The School-Teacher's Story

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From The American Woman Vol. XXVII No. 1 (June, 1917)

I have taught school forty-four years. Now I have delivered the keys of my schoolhouse to the committee, I have packed away on the top shelf of my closet a row of primers and readers, geographies, spelling-books, and arithmetics, and I have stopped work for the rest of my life. Through all these forty-four years, I have squeezed resolutely all the sweets out of existence, and stored them up to make a kind of tasteless, but life-sustaining honey for old age. I have never spent one penny unless for the barest necessities. I have added term by term to the sum on my bank-book, until I have been able to build this house, and have a sufficient sum at interest to live upon. I need little, very little, to eat, and I wear my clothes carefully and long.

I was never extravagant in clothes, but once. That was twenty-five years ago, when I was thirty-five, and expected to be married in the spring. I had a green-silk dress then, a bright green. But I had it dyed black, and, after all, got considerable wear out of it, although it was flimsy. Colored silk is apt to be. I had a blue woolen, too, a color I should never have bought, if I had not expected to be married, and that faded. I also had a black-velvet cloak, something that was very costly, and I should not have bought it under any circumstances, but I was foolish. However, that has made my winter bonnets ever since; it was a good piece, and not cut up much.

Looking backward forty-four years, I cannot remember any other extravagance than this outlay in clothes when I expected to be married at thirty-five. I never have bought any candy except a few cough-drops when I had a cold. I have never bought a ribbon even, or a breast-pin. I have always worn my mother's old hair pin, although it was so old-fashioned, and the other girls had pretty gold and coral, or cameo ones.

My mother died when I was fourteen; my father, when I was sixteen; then I began to teach. My father left me nothing. Mother was sick all her life nearly, and he could not lay up a cent. However, there was enough to pay his funeral expenses, and I was thankful for that. I sometimes wonder what my father would say if he could see me now, and know how I am situated. I wonder if he would think I had done pretty well. I don't know how it can make any difference to him now; he is past all such earthly vanities, even if he knows about them, but I do sometimes feel glad I have done so well, on his account. Anybody has to have some account beside their own, even if it is somebody's that's dead.

I have built this house, with six rooms in it, and a woodshed. I have a little land, too. I keep hens, and I am going to have a vegetable-garden back of the house, and a flower-garden, front. I have good woolen carpets all over the house except the kitchen. I have stuffed parlor furniture, and a marble-topped table, and a marble shelf with a worked plush scarf on it. I have a handsome dining-set, and two nice chamber-sets, and two beautiful silk quilts I pieced from bits my scholars gave me. I shouldn't be ashamed to have anybody go over my house. And I keep it nice, too; you could not find a speck of dust anywhere. Of course, I have nobody to put it out of order, and that makes a difference.

It has always been my habit to look at all the advantage there is in life, and I have found there is an advantage-side to almost everything. I can keep my house a great deal nicer than I could if I were not all alone in the world. I sometimes wonder what I should do, if I had a man coming in with muddy boots, or children tracking in dirt, and stubbing out my carpets, or kicking the paint off my new doors.

To tell the truth, I have never cared much about children, though I have been teaching them forty-four years. I never dared to say so before, but it is true. Once in a while I saw a child that I thought a good deal of, but taking them all together, I have often wondered how their own mothers could stand them. I would have worked my fingers to the bone for the few I did take a notion to. I fairly grudged them to their folks, but the others! — and I had to hide it, too; it wouldn't have done for the children to think I was partial. They had all the meanness of grown-up folks, about apple-cores, and teasing away one another's candy, and the big ones plaguing the little ones; throwing paper-balls, and marking up the walls, and everything else. I know, for one, that there's something in the doctrine of original sin. I guess most women that have taught a district school forty-four years do.

I have never been sure, either, that they learned anything so's to remember it, and have it do them any good. I have always been afraid that, no matter how hard I tried to do my duty by them, it was never quite done, and that I was teaching myself more than anybody else, just as I always seemed to hit my own hands harder than a scholar's when I had to ferule one.

I could travel all over the earth, on the map, and never once lose my way, but I wonder if my scholars could. I can spell through the spelling-book without missing a word, but I know that not one of my scholars could. I can do every sum in the arithmetic, measure the depths of all the wells, calculate the speed of all the dogs and foxes, and say the multiplication-tables by heart, but I am quite sure that no boy or girl ever left my school who could. It seems to me sometimes that I have gone to school to my scholars, instead of my scholars going to school to me, and that I have never been of any benefit to any one of them.

