GrandPapa's Letter part 5
Across the street from these tenant houses stood the District School House, presided over in my time by one Austin Niles, (commonly called Aut. Niles, ) The School House was about twenty by thirty feet in size, stood back ten or a dozen feet from the sidewalk, and was of a dingy complexion having been painted white in some to me unknown age, and turned rusty with age. You entered a door in the middle of the front end, some two or three steps above the level of the yard, to find yourself in a hall, five feet wide, which extended entirely across the front of the building, and was liberally supplied with wooden pegs; If you wore the garments of a girl you stepped to the right, and if those of a boy, to the left, and hung your cap and tippet, and any other garments you would not require inside the school room, and then passed through another door, to find yourself in a plain room with bare white walls, surrounded with a row of wooden desks, nailed to the walls on the sides and further end of the room, all sloping toward the middle of the room, and each having a shelf under its whole length, and about two inches below the lowest side of the top, and extending back to the wall.
These desks, when I knew them were black with age, having never known the taste of paint, and were cut and hacked in every conceivable manner; in many places they bore the names of former occupants, deeply engraved in their surfaces, and in many others hieroglyphics the meaning of which were only known to the initiated, but which were often the subject of study and comment by us.
In front of these desks were plain wooden benches, without backs and guiltless of paint, but hacked and carved to match the desks, each long enough to accomodate four peaceable children, but not long enough for ONE ugly one? These benches were so placed as to allow one person to sidle through between any two of them, and after they were reasonably full, that was the manner of getting between them and the desks, The first occupant however had an easier way, and sat down and turned around, throwing his or her feet above the bench, in front of these benches and between them and the stove stood smaller benches of the same kind, for the infants.
In the middle of the room stood an Immense square cast iron "BOX STOVE," This was about five feet long and two feet wide, and three feet high, and stood on three legs and a pile of bricks to answer for the 4th. leg, (for It was a quadruped, and crippled?) which raised it high enough above the shallow box filled with sand and bricks placed for it to stand in, to make room for drying mittens and shoes under it, and was connected with the chimney in the rear of the room by a crooked and rusty stove pipe, which had occasional fits of threatening to fall on our heads, expecially when some unlucky fellow kicked one of the bricks out of place and so deprived it of Its substitute for a leg; and had a door which occupied most all of the front, and was capable of swallowing a stick of wood as large as the smaller children, and of sending out into the room volumes of smoke and ashes which rendered the whole school uncomfortable for an hour at a time. On top of the stove stood an open iron skillet, which when filled with water was supposed to keep the air in the room moist and healthful, and which was well known when empty, for an odor which was far from agreeable, and which comes to me in full force as I write these words.
There were good sized windows at regular intervals along both sides and the back end of the room, and the teacher's desk and platform stood at one side of the door, while the other side was occupied by a wooden bottomed chair, from which the back had been broken in some convulsion of nature, on which stood the painted wooden water pail, with a long handled tin dipper reposing quietly in it's waters when not in use; It was a much sought, and fully appreciated favor to be allowed to go out and fill this pail, especially in the summer time, and one often heard a boy snap his fingers to attract the teachers attention, and when asked "What is it" reply, "Please Sir, may I go for water?" and as this conversation was sure to engender a great thirst all over the room , the refrain was sure to follow it in full chorus from all over the room, and "Please Master I am thirsty," or Please may I get a drink" were very familiar and well worn phrases in the school room.
Our teacher, AUT NILES, was a character and not the most amiable one I have met; He was on the contrary, as I remember him, a tall, angular, ferocius looking monster, and although I do not remember that he ever actually WHIPPED me, I think it matter of gratulation that I was missed in his ministrations in that direction, for I believe he did whip every other boy or girl that attended his school.
It was one of his rules that when the bell rung, be it morning, recess or any other time, the last scholar to enter the door was to be welcomed with a slap, and you can perhaps imagine the scrambles that occurred when fifty or more boys and girls were striving to enter one door at once, I remember being told that he hit a visiting clergyman, who was also a member of the School Board, once, as he entered the door, and that he got a trouncing from a son of the reverend gentlemen for his pains. It was his custom to stand just inside the door, sometimes with his constant companion, a ruler, and sometimes without, and to hit the last incomer. It was also a pleasant habit of his. If he detected a scholar whispering, to throw his ruler at the culprit's head, sometimes clear across the room, and then compel him to bring it back and hand it to him, and if he could grab it, and hit the scholar with it before he got out of reach, so much the better for the discipline of his school. He would make half a dozen boys at a time stand with their toes to a chalk mark on the floor, stooping so as to touch the floor with their fingers, and if he saw one easing up a little, would steal up and hit him with his ruler, where his pantaloons were tightest.
