The New Teacher

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The new teacher, Miss Flock, was hired just one week before country school opened. Through Mother’s last-minute influence,, two neighbor children, DeWayne and Orban, who were to attend the Catholic parochial school, enrolled instead in the rural schoolhouse, thus keeping it open one more year. My cousin Lois and I were the last of our family still in the lower grades, and everyone thought it best if we could continue at the one-room schoolhouse three-quarters of a mile away, rather than attend public school in town. As the year developed, I don’t know how we could have gotten along without Orban, a first-year scholar, for we taught him to play pinochle, and counting Miss Flock we totalled eight—the right number exactly for a double round.

Because each year was expected to be the last, the schoolhouse had slipped into disrepair and listed to one side over its foundation of cracking limestone. The building was about the size of our corncrib, large and peeling-white, with sparrows’ nests straggling from the eaves. A row of wind-stunted box-elder and ash trees rimmed the school yard, and the plot was moored to the gravel road by a homemade roadway. When a high gale blew off the flat cornfields, the loose shingles fluttered and snapped like the flag we ceremoniously raised aloft each morning and revered with religious awe.

I mention the flag because Miss Crakow, our former teacher, instilled in our imaginations an enormous respect for it. The command never to let the flag touch the ground came to imply that if it did, the cloth would snarlingly wrap around us. And if it were raised upside down—even halfway—through gross carelessness, doom would descend. In the schoolhouse the flag lay on a shelf in front, flanked by pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, relics for contemplation. We were patriotic, every one of us. We pledged allegiance each morning in case anyone had had a change of heart overnight. Our hands were over our hearts—and it had to be the correct heart on the left side or she rapped our knuckles with the ruler. But after many years of teaching, when all of us were certain of her permanence, Miss Crakow got married and left us to shift for our patriotic selves—an almost traitorous act, except that surely she didn’t imagine that Miss Flock, when she arrived, would scarcely pay a bit of attention to the red, white, and blue.

But then, no one could have anticipated Miss Flock, even the wisest. On the first day her Hupmobile bounced across the ditch over the sunken fill-in and onto the school yard just a few minutes before nine o’clock. All seven of us were assembled on the bare, open platform in front of the school door. On this little shelf Miss Crakow had held her miniature military drill, and by this time we would have been all set to watch the flag go up. Now I sat peeling splinters off the porch and sticking them quietly into Delbert, who stupidly complained aloud of wasps. Little Orban, overalled to within an inch of his chin, looked furtively at us and at the locked door to knowledge while the meadowlarks in the fields sang unending praise.

We silently watched the Hupmobile swish through the bluegrass and come to a gasping halt under the shadiest tree. Miss Flock smiled, climbed out, and slammed the door with verve. “What’re you doin’ here so early? School starts at nine, and that’s about when I’ll get here.” We all wanted to inform her that Miss Crakow had always arrived an hour early, but none of us said a word. When she marched onto the platform, we scattered from her path. “I’ve got a long ways to come.” She took keys from a purse, glittery in the sunshine. “Farther’n you have.” She looked directly at Orban. He was too frightened to speak. “What’s the matter, can’t any of you talk? I learned when I was two and been at it ever since.”

She got the door open with the help of a firm kick and walked inside. Desks had been polished, the floor swept with red oily compound, and the curtains laundered. All this had been accomplished by the wives of the school directors—Uncle Jack was on the board. “You there,” Miss Flock said as she nabbed DeWayne, who towered a foot above her, “what’s your name?” He told her with a lazy smile because he figured he’d have some fun with this one. “How old are you?”

 

“Prit near sixteen.”

“Well, you let me know when you are . You’re too big to be in school. Don’t your dad need you on the farm?”

“He could use me all right,” said DeWayne, “but I don’t need him.”

We all laughed, but Miss Flock replied, “Since you’re the oldest boy in school, you’re going to do the work. Get the bucket of drinking water from the trunk of my car. And after you’ve brought it in, scrub the sink and washstand. When it gets cold in fall, I’ll have you hauling coal every day. You’ll learn something yet in this school.”

Miss Flock marched to the front and stood in the morning sunlight. Her dark hair was pulled tightly back off her face and fell without much pretense of curl behind her ears. I thought she was beautiful, at least compared to the last one. Her features were regular, and plenty of them; she would be a good subject for observation in the hundreds of hours that lay ahead, and every little piece of her could be noticed and dissected.