Still, I have sometimes thought that I was, once, and in a strange way, to the strangest scholar I ever had. Before thinking even of this scholar, and this story, I have to review my face, and my whole character, in my mental vision, as before a glass, to establish, as it were, my own reliability to myself. Is it likely that anybody, who looks like that, should tell herself that she saw what she did not see, or heard what she did not hear? Is it likely that anybody, who is like that, should?

But, after all, I was never given to saying things that weren't plain common sense. Still, it has always kind of seemed to me, when I thought of that time in Marshbrook, that it didn't ring like any known metal. But there may be some metals that really are on earth, though they are not known, I suppose, and anybody might hear them ring, and be honest enough about it.

It was just twenty-five years ago to-day, that I went to Marshbrook to teach the Number One district-school. It was right in the middle of the spring-time. I had given up my old school, because I was expecting to be married that May. But when I found out he'd changed his mind toward me, I felt as if I ought to go to work again. I'd laid out a good deal of money on my clothes, and I knew I'd have to make it up someway, as long as I was always going to have nobody but myself to depend on, the way I always had.

Maria Rogers had my old school. She had come from the east village to teach it, when I gave it up, and it wasn't more'n three weeks before he began to go with her. She was good-looking, always smiling, though it always seemed to me it was a kind of silly smile. I was always sober and set-looking, and I couldn't smile easy even if I felt like it. Her hair curled, too. I tried to curl mine, but it wouldn't look like hers. I wouldn't believe it at first, when folks came and told me he was going with her, and they thought I ought to know; but after a while I saw enough to satisfy me, myself. I wrote him a letter, and told him I'd found out he had changed his mind, and he had my best wishes for his welfare and prosperity; and then I began to look out for another school. He didn't marry Maria Rogers till the spring term was through. She wanted the money for her wedding-clothes. She was a poor girl, or I could have had my old school. As it was, she had him, and my school, too.

I don't know as I should have got any till fall, if the teacher of the Number One district in Marshbrook hadn't left suddenly. One of the committee came for me the next day, and said I'd got to go there, whether or no. I asked why the other teacher had left, and he said she wasn't very well — “kind of hysteriky,” he called it. He was an old man, and a doctor. I looked him straight in the face when he spoke, and I knew there was something behind what he said, and he knew I did.

“I'll give you fifty cents a week more, seeing as you come to oblige,” says he.

“Very well,” says I. I knew what it all meant. I had heard about district Number One in Marshbrook, ever since I could remember. They could never keep a teacher there through the spring term. There wasn't any trouble fall, and winter, but the teacher would leave in the spring term. They always tried to hush it up, and nobody ever knew exactly what they left for. I rather guess they bound the teachers over not to tell, maybe paid them a little extra. Anyway, nobody ever knew exactly what it was, but it got whispered round there was something wrong about the Number One schoolhouse.

Nobody but a stranger or somebody that was along in years and pretty courageous could be hired to go there and teach the spring term. The chances were that old Doctor Emmons couldn't get another soul beside me for love nor money, and if I wouldn't go, the school would have to be shut up till fall. But I didn't care anything about the stories. I never was one of the kind that listen, and hark, and screech, and I had had enough real things to think and worry about. Then I had a kind of feeling then, I suppose it was wicked, that it didn't matter much what happened anyway, after what had happened.

So I just packed up my trunk, while Doctor Emmons waited, and then he put it in behind his wagon, and carried me over to Marshbrook. It was about six miles away.

Marshbrook was named after the brook there, that runs through marshy land, and gets soaked up in it some seasons of the year. That spring it was quite high, and the land all around it was yellow as gold with cowslips. We rode beside it quite a way, and the doctor said his wife had boiled cowslip-greens twice. He talked considerable about such things being better for folks to eat than meat, too. He didn't say a word about the school, till he set me down at the house where I was going to board. Then he said I looked as if I wasn't fidgety, and he hadn't any notion but what I should get along well, and like the school. Then he said, kind of as if he hated to, but thought he'd better, that he guessed I might just as well make up my mind not to stay after school at night much, and not to keep the scholars. The schoolhouse was in rather a lonesome place, and some stragglers might come along; then, too, it was rather damp there, being near the brook, after the dew fell, and he didn't think it was very healthy. I said, “Very well,” and then Mr. Orrin Simonds, the man where I was going to board, came out, and they carried my trunk between them, into the house.

