Seventh Winter, but not Much about it — Eighth Winter — Mr. Johnson — Good Order, and but Little Punishing —
a Story about Punishing — Ninth Winter
OF my seventh winter I have but little to say; for but little was done worthy of record here. We had an indolent master and an idle school. Some tried to kindle up the speaking spirit again; but the teacher had no taste that way. But there was dialoguing enough nevertheless — in that form called whispering. Our school was a theater in earnest; for "plays" were going on all the time. It was "acting" to the life, acting anyhow rather than like scholars at their books. But let that winter and its works, or rather want of works, pass. Of the eighth I can say something worth notice, I think.
In consequence of the lax discipline of the two last winters, the school had fallen into very idle and turbulent habits. "A master that will keep order, a master that will keep order!" was the cry throughout the district. Accordingly such a one was sought, and fortunately found. A certain Mr. Johnson, who had taught in a neighboring town, was famous for his strictness, and that without much punishing. He was obtained at a little higher price than usual, and was thought to be well worth the price. I will describe his person, and relate an incident as characteristic of the man.
Mr. Johnson was full six feet high, with the diameter of his chest and limbs in equal proportion. His face was long, and as dusky as a Spaniard's; and the dark was still darkened by the roots of an enormous beard. His eyes were black, and looked floggings and blood from out their cavernous sockets, which were overhung by eyebrows not unlike brush-heaps. His hair was black and curly, and extended down, and expanded on each side of his face in a pair of whiskers a freebooter might have envied.
He possessed the longest, widest, and thickest ruler I ever saw. This was seldom brandished in his hand, but generally lay in sight upon the desk. Although he was so famous for his orders in school, he scarcely ever had to use his punitive instrument. His look, bearing, and voice were enough for the subjection of the most riotous school. Never was our school so still and so studious as this winter. A circumstance occurred the very first day, which drove everything like mischief in consternation from every scholar's heart. Abijah Wilkins had for years been called the worst boy in school. Masters could do nothing with him. He was surly, saucy, profane, and truthless. Mr. Patch took him from an alms-house when he was eight years old, which was eight years before the point of time now in view. In his family were mended neither his disposition, his manners, nor even his clothes. He looked like a morose, unpitied pauper still. He had shaken his knurly and filthy fist in the very face and eyes of the last winter's teacher. Mr. Johnson was told of this son of perdition before he began, and was prepared to take some efficient step at his first offence.
Well, the afternoon of the first day, Abijah thrust a pin into a boy beside him, which made him suddenly cry out with the sharp pain. The sufferer was questioned; Abijah was accused, and found guilty. 'The master requested James Clark to go to his room, and bring a rattan he would find there, as if the formidable ferule was unequal to the present exigency. James came with a rattan very long and very elastic, as if it had been selected from a thousand, not to walk with, but to whip. Then he ordered all the blinds next to the road to be closed. He then said, "Abijah, come this way." He came. "The school may shut their books, and suspend their studies a few minutes. Abijah, take off your frock, fold it up, lay it on the seat behind you." Abijah obeyed these several commands with sullen tardiness. Here, a boy up towards the back seat burst out with a sort of shuddering laugh, produced by a nervous excitement he could not control. "Silence!" said the master, with a thunder, and a stamp on the floor that made the house quake. All was as still as midnight — not a foot moved, not a seat cracked, not a book rustled. The school seemed to be appalled. The expression of every countenance was changed; some were unnaturally pale, some flushed, and eighty distended and moistened eyes were fastened on the scene. The awful expectation was too much for one poor girl. "May I go home?" she whined with an imploring and terrified look. A single glance from the countenance of authority crushed the trembler down into her seat again. A tremulous sigh escaped from one of the larger girls, then all was breathlessly still again. "Take off your jacket also, Abijah. Fold it, and lay it on your frock."
Mr. Johnson then took his chair, and set it away at the farthest distance the floor would permit, as if all the space that could be had would be necessary for the operations about to take place. He then took the rattan, and seemed to examine it closely, drew it through his hand, bent it almost double, laid it down again. He then took off his own coat, folded it up, and laid it on the desk. Abijah's breast then heaved like a bellows, his limbs began to tremble, and his face was like a sheet. The master now took the rattan in his right hand, and the criminal by the collar with his left, his large knuckles pressing hard against the shoulder of the boy. He raised the stick high over the shrinking back. Then, oh! what a screech! Had the rod fallen? No, it still remained suspended in the air. "O — I won't do so agin — I'll never do so agin — O — O — don't — I will be good — sartinly will." The threatening instrument of pain was gently taken from its elevation. The master spoke: "You promise, do you?" "Yis, sir, — oh! yis, sir." The tight grasp was withdrawn from the collar. "Put on your frock and jacket, and go to your seat. The rest of you may now open your books." The school breathed again. Paper rustled, feet were carefully moved, the seats slightly cracked, and all things went stilly on as before. Abijah kept his promise. He became an altered boy; obedient, peaceable, studious. This long and slow process of preparing for the punishment was artfully designed by the master, gradually to work up the boy's terrors and agonizing expectations to the highest pitch, until he should yield like a babe to the intensity of his emotions. His stubborn nature, which had been like an oak on the hills which no storm could prostrate, was whittled away and demolished, as it were, sliver by sliver.
Not Abijah Wilkins only, but the whole school were subdued to the most humble and habitual obedience by the scene I have described. The terror of it seemed to abide in their hearts. The school improved much this winter, that is, according to the ideas of improvement then prevailing. Lessons were well gotten, and well said, although the why and the wherefore of them were not asked or given.
Mr. Johnson was employed the next winter also, and it was the prevailing wish that he should be engaged for the third time; but he could not be obtained. His reputation as a teacher had secured for him a school at twenty dollars per month for the year round, in a distant village; so we were never more to sit "as still as mice," in his most magisterial presence. For years the saying in the district in respect to him was, "He was the best master I ever went to; he kept such good order, and punished so little."