The School-Teacher
A Miniature Story

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXVIII No. 14 (April 6, 1895)

Sarah Reed taught school in the village where she was born for over forty years. One Monday morning in May, when she was sixteen years old, she buttoned on a clean cotton gown over her flat girlish chest, twisted her youthful locks into a prim elderly knot, and tied on her green slatted barége sun-bonnet. Then she went down the road to the school-house to impart the simple wisdom she had gained during her sixteen years to the little village scholars.

After that, summer and winter, spring and fall, she went back and forth, back and forth, over the same road to the same school-house. The same brook-willows stretched out their gold-green boughs nearer every spring, and flapped their yellow leaf-rags every fall. The same blue-flags bloomed beyond in the same meadows, which gleamed with green wet in the spring and thin ice in winter. The same little door-yards along the way were set with spring dandelions, and the winter snow-drifts slanted athwart the same windward panes.

The housewives always spread out their linen to whiten on the green grass in the spring, and the apples were always gathered in red heaps under the orchard trees in the fall. Sarah walked a mile to the school-house along one straight road. She must have trodden in her own footprints over and over.

Sarah's parents died when she was a child, and she lived with her elder sister until she was twenty-three. Then the sister married and went West, and died there within a year. Sarah lived alone after that in her little cottage-house, with two rooms in front. One she never used; one she lived in when she was out of school. She slept in the little east chamber, with a single diagonal sweep of white tassel-fringed curtain across the window.

Sarah never had a lover. She was very plain; her hair was thin and dull, her skin thick; she had a wide and somewhat stern mouth, steady patient eyes, and her shape was clumsy; but other girls as plain as she had lovers. However it happened, she never found a mate, but went always back and forth to the school swinging her solitary skirts against the way-side weeds.

The village folk were conservative and averse to change. Sarah taught always that one school. The very children's children who went to her seemed little different from her first scholars. There were few names in the village. There had been large families and intermarriages, and family traits and features repeated. The new children who came at the beginning of the year and the new robins who returned in the spring matched with their faces and their songs Sarah's old memories. It was that endless progression which seems finally like repose.

One Monday morning, when Sarah had taught school a little over forty years, she did not go along her old road as usual. The neighbors who had seen her pass so often that they hardly noticed her at all wondered. Her absence made her more conspicuous than her presence. They felt as they might have done had a little human figure vanished suddenly out of a familiar landscape picture hanging upon a sitting-room wall. It was as if poor Sarah had uncannily vanished out of her own picture.

After a while the disorderly children came running home, and the neighbors left their windows and came to their doors, and hallooed to each other. Presently Sarah's sloping yard looked full of people. They trod down the young grass and the dandelions, and some one forced the lock of Sarah's door. They found her in her little east chamber, unable to move. She had had a shock of paralysis in the night.

Sarah lay ill there awhile, and often her mind wandered in the direction in which her helpless feet could no longer carry her. The kindly neighbors who came in to nurse her saw that she was still going in spirit her old road to the school-house, past the brook-willows, getting glimpses of the blue-flags beyond, hearing the old robins' songs and the old children's voices.

And sometimes while she lay there the people along the road could almost have sworn that they saw her passing, going her old route in the gathering dusk, when the air was full of damp sweetness of honey-flowers and breaths of homeward cows, when the mist was rising over the meadows, and the frogs were peeping, and the way-side bushes waxed clamorous with twilight insects, and they fancied so after she was dead.

Every morning, while Sarah lay ill, the neighbors used to go to her door and inquire in whispers how she fared of the woman who had watched. Every day they used to look often at the single diagonal sweep of the white tassel-fringed curtain across the east chamber window. One afternoon when the children were coming home from school they looked, and the curtain was down.