I began school the next morning, and got along well enough. The school was quite a large one, about forty in it, and none of them very old. They behaved well as usual, and I taught them the best I knew how. I ought to have done better by them than I had ever done for other scholars, for I hadn't any outlook for myself to take my mind off. I suppose I always had had a little, though I had hardly known it myself, and I ought to have been ashamed of it.

I did not stay after school for some weeks, not because I was afraid of anything, for I wasn't, but I hadn't any call to. I didn't mind what Doctor Emmons had said at all, as far as I was concerned, but I thought I wouldn't keep the scholars anyway, so if anything did come up, I wouldn't be blamed on their account. There wasn't anybody to blame me on mine, if I didn't give up the school — and I wasn't going to do that, anyway.

I went to meeting the Sunday after I went to Marshbrook. I suppose some folks thought I would get somebody to carry me home to meeting, seeing it was only six miles, and I belonged to the church there, but I felt as if I had just as soon see some new faces.

Maria Rogers used to sit right in front of me at home.

I noticed that folks in the meetinghouse at Marshbrook eyed me some. I don't know whether it was because I had come to teach the Number One school, or because I wore my green silk. I suppose it did look 'most too fine, but I had it, and it was a pleasant Sunday, and I thought I might just as well wear it, though somehow, every time I looked down at my lap as I sat in meeting, there was something about the color seemed to strike over me, and make me sick. I never liked green very well, but he did, and that was why I got it. I liked it better after it was colored, though it seemed a shame to have all the stiffening taken out of it. It was a beautiful piece.

I had a good boarding-place, just Mr. Simonds and his wife, and she was as neat as wax, and a good cook. She was a kind of woodeny, and didn't talk much, but I didn't feel much like talking, and I liked it full as well. She used to have supper early, about as soon as I got home from school, and then I used to go up-stairs to my chamber, and sit by myself. Mrs. Simonds didn't neighbor much, she said, but I guess after I came, folks run in more. I'd hear them talking down-stairs. I guess they wanted to find out how I was getting along at the Number One school.

Once Mrs. Simonds said, if she was in my place, she'd make her plans not to stay after school. She didn't seem any more fidgety herself than a wooden post, but I guess she'd heard so much from the neighbors, she thought she ought to say something.

I said I hadn't had any occasion to stay after school, and I hadn't. I didn't really have any occasion the night I did stay, but I felt kind of down at the heel, and I didn't want any supper, and I just sat there on the platform behind my desk, after the scholars marched out of the room.

I don't know how long I sat there — quite a while, I suppose, for it began to grow dusky. The frogs peeped as if they were in the room, and there was a damp wind blew in the window, and I could smell wintergreen, and swamp-pinks. It was all I could do to keep the children from chewing wintergreen-leaves in school-time. They were real thick all around the schoolhouse.

All of a sudden, as I sat there, I had a queer feeling as if there was somebody in the room, and I looked up. I saw, down in the middle of the room, a little white arm raised in the dusk. It was the way the children did, when they wanted to ask something, and I thought for a second that one had stayed or come back, unbeknown to me, and was raising an arm. Of course, that was queer, but it was the only reason I could think of, and it flashed through my head.

“What is it?” says I, and then I heard a little girl's voice pipe up:

“‘Please, teacher, find my doll for me, and hear my next lesson in the primer.’”

“What?” says I, for it didn't seem to me I could have heard right. And then the voice said it over again, and that little white arm crooked out of the gloom.

I got up, and went down the aisle between the desks, and when I came close enough, I saw a little girl, in a queer, straight white dress, almost like a nightgown, sitting there. Her little face was so white in the gloom, it made me creep, and her features looked set; even her mouth didn't move when she spoke. It was open a little, and the words just seemed to flow out between her lips.

“‘Please, teacher, find my doll for me, and hear my next lesson in the primer,’” says she, over again, dreadful pitiful.

I put my hand on her shoulder, and then I jumped and took it away, for I never felt anything so cold as her little shoulder was. It seemed as if the cold struck to my heart from it, and I had to catch my breath.

“What is your name?” says I, as soon as I could.

“‘Mary Williams, aged six years, three months, and five days,’” says she.

Then my blood ran cold, but I tried to reason it out to myself again, that she was some child I hadn't seen, that had run in there, and maybe she wasn't quite right in her mind.