I have seen this man take a quid of tobacco; of which he was inordinately fond; out of his mouth, and substitute it for a bit of chewing gum in the mouth of one of his pupils, remarking that if they wished to chew, he would furnish something good, without money and without price. Once he punished Dan Neff, the son of the village black-smith, by compelling him to hold out both his hands at the full length of his arms, and then loading both with books until it was impossible for the boy to hold them straight, and striking his arms whenever he bent them, Dan stood this as long as possible, and then throwing both loads at the head of his persecutor, he Jumped out of an opened window, and graduated from the school. I say that I do not remember of his whipping me, I was a good and studious boy, mild and gentle in my demeanour, and not much given to "deviltry, " but I had several brothers who were not so quiet, and on one occasion I suffered for a prank of one of them; my twin brother GARE was always full of fun, and seeing a little girl kneeling by the side of the school-house door, making a snow ball, and believing it was intended for his benefit; as probably was; he pushed her over into the snow. She immediately reported to "The Master" saying that I had done the deed, and I was invited by him, in his most persuasive manner, to stand up by the door and show how tall I was and as I stood there, well straightened up, he drove a pin through my ear and into the frame of the door, and assured me that he believed I would not push another girl down in the snow so long as I staid there. I did not, but grieved and mad and sore, at the undeserved punishment, I resolved to make a repetition of the same impossible, and going home at noon I took the scissors and cut out a lock of my hair/reaching from the middle of my forehead well up to the crown of my head, so that I might be easily distinguished from my brother in the future; Our hair was always cut by mother, with the aid of a bowl inverted and placed on our heads, and was combed straight down, as was the custom, and so my inverted V over my forehead made a distinguishing mark, and was immediately discovered by mother, and led to her demanding the reason for my disfigurment, and to my statement of the whys and wherefore in the presence of the assembled family, the result being that before another mornings sun had arisen, my beloved brother had adopted my newly invented fashion for trimming the hair, and we went to school again as undistinguishable as ever.
Notwithstanding his brutality, Niles was long kept in the school, for the reason that "he made the scholars learn" We used to have some good times there, especially at recess, when we used to go into the orchard and eat apples as long as we could, and then induce the girls, among whom the mutton sleeve was in fashion, to fill their sleeves with the luscious fruit and smuggle it into school and into our desks, but woe to the one who was caught eating one in school time. We used also to play in the barn, and I well remember an immense stack of wheat straw which stood in the barn yard one Fall, into which we burrowed like so many rats, and built a CAVE as we called a hole in which five or six of us could sit at a time, very safely hidden from outsiders, and tell stories or sing songs; I have awakened many times since, in the night, and trembled at the thought of what might have occurred if that straw stack had tumbled down sometime with a few of us under it, as I have known others to fall on cows which had undermined them in a similar way,
We were finally removed from this school on account of the barbarity of our teacher. He once came to our house to board, (teachers in the District Schools always "Boarded around," in those days, spending a week in each house for each scholar who went therefrom, and when his time at our house was up; Mother was so well satisfied of his utter unfitness to have charge of children that we were removed from the school.
Another of Niles' pleasantries was to invite a boy whom he especially desired to influence aright, to go to the woods behind our pasture lot, and up a high hill, for a lot of switches, giving him barely time to get to the woods and back again if he made his best speed and promising him a "double portion, " of the switches if he were not on time; Returning hot and dusty, the panting victim was called to the middle of the room, and his coat being removed, he was thoroughly dusted.
Dan. Neff once brought a bundle of switches each of which he had carefully cut half way through in many places, and when they flew in all directions, he laughed at the success of his plan, and the ruler was brought into requisition whereupon a field fight ensued, ending in a victory for the teacher, and followed by the punishment of several of the boys who laughed at Dan's discomforture; he seeking to appease his wrath, and heal his wounds by "passing it around, as they do cake at a wedding," to use a common expression of those days. The ruler, a strong hard wood ferule, some three feet in length and two inches wide and half an inch thick, was our teacher's "assistant", and was most always in his hand.
Among the accomplishments of the "District School Master" of those days, an important one which has now fallen into disuetude was the making and mending of pens, and at this Niles was an expert, and almost the only times during school hours when his ruler was not in his hand was the time when it was safely and handily held under his arm that he might devote his energies to the making or mending of quill pens; I never saw a gold or steel pen until after my school days, and well remember that the first gold pen in our village was owned by Henry C. Ainsworth, now a painter in Madison, who was a writer of poetry, and we used to think part of his proficiency was fairly credited to the pen.