The Examination at the Closing of the School
THE district school as it was, generally closed, in the winter, with what was called an "Examination." This was usually attended by the minister of the town, the committee who engaged the teacher, and such of the parents as chose to come in. Very few, however, were sufficiently interested in the improvement of their children, to spend three uncomfortable hours in the hot and crowded school-room, listening to the same dull round of words, year after year. If the school had been under the care of a good instructor, all was well of course; if a poor one, it was too late to help it. Or, perhaps, they thought they could not afford the time on a fair afternoon; and, if the weather was stormy, it was rather more agreeable to stay at home; besides, "Nobody else will be there, and why should I go?" Whether such were the reflections of parents or not, scarcely more than half of them, at most, ever attended the examination. I do not recollect that the summer school was examined at all. I know not the reason of this omission, unless it was that such had been the custom from time immemorial.
We shall suppose it to be the last day of the winter school. The scholars have on their better clothes, if their parents are somewhat particular, or if the every-day dress "looks quite too bad." The young ladies, especially, wear the next best gown, and a more cleanly and tastefully worked neckerchief. Their hair displays more abundant curls and a more elaborate adjustment.
It is noon. The school-room is undergoing the operation of being swept as clean as a wornout broom in the hands of one girl, and hemlock twigs in the hands of others, will permit. Whew — what a dust! Alas for Mary's cape, so snow-white and smooth in the morning! Hannah's curls, which lay so close to each other, and so pat and still on her temples, have got loose by the exercise, and have stretched themselves into the figure of half-straightened cork-screws, nearly unfit for service. The spirit of the house-wife dispossesses the bland and smiling spirit of the school-girl. The masculine candidates for matrimony can now give a shrewd
guess who are endued with an innate propensity to scold; who will be Xantippes to their husbands, should they ever get their Cupid's nests made up again so as to catch them. "Be still, Sam, bringing in snow," screams Mary. "Get away boys, off out doors, or I'll sweep you into the fire," snaps out Hannah, as she brushes the urchins' legs with her hemlock. "There, take that," screeches Margaret, as she gives a provoking lubber a knock with a broom handle; "there, take that, and keep your wet, dirty feet down off the seats."
The sweeping and scolding are at length done. The girls are now brushing their clothes, by flapping handkerchiefs over themselves and each other. The dust is subsiding; one can almost breathe again. The master has come, all so prim, with his best coat and a clean cravat; and, may be, a collar is stiff and high above it. His hair is combed in its genteelest curvatures. He has returned earlier than usual, and the boys are cut short in their play, — the glorious fun of the last noon time. But they must all come in. But what shall the visitors sit on? "Go up to Capt. Clark's, and borrow some chairs," says the master. Half a dozen boys are off in a moment, and next, more than half a dozen chairs are sailing, swinging, and clattering through the air, and set in a row round the spelling-floor.
The school are at length all seated at their books, in palpitating expectation. The master makes a speech on the importance of speaking up, "loud and distinct," and of refraining from whispering, and all other things well known to be forbidden. The writing-books and ciphering manuscripts are gathered and piled on the desk, or the bench near it. "Where is your manuscript, Margaret?" "I carried it home last night." "Carried it home! — what's that for?" "'Cause I was ashamed on't — I haven't got half so far in 'rethmetic as the rest of the girls who cipher, I've had to stay at home so much."
A heavy step is heard in the entry. All is hushed within. They do nothing but breathe. The door opens — it is nobody but one of the largest boys who went home at noon. There are sleigh-bells approaching, — hark, do they stop? yes, up in Capt. Clark's shed. Now there is another tread, then a distinct and confident rap. The master opens the door, and the minister salutes him, and, advancing, receives the simultaneous bows and courtesies of the awed ranks in front. He is seated in the most conspicuous and honorable place, perhaps in the magisterial desk. Then some of the neighbors scatter in, and receive the same homage, though it is proffered with a more careless action and aspect.