“Well,” says I, “you had better run home now. If you want to come to school, you can come at nine o'clock to-morrow morning, if your mother is willing. Then I will hear your lesson, and maybe you will find your doll, but you mustn't bring it to school. I can't have any dolls brought to school.”

With that she rose up, and dropped a queer little courtesy that made a puff of icy-cold wind in my face, and was out of the room, very fast, as if she slid or floated, without taking any steps at all.

I put on my bonnet and locked up the schoolhouse, and went home then. Looking back, I can't say as I felt scared or nervous at all. I know I didn't walk a mite faster when I went past the old graveyard. There was an old graveyard near the schoolhouse, and the children used to play there at recess.

When I got home, Mrs. Simonds asked why I hadn't been home, and if I didn't want any supper, but she didn't act surprised nor curious. She never seemed surprised or curious at anything.

I went up-stairs to my chamber, and sat down and thought it over. It seemed to me there must be some aboveboard reason for it. As I thought it over, I remembered that there had been a strange, faint, choking smell about the child, and then I put my own dress-skirt up to my face, and I smelled it then. I hung my dress out of the window to air, when I took it off.

The next morning, when the scholars filed in to school, I tried to think that strange little girl might be among them, but she wasn't, and she didn't come in the afternoon.

That night I stayed after school again. I had made up my mind I would. I waited, and after a while, that little white arm showed out of the dusk, but I had not seen the child come into the room.

I asked her again what she wanted, and she piped up, just as she did before:

“‘Please, teacher, find my doll for me, and hear me say the next lesson in the primer.’”

I got up and went to her just as I had before, and there she was just the same, and the faint smell came into my face.

“Where did you lose your doll?” says I.

But she wouldn't say.

“‘Please, teacher, find my doll for me, and hear me say my lesson in the primer,’” says she, with a kind of a wail. I never heard anything so pitiful as it was. It seemed to me, somehow, as if all the wants I had ever had myself, sounded in that child's voice, and as if she was begging for something I had lost myself.

But I spoke decidedly. It was always my way with children. I found it worked better.

“Now you run right home,” says I, “and you come to-morrow, and I'll give you your doll and hear your lesson in the primer.”

And then she rose up and courtesied, just as she had before, and was gone.

I did not try to follow her.

That evening, I went around to old Doctor Emmons' and asked Mrs. Emmons if I could see the doctor a few minutes.

I guess she suspected what had happened, for she looked at me real sharp, and said she hoped I wasn't getting nervous and overwrought with school-teaching. I said I wasn't. I just wanted to see the doctor about a new scholar; and she left me in the sitting-room, and called him in.

I asked him, pointblank, if anything had ever happened there in Marshbrook, and he wouldn't tell me at first.

“‘I suppose you want to give the school up. I thought you were old enough to behave yourself,’” says he. He was pretty short sometimes, but he meant well.

“I've done the best I could by the school,” says I.

“Why couldn't you come home when school was done, as you were told to, instead of staying there in that lonesome place, and getting hystericky?” says he. “I don't know as I can get another teacher this term. The schoolhouse will have to be shut up. It's a pity all the female school-teachers in creation couldn't be ducked a few times, and get the fidgets out of them. I'll get a man for the place next time. I've had enough of women.”

“I don't want to give up the school,” says I.

“What are you talking about, then?” says he.

“I want to know if anything has ever happened here in Marshbrook,” says I. “I don't want to give up the school if anything has happened.”

He finally told me how a little girl had been murdered, some fifty or sixty years ago, on her way to school, on the brook-road. They found her laying dead beside a clump of swamp-pinks, with a great bruise on the back of her neck, as if she'd been hit by a stone, and her doll and her primer were laying in the road, where she'd dropped them when she run from whoever killed her. They never found him.

“Was her name Mary Williams?” says I.

“How did you know it?” says the doctor.

“She told me,” says I.

The old doctor turned as white as a sheet.

“You ain't hystericky?” says he.

When he found out I wasn't scared, and didn't want to give up the school, he wanted to know what I'd seen, and asked a good many questions. I told him as short as I could, and then I went home.

