The New Teacher

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Although there was no organized conspiracy of silence, each of us guarded the day’s events when we went home that night, and not a word leaked. It wasn’t until later in the year that Miss Flock described the county school superintendent’s car and suggested we sound the alarm if it was sighted. As the weather turned colder we stayed indoors more of the time. Someone was assigned to keep an eye on the road—usually the pupil facing the windows across the pinochle table.

Miss Flock was surprised that most of us couldn’t play pinochle, for it had been taught her by the time she was five. She looked at little Orban. “No, he ain’t too young. He can hold his cards in both hands, and I’ll play them. Just so’s we have enough people playing to make the melds big.”

Miss Flock loved to use two pinochle decks, for then the chances of a double marriage, double pinochle, and a royal straight were infinitely increased. We were dealt quite a mittful, but she said our fingers would get stronger and that would be good for us. We let her play Orban’s hand until we realized how she could work it to her advantage, and then we insisted that everyone should take turns. His hand wasn’t useful unless you could make him throw heavy-paying cards on tricks you were about to take. This is what Miss Flock did all the time, and I doubt we would have noticed if little Orban himself hadn’t caught on to the game and said suddenly, his eyes watchful and angry, “No, this one, this one! Not that tenspot!” We were astonished. I looked, and sure enough, Miss Flock had been loading up her tricks until poor Orban had very little left in his hand.

“Don’t you have card parties at home?” Miss Flock asked me quickly, to divert attention.

“No,” said Lois, who quickly shared Orban’s distress. “And little kids wouldn’t be allowed to play anyhow.”

“Oh, really? I can tell you I learned plenty fast. I’d have got a licking if I didn’t,” she added darkly, and Orban squirmed.

This puzzling reference to her personal life was another bit to add to what we already knew. She’d mentioned attending high school for two years to get her teaching certificate—ours was her first school. But we wondered if she had any dates or attended dances, and if so, what she wore, for she stuck with tiresome regularity to a shapeless purple dress. Since neighborhood card parties were the only social life she mentioned, I thought a clan of card players met almost every night. At home I guardedly asked why we didn’t belong to such a group, and their objection was that Catholics and Protestants were all mixed up at card parties. With kids along associating with one another, likely as not the Catholics would grab off a few Protestants through marriage, and that would be the upshot of all the card playing. I figured maybe Miss Flock didn’t have the Catholic problem we had.

In late October DeWayne turned sixteen, and though he could legally have quit school, Miss Flock persuaded him to stay because she wanted him to play Father in the Christmas pageant. Our school Christmas programs in the past had not been elaborate, but clearly Miss Flock had other ideas. Pinochle sessions were cut short in November, and soon after lunch we’d drag the teacher’s desk behind the stove, shove the recitation bench along the opposite wall, and walk on stage. Orban, Lois, and I pretended to be children, and Norma played the mother with a vengeance rivalled only by Norma’s mother. Miss Flock made up the lines as we went along, and we had to remember them.

Occasionally we studied. In a burst of sudden academic enthusiasm, Miss Flock would send us to our books. As though it were all a game, we’d rush through recitations, have spelling bees, and hop up and down from our seats to try our minds at learning. But play rehearsals dominated the days, and after a few weeks of constant practice we knew our “speeches” perfectly. Then Miss Flock worried lest we forget the play before Christmas arrived. To sustain our interest we embarked upon an ambitious project of making handdecorated invitations for all parents and members of the school board. Each adorned card was to be different, in as many colors as possible, with extensive use of gold and silver dust, which Miss Flock valued so highly she always kept the vials in her purse.

Once the invitations were completed, she suggested we make Christmas presents for our parents. After several abortive attempts at fancy hot pads, book ends, and lampshades, we settled down to vary a basic idea supplied by Miss Flock—we painted doorstops. The raw material was a good-sized stone. Although some of us came from the same family, Miss Flock maintained that two stones or even three could be useful around the house for keeping doors open or possibly forcing them shut. Now, in this section of Iowa stones were about as rare as cactuses, and when a farmer turned one up, neighbors crossed the fields to look it over. The only place we knew there were stones was under our schoolhouse—the foundation—and so we hauled away all likelylooking chunks. “Not near the corners,” warned Miss Flock. “Don’t mess around with those stones. We need something to hold the building up.”