to the metaphor of a ladder by which progress in learning is so often illustrated, I was all summer on the lowest round, as it were, lifting first one foot and then the other, still putting it down in the same place, without going any higher; and all winter, while at school, I was as wearily tap-tapping it on the second step.

There was one circumstance, however, in the daily routine, which was a matter of some little excitement and pleasure. I was put into a class. Truly my littleness, feelingly, if not actually and visibly, enlarged itself, when I was called out with Sam Allen, Henry Green, and Susan Clark, to take our stand on the floor as the sixth class. I marched up with the tread of a soldier; and, thinks I, "Who has a better right to be at the head than myself?" so the head I took, as stiff and as straight as a cob. My voice, too, if it lost none of its treble, was pitched a key louder, as a b ab rang through the realm. And when we had finished, I looked up among the large scholars, as I strutted to my seat, with the thought, "I am almost as big as you now," puffing out my tiny soul. Now, moreover, I held the book in my own hand, and kept the place with my own finger, instead of standing like a very little boy, with my hands at my side, following with my eye the point of the mistress's scissors.

There was one terror at this winter school which I must not omit in this chronicle of my childhood. It arose from the circumstance of meeting so many faces which I had never seen before, or at least had never seen crowded together in one body. All the great boys and girls, who had been kept at home during the summer, now left axes and shovels, needles and spinning wheels, and poured into the winter school. There they sat, side by side, head after head, row above row. For this I did not care; but every time the master spoke to me for any little misdemeanor, it seemed as if all turned their eyes on my timid self, and I felt petrified by the gaze. But this simultaneous and concentrated eye-shot was the most distressing when I happened late, and was obliged to go in after the school were all seated in front of my advance.

The severest duty I was ever called to perform was sitting on that little front seat, at my first winter school. My lesson in the Abs conveyed no ideas, excited no interest, and, of course, occupied but very little of my time. There was nothing before me on which to lean my head, or lay my arms, but my own knees. I could not lie down to drowse, as in summer, for want of room on the crowded seat. How my limbs ached for the freedom and activity of play! It sometimes seemed as if a drubbing from the master, or a kick across the schoolhouse, would have been a pleasant relief.

But these bonds upon my limbs were not all. I had trials by fire in addition. Every cold forenoon, the old fire-place, wide and deep, was kept a roaring furnace of flame, for the benefit of blue noses, chattering jaws, and aching toes, in the more distant regions. The end of my seat, just opposite the chimney, was oozy with melted pitch, and sometimes almost smoked with combustion. Judge, then, of what living flesh had to bear. It was a toil to exist. I truly ate the bread of instruction, or rather nibbled at the crust of it, in the sweat of my face.

But the pleasures and the pains of this season at school did not continue long. After a few weeks, the storms and drifts of midwinter kept me mostly at home. Henry Allen was in the same predicament. As for Susan Clark, she did not go at all after the first three or four days. In consequence of the sudden change from roasting within doors to freezing without, she took a violent cold, and was sick all winter.




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