The next morning before school, I got some linen rags from Mrs. Simonds, and a piece of bright-blue thibet, and I made a real pretty little rag-baby. I'd never made one before, but I couldn't see why I didn't make it as well as anybody. I raveled out a little of an old black stocking I had, for its hair, and I colored its cheeks and mouth with cranberry juice, and made its eyes with blue ink. I found, too, an old primer, that Mrs. Simonds said her mother had studied, for I thought that might have been like the one the child was carrying to school, when she was killed.

That night I stayed after school again, and waited until I saw the little white arm raised out of the dusk. She did not wait for me to speak that time. She piped up, quick:

“‘Please, teacher, find my doll for me, and hear me say my lesson in the primer.’”

“Put your arm down, and be quiet,” says I, “and I will hear your lesson.” I put the rag-doll in my pocket, and took the old primer I had found, and went to her.

“Find the place, and go on with your lesson,” says I, and I gave her the book. She turned over the leaves, as if she were quite accustomed to it, and I saw at once that I had the right book. It was a queer little primer, that had been written by an old minister in Marshbrook, and used in the schools there for some time. She found the place soon, and began to read, piping up quite loud. You could have heard her out-of-doors; the windows were open. The piece was called “The Character of a Good Child.” She read it very well. I only had her spell out a few of the words.

“You have got your lesson very well,” said I. Then I took the doll out of my pocket, and gave it to her. She fairly snatched for it with her little, white, gleaming hands and they touched mine, and I felt the cold strike to my heart again.

She hugged the doll tight, and kissed it with her stiff, parted lips. Then she held it off, and looked at it.

“Please, teacher, find my doll for me,” says she, with a great wail and I saw she knew it wasn't her own old doll.

“Hush,” says I, “I can't find a doll that's been lost fifty years. This doll is just exactly as good. Now, you'd better take it, and run home.”

But she just gave that pitiful cry again: “Please, teacher, find my doll for me.”

“You are not behaving pretty at all,” says I. “That doll is just as good.” Then, I don't know what possessed me to say it, but I says: “She hasn't got any mother, either.”

She just hugged the doll tight, and kissed it again then, and didn't say another word against it.

“Now, you'd better run home,” says I.

She rose up, and courtesied, and I was all ready to spring. I followed her. I didn't know as I could keep her in sight, but I did, and she went into the old graveyard. I saw a gleam of white in there a minute; then it was gone.

That evening, I went to Doctor Emmons, and told him what had happened.

“Now,” says I, “I want to know where that child was buried.”

“She was buried in the old Williams tomb,” says he.

Then I asked him to take a lantern, and go to the graveyard with me, and look in that tomb. I didn't know as I could make him for quite a while. He said the Williams family had all died out, and gone away. There wasn't one of them left in town. He didn't exactly know who had the key of the tomb, and he kept looking at me real sharp. I suppose he was afraid I was getting hystericky. I guess he got pretty sure at last that I wasn't, for I taught that Marshbrook Number One school seven years after that, though any young thing could have done it, and stayed after school every night in the spring terms, for that little girl never came to scare anybody again. He kept looking at me that night, and then he felt my pulse and counted it by his watch.

“You don't want to give the school up?” says he.

“No, I don't,” says I.

He went out after a while, and presently he came back with a lighted lantern and a key. I don't know where he got it. Then we went down the road to the graveyard. It was a dark night, and it was misting a little. He went along in front with the lantern, and I followed on behind. He didn't speak a word the whole way. I guess he felt kind of grouty at having to come out. I didn't care if he was. I was bound to find out.

When we came to the old graveyard, he opened the gate, and we went in. His lantern lit up all the old headstones, and trees, and scraggy bushes, as we went across to the Williams tomb. It wasn't very far from the gate. A lot of little bushes were growing out of the humped-up roof, and I read “Williams” in the stonework over the iron door. The doctor fitted the key in the lock, while I held the lantern. I felt the way I used to when I was a child, when I waked up in the dark, in the night, but I held the lantern as steady as if my hand had been an iron hook.

It was hard to turn the key in the rusty padlock, and the doctor worked quite a long time, but finally it snapped back, and he pulled off the padlock, and slipped the hasp. But even then he could not open the door until he had cleared away some stones and pulled up some little plants, that had grown over the threshold, by the roots.

After he had done that, he opened the door, and a puff of that same strange odor which I had noticed about the child, came in my face. He took the lantern and stepped down and into the tomb, and I after him. All of a sudden he stopped short, and caught hold of my arm. There, on the floor of the tomb, in the lantern-light, right before us, lay the doll, and the primer.