Now commences the examination. First, the younger classes read and spell. Observe that little fellow, as he steps from his seat to take his place on the floor. It is his day of public triumph, for he is at the head; he has been there the most times, and a ninepence swings by a flaxen string from his neck. His skin wants letting out, it will hardly hold the important young gentleman. His mother told him this morning, when he left home, "to speak up like a minister," and his shrill oratory is almost at the very pinnacle of utterance.
The third class have read. They are now spelling. They are famous orthographers; the mightiest words of the spelling columns do not intimidate them. Then come the numbers, the abbreviations, and the punctuation. Some of the little throats are almost choked by the hurried ejection of big words and stringy sentences.
The master has gone through with the several accomplishments of the class. They are about to take their seats. "Please to let them stand a few moments longer, I should like to put out a few words to them, myself," says the minister. Now look out. They expect words as long as their finger, from the widest columns of the spelling-book, or perhaps such as are found only in the dictionary. "Spell wrist," says he to the little sweller at the head. "O, what an easy word!" r-i-s-t, wrist. It is not right. The next, the next — they all try, or rather do not attempt the word; for if r-i-s-t does not spell wrist, they cannot conceive what does. "Spell gown, Anna." G-o-u-n-d. "O no, it is gown, not gound. The next try." None of them can spell this. He then puts out penknife, which is spelt without the k, and then andiron, which his honor at the head rattles off in this way, "h-a-n-d hand, i-u-r-n hand iurn."
The poor little things are confused as well as discomfited. They hardly know what it means. The teacher is disconcerted and mortified. It dawns on him, that, while he has been following the order of the book, and priding himself that so young scholars can spell such monstrous great words, — words which perhaps they will never use, they cannot spell the names of the most familiar objects. The minister has taught him a lesson.
The writing-books are now examined. The mighty pile is lifted from the desk, and scattered along through the hands of the visitors. Some are commended for the neatness with which they have kept their manuscripts; some, for improvement in writing; of some, probably of the majority, is said nothing at all.
"Whew!" softly breathed the minister, as he opened a writing-book, some of whose pages were a complete ink-souse. He looked on the outside, and Simon Patch was the name that lay sprawling in the dirt which adhered to the newspaper cover. Simon spied his book in the reverend gentleman's hands, and noticed his queer stare at it. The minister looked up; Simon shrunk and looked down, for he felt that his eye was about to seek him. He gazed intensely in the book before him without seeing a word, at the same time earnestly sucking the pointed lapel of his Sunday coat. But Simon escaped without any audible rebuke.
Now comes the arithmetical examination; that is, the proficients in this branch are required to say the rules. Alas me! I had no reputation at all in this science. I could not repeat more than half the rules I had been over, nor more than the half of that half in the words of the book, as others could. What shame and confusion of face were mine on the last day, when we came to be questioned in Arithmetic But when Mr. Ellis had his examination, I looked up a little, and felt that I was not so utterly incompetent as my previous teachers, together with myself, had supposed.
Then came the display in Grammar, our knowledge of which is especially manifested in parsing. A piece is selected which we have parsed in the course of the school, and on which we are again drilled so as to become as familiar with the parts of speech, and the governments and agreements of which, as we are with the buttons and button-holes of our jackets. We appear, of course, amazingly expert.
We exhibited our talent at Reading, likewise, in passages selected for the occasion, and conned over, and read over, until the dullest might call all the words right, and the most careless mind all the "stops and marks."
But this examination was a stupid piece of business to me. The expectation and preparation were somewhat exhilarating, as I trust has been perceived; but, as soon as the anticipate scene had commenced, it grew dull, and still more dull.
But let us finish this examination, now we are about it. Suppose it finished then. The minister remarks to the teacher, "Your school appears very well, in general, sir"; then he makes a speech, then a prayer, and his business is done. So is that of schoolmaster and school.
"You are dismissed," is uttered for the last time this season. It is almost dark, and but little time left for a last trip-up, snow-ball, or slide down hill. The little boys and girls, with their books and dinner baskets, ride home with their parents, if they happen to be there. The larger ones have some last words and laughs, together, and then they leave the Old Schoolhouse till December comes round again.