- Historic Sites
The Washed Window
For the young ex-slave a Vermont schoolteacher opened the door to civilization
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
“You must remember that I never had done any work except perfectly rough, unskilled heavy labor. I had never cleaned a room in my life, I had never seen a dean room in my life. But I was used to doing as I was told and dead set on managing to go ahead with learning more than I would in that poor beginners’ schoolroom. So I began taking out things which anybody could see were trash, like mildewed rags, which fell apart into damp shreds the minute I touched them. There were, also, I remember, some mouldy heaps of I don’t know what, garbage maybe, that had dried into shapeless chunks of bad-smelling filth. In one corner was the carcass of a long-dead dog, which I carried out to the pile of trash in the side yard. Glass was everywhere, broken and unbroken empty whiskey bottles, bits of crockery ware. These I swept with the broom and picking up my sweepings in my hands (I had no idea what a dustpan was for) carried them outside.
“The shed looked to me so much better that I went in to find Mrs. Ruffner. She was still writing. I told her, ‘I cleaned it.’ Pushing back her chair she went out to the woodshed with me.
“She made no comment when she first opened the door and looked around her with clear gray eyes. Then she remarked quietly, ‘There’s still some things to attend to. Those pieces of wood over there you might pile up against the wall in the corner. They would do to burn. Be sure to dean the floor well before you start piling the wood on it. And here’s another pile of rotten rags, you see. And that tangle behind the door. You’d better pull it all apart and see what’s there. Throw away the trash that’s mixed with it.’ She turned to go back, saying, ‘Just keep on till you’ve got it finished and then come and tell me.’
“She didn’t speak kindly. She didn’t speak unkindly. I looked at the woodshed with new eyes and saw that, sure enough, I’d only made a beginning. I began to pull at the odds and ends in that dusty mess behind the door. And to my astonishment I saw I was perspiring.
“The work wasn’t hard for me, you understand. It was like little boy’s play compared to the back-breaking labor I had always done. And it wasn’t that I minded carrying around in my bare hands things slimy with rot nor having liquid filth drip on my ragged pants. I was used to dirt, and my hands were as” calloused as my feet. I couldn’t feel much with them. What made me sweat was the work I had to do with my mind.
“Always before, when somebody had given me a piece of work to do, he had stood right there to do all the thinking. ‘Pull that piece of sacking out. That stick, put it on top of the woodpile. Those dried chicken bones, scrape them up from the dirt and throw them in the trash pile.’ All I had to do was to plod along, doing what I was told.
“I was determined to do it right this time. Now that I was really thinking about what I was doing, I was amazed to see how little I had done, how much more there was to do than I had seen.
“I stooped to pull apart the grimy, mud-colored tangle heaped up back of the door. As I stirred it, a snake crawled out from under it and wriggled towards the door. A big fellow. I wasn’t surprised. I was used to snakes. I dropped a stone on his head and carried his long, black body out to the trash pile in the yard.
“Now I had come to a corner where chickens had evidently roosted. Everything was covered with their droppings, like smearings of white paint. I thought nothing of handling them, and taking up the body of one I found lying stiff and dead in the midst of the rubbish. More rotted rags, a stained, torn pair of pants, too far gone even for me to wear, still smelling foul. Some pieces of wood, not rotten, fit for fuel. Everything I came to, had first to be pulled loose from the things it was mixed up with, and enough of the dirt shaken off to let me make out what it was. And thus I had to think what to do with it. No wonder that the sweat ran down my face so that, to see, I had to wipe my eyes with the back of my hands.
“Finally, the last of the refuse was taken apart and cleared away and the litter and filth which had dropped from it to the floor as I worked was swept together and carried out to the trash pile. I kept looking over my shoulder for somebody to make the decisions, to tell me what to do. ‘Throw that away. Save that. Put it with the firewood. Toss that into the barrel with the broken glass.’ But there was nobody there to give me orders. I went in to get Mrs. Ruffner. ‘I got it done’ I told her.
“Laying down her pen, she came again to see. I felt nervous as, silent and attentive, she ran those clear eyes of hers over what I had been doing. But I wasn’t at all prepared to have her say again, ‘That’s better, but there’s a great deal still to do. You haven’t touched the cobwebs, I see.’
“I looked up at them, my lower jaw dropped in astonishment. Sure enough, there they hung in long, black festoons. I had not once lifted my head to see them. ‘And how about washing the window? Here, step in here and get a pail of water for that. Here are some clean rags. You’ll have to go over it several times.’
“She went back into the house and I stood shaken by more new ideas than I could tell you. I hadn’t even noticed there was a window, it was so thick with dust and cobwebs. I had never had anything to do with a glass window. In the dark cabins I had lived in, the windows were just holes cut in the walls.