February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
DRAWN FOR AMERICAN HERITAGE BY LITNESS
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.
“Take your seats,” she announced. Since we had no assigned seats, this was perplexing, but we stirred ourselves to crawl in somewhere and tested the desks for size. We pulled out the resistant drawers, wriggled, rocked, and fingered the hard, squashed gum on the underside of the desk tops. After considering whether neighbors seemed satisfactory we made our choices. “Through?” she finally asked, not having paid us the least attention. “All right now, I’m going to read some literature to you before we do anything else. You better shut up and listen because I could just as easy not read.”
She picked up the book. “This is The Bobbsey Twins at Meadow Brook , Chapter One.’ “Well, here we are back home again!” exclaimed Nan Bobbsey, as she sat down in a chair on the porch.’ ”
She read on and on, passing chapters five and six. At the end of each section she paused, teasing us, until we applauded to show our interest. Things really became exciting, and I hardly heard my stomach growling, a sure sign it was eleven o’clock. “Now this is absolutely the last,” she said, launching into the eleventh chapter. I knew it was hard for her to put the book away, for she’d become highly interested in the story; she was reading in such a fast singsong we couldn’t understand her anymore.
Finally, with an exhausted slam of the book she declared recess and moved quickly for a dipper of water. We played softball until we got so hungry we had to fetch our lunch pails. Miss Flock seemed to take our general declaration of noon hour in stride. We sat on the platform before the front door and dangled our legs over the edge while we munched dry sandwiches and gurgled milk from our vacuum bottles.
Miss Flock had a strange lunch, not in the least balanced. She ate five huge dill pickles right in a row, then a devilled egg and a piece of cream pie that was gooey and difficult to manage. After wiping cream fluff from her nose she asked if anyone would care to finish her coffee. We all spoke, eager to see if it would stunt our growth. Miss Flock smiled and passed her cup around. A rich feeling of excitement and freedom crept over me. I had to share it with Delbert. “She ain’t no teacher,” I whispered to him. “She’s a kid like us.”
“I ain’t afraid of her,” Delbert said, swaggering—missing my point.
I crawled over to Norma. “What do you think of her?”
“She sure ain’t like the other one.”
“She ain’t a teacher,” I whispered. “There’s been some mistake. But let’s not tell anybody.”
Norma gave me the look of an accomplice. “Let’s play ball again after lunch.”
But Miss Flock would have none of it. She marched us inside, wound the Victrola, and we started the music lesson with “Old Dog Tray,” followed by “The Camptown Races.” Miss Flock, a mezzo-soprano, joined in, experimenting a bit with harmony, especially when big DeWayne growled along in a deep bass. At the end of a song she burst out laughing and sometimes even clapped. We clapped, too, having more fun with the singing business than ever before. “Let’s see what all you’ve got here,” she murmured and went through the whole collection, record by record. I didn’t know when I’d sung so much, and Miss Flock, challenged by the vocalists, couldn’t seem to stop.
I began to feel a little uneasy lest some parent stop by and wonder if the songfest should take the place of arithmetic and spelling. But of course no parent would visit unless invited, and none of us was driven to school by car, so there was no chance of a parental glimpse into our life there. We walked from our farms even in winter, when snowbanks closed the roads; we travelled in a group, gathering neighbors along the way. Miss Flock was in no danger of being checked on unless one of the pupils talked.
Delbert, a stickler for regularity, became increasingly nervous about the neglected flag, which still lay folded neatly on its shelf of honor. At last when a record ended, he marched to the shelf and took up the precious cloth. “Come on, DeWayne, you and me’s going to put this up, before it’s time soon to take it down.”
Miss Flock watched them with lifted eyebrow. “Where they going?” she asked me.
“The flag’s supposed to go up in the morning, first thing.”
“Well! After this, they’d better not forget it.” Then she slammed shut the Victrola and immediately assigned us lessons. We drew out our books reluctantly, feeling that Delbert’s allegiance to rules had spoiled a good thing.
In the middle of the afternoon Miss Flock declared recess and organized another softball game, four against four. She pitched in the balls to DeWayne so hard he complained his hands stung. We could scarcely see the ball, let alone bat it. And whenever we did score a hit, she always caught it and fired the ball into first, no matter who was first baseman. I could tell from the way she played that her aim was not just to be a good sport. She loved softball as much as anybody, and we had somehow to live up to her expectations. Otherwise tomorrow might be different, with endless hours of spelling, geography, and arithmetic.
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.”
When processing the stones Miss Flock was in doubt about what to try first. We used up all the drinking water in washing the rocks, then placed them in the sun to dry on the front platform. Several of us varnished them. DeWayne insisted on painting designs, which ran together until he had a mess that looked like something a huge bird had emitted in mulberry season. Norma and Delbert were probably on the right track, for they clipped out pieces of colored construction-paper and slapped them in patterns onto their rocks, hoping to make a decal that could be covered with varnish. But they ran into chemical difficulties, having applied the varnish when the stones were still wet. The result, when it dried, was a monstrous, ragged oddity that defied explanation, even though there were two of them. Miss Flock thought they were wonderfully funny, and when we all got through laughing, Norma confessed that her stone wouldn’t even do for knocking mud from your overshoes. Finally, with a joyous shout, we gave up, piled all our stones together in a cairn on the workbench, and sat down for a good game of pinochle.
In the weeks preceding the Christmas pageant we played cards every chance we could, “to relax us,” said Miss Flock. We decorated the schoolroom with fringed crepe-paper streamers and pinned cutouts of stars and Christmas trees to the window curtains. On the day of the performance, the last afternoon before vacation, Miss Flock brought homemade cookies and pots of coffee. The audience arrived well ahead of time, and from behind the bed sheets strung across the stage we watched them squeezing into our desks—like ridiculous, overgrown children. Then our pageant began, and never had we given such a performance. In an emotional scene Norma wept so copiously that she alarmed the cast and several mothers seemed about to rush forward. As the curtains closed the applause was tremendous.
Presents were passed around, and Miss Flock collected a handsome pile, gifts from each of us and from all the parents. It was clearly her day; everyone in the audience felt moved to tell her how talented she was with children and how in all the years of the country school there’d never been a Christmas program as good as this.
“Having the right teacher the first years,” I heard Mother say, “is so important!” She’d taught country school herself before marriage; she looked dotingly at Miss Flock. I thought how upset she and everyone would be if they knew the truth. “ Why didn’t you tell us? ” they’d ask. But I could never explain our conspiracy. I just knew I’d never betray Miss Flock, and I was sure none of us would.
However, on the way home Orban, who was riding with us, blurted out: “Why are the eights no good when you play pinochle?”
DeWayne jabbed him in the ribs. “Because that’s the game, stupid.” A pheasant whirred out of the snowy ditch in burnished glory, and Mother and Aunt Lizzie cried, “Oh, look at him!”
“Well, I’m tired of pinochle,” said Orban.
“Nobody’s saying you’ll ever have to play it,” his mother replied.
“That’s what you think!” Orban tried to say more, but DeWayne throttled him, and just then we drove into their farmyard—and let them out. In the farewells DeWayne’s mother said: “You know, I said to DeWayne, ‘You’re sixteen now, and you don’t have to go up to school no more.’ But you know what he says to me? ‘Mom, I want to keep it up.’ ”
“A good teacher makes all the difference,” said Mother.