Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Snowstorm (ii)

The drama building outside the walls of the country school is only beginning--and Katharine can't help but read it in the changing weather. Meanwhile, inside, the shenanigans continue, as if this is simply another day at school. Katharine Baarman knows she's part of two stories, one a great deal more ominous than the other.

"I know it's too early," Johnny Mulder snarled as he walked up to the door.

"You’re not wrong," she said, "but I don’t want the younger children getting themselves full of mud."

He straightened his shoulders a bit, proud to be recognized for what he was, then walked in and took his seat at the back of the class, leaving clumps of mud on the floor with every step. His sidekicks, Dirk and Henry, wanted badly to do the same, she knew, but scraped their shoes and took their seats right in front of Johnny Mulder.

She looked once more over the open prairie and into the rampage of clouds above her, then turned and entered the room, walking slowly past the straight rows of children to the desk at the front. The children rose quietly as she entered, hands folded, watching and waiting for the morning prayer.

The sky, she told herself, was troubling. She looked over the heads of twenty of her little scholars, twenty shaggy-haired kids who stared at her, who expected her to lead. She fumbled with a wisp of hair that had fallen from the bun at the back of her neck, then stared down at Edgar, the youngest, then followed the rows back to Johnny, who waited just like always, his hands behind his head. Then, she prayed, hoping for a good day.


In less than an hour, Johnny Mulder rose and marched out of the schoolhouse. He hadn't asked, but he never did. Other children had to request use of the privy, but Johnny had special freedoms, freedoms he’d simply taken earlier in the year when Katharine had simply determined that it was a concession she could give in their daily tug-of-war. He had a habit of staying outside longer than anyone else would have dared, but that was the part of the game. When he’d return, he’d stroll in as if he owned the place. The boys loved it, and the girls hated it, in great part, she knew, because they loved her. And so it went.

And the truth was, Katharine didn’t really mind his absence all that much because whenever he left, the curtain went down on his dramatics. Henry turned around completely in his seat and got to work because there was no show to watch behind him. For those ten minutes—or a half hour, whatever it was—Katharine’s rule was wonderfully unquestioned. She’d come to think that the rest of the kids smiled more readily and responded more freely in recitation. Truth be told, there were days when she hoped he’d simply stay out there, maybe walk home.

Four of the youngest skipped to the front of the room, anxious to share their slate work in arithmetic. Katharine sat behind her desk, turned her chair to watch both the class and the students at the chalkboard. They were busy, some with slates, others watching their friends and checking their work. The little school was humming.

Outside the window she spotted Johnny Mulder walking ever so slowly toward the privy. Then he stopped, his hair flying back from beneath his cap as he looked up into the sky. What she recognized is that what she had feared had occurred: the wind had changed, even grown stronger. She could see it. Johnny pulled the collar of his woolen shirt more closely about his neck.

Mary Boersma was the first to finish her work at the board. She walked past the window, taking her teacher’s attention with her. Katharine got to her feet and walked down the aisle, checking the work of the students with their slates. Dirk looked back to her, then smiled, and without thinking at all about it, moved closer to the stove in the middle of the room. A chill hadn’t been there when they’d all come in.

"Any mistakes?" she asked when the children had returned to their seats. 

Hands shot into the air as the last of the boys sat down. She pointed at Nick, who took a thousand tiny steps to the front of the room.

"19=4 x 4 + 3,” he stated, erasing Mary’s final seven, "and 19=3 x 6 + 1, not 4." He glanced almost shyly at the class, his bright blue eyes gleaming.

"You may sit down, Nick—very good work. Anyone else notice errors?"

More hands. In the battle for attention, some students leaned forward and added a grunt they weren’t supposed to do. She let it pass this time.

When Johnny Mulder walked back in, he was careful to shut the door quietly behind him. In the classroom, everything stopped, as it always did because often enough he’d use his own grand entrance to pull some kind of show.

This time, thankfully, not. He pushed his fingers through his windblown hair, took off his coat, and sat down. The children were mystified, and so was she, surprised to see him back already. Not only that, but he pinched no one, didn’t say a word, and Katharine went back to the arithmetic, greatly thankful there was no big show.

The wind seemed to find every hole and crack, the roof a chorus of tea kettles, the windows rattling as if they were afraid. She heard it all, but wind was no stranger outside. The kids seemed oblivious. She swore she heard cold toes bump drum-taps on the hardwood.

"Johnny, take number 51, please. Henry, 52. Dirk, 53. Margaret, 54." And so the lesson continued

Johnny Mulder walked down the center aisle to get to the front, then faked tripping on one of the little pile of bricks around the old box-stove in the middle of the schoolhouse, an old joke he pulled at least once a week. He fell on the floor, arms and legs splaying out to the amusement of all the other children; and Katharine scolded him for his clumsiness, all part of the act.

What she missed when she turned away, as she always did, was the way he dropped a marble, big as a crow's egg, into a crevice of the old stove. She’d missed it, she told herself later. But a half dozen others—the older kids—hadn’t.

Johnny Mulder stood up front and proceeded to divide 4,360 by 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. His answers were usually correct, but the rest of the students were far more interested in what else he might do up front than they were in his arithmetic. Many of them had seen the dark blue marble rest comfortably in the stove, absorbing the heat.

She looked once more through the shivering windows. Those thick clouds were gone now. The sky turned an uneven gray, almost purple, moving slowly from the northwest.

Tiny flecks of snow were already noticeable in the air; they bounced like dust off the windows at her elbow, coming like spies. She stared out at the snowy countryside and into the ominous sky.

Next: As the weather changes, difficult decisions have to be made.

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