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.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Snowstorm (vi)

It had become clear that no one will be leaving the little country schoolhouse as long as the storm roared away outside the windows. The question Katharine Baarman needed to answer--as did hundreds of young teachers in hundreds of country schools--was what then? How could she manage their time, keep them warm, and hold fear, even panic, at bay?

A half hour later the bin at the rear of the room was full of logs, many of them layered with melting snow. More were neatly stacked beside the box.

School ran along smoothly by recitation time, she thought, the class quiet and quite unusually interested in what was going on. The older children knew the readers nearly by heart, but even they appeared interested in "The Battle of Waterloo" and the old favorite, "Prisoner of Debt," when those old selections were read and recited by classmates. Their close attention she used to advantage, going beyond the normal time as long as the interest remained high.

She called on Henry, whom most respected as the best reader in school; she had him read "Regulus Before the Carthaginians," a favorite of his. Henry turned in his chair and looked back at Johnny, whispered something she didn’t hear, something Johnny Mulder responded to by a kind of insistent nodding.

Johnny shut the book he’d been reading and looked toward the front of the room, then sat up in his chair as Henry began to speak. Something was going on—she didn’t know what, but something was. For a moment their eyes met, and she couldn’t help thinking Johnny looked remarkably mature, even concerned, so much so in fact that she told herself she had no reason to worry.

They’d gone almost all the way up the grades, so when Henry finished she looked at the back of the room, then announced, "Johnny, are you going do it?"

Henry laughed, which surprised her somehow since there was nothing particularly funny about him reading.

"Ja," he said, "of course I'll do it!"

Outside, the daylight had all but disappeared behind the mantle of darkness. Scattered lamps lit the room. Here and there a left-over Christmas candle sent shadows dancing on the walls and over the students, for the most part in an enchanting way all the kids seemed to love. She could see well enough to know that the children liked it all, especially Johnny’s being up there, his being the only deep voice in school.

Johnny Mulder turned abruptly when he got to the front of the room, opened the book he was holding to the story he had chosen, and looked out over an audience at full attention. 

Emma, who was almost dreamy. Mary wore a smug look, as if there was nothing the pest could do that would move her. 

Johnny waited, looking at her as if for permission, very unlike him.

“You may read,” she told him, smiling. "And what may we be hearing, Mr.Mulder?"

"'General Putnam,'" he stammered, "'General Putnam' is the story I will read."

Everyone knew it and loved it. Emma inched up closer in her chair, smiled way all too charmingly, Katharine thought.

"There once lived in Connecticut... " he began, his low voice rolling evenly through the old story of Israel Putnam and the wolf in the cave, the last wolf in Connecticut.

"The wolf was very angry,' " he read, looking around menacingly. “'She growled in a way that would have frightened most men. But Putnam was not afraid.' "

Little Dirk shifted fearfully in his seat, looked up at her to make sure all of this was okay. Katharine nodded, even winked.

Johnny fell far more deeply into the story. She had no idea he could recite as well as he could because he’d never done anything like it. The kids were perfectly still, rapt up totally in the danger in the cave. Then, when the Indians tied Putnam to the stake and piled dry sticks around him, Johnny let them down graciously: “’But Putnam did not show any signs of fear’ with so much conviction, it seemed almost like majesty. He’d become the General himself. In a few minutes both he and his men were out of danger,” he said, and just like that the entire student body leaned back in their chairs and sighed, then applauded.

Even Mary was moved. Emma was lost in her own sweet fantasy.  Most importantly, no one was thinking about the blizzard.

Johnny held his head high, shoulders back squarely, in the palpable admiration of all the other pupils. When he was passing the stove, he pulled out a bookmark from his reader, and with his left hand, dropped it on the bricks around the stove, his back to her. Then he took his seat.

She let them go on—more and more readings—their enthusiasm hadn't fallen at all. One of the younger girls had a second turn, and when she had completed her recitation, Mary insisted the teacher read. "Your turn, Miss Baarman," she said. "Please?" and soon enough she was joined by an entire chorus of beggars.

"Miss Baarman, how about you?"

As long as the storm raged outside, keeping the children calm was her great concern. If any of the little ones came to understand their danger, began to catch on to the fact that they simply couldn’t be going home, panic could set in, something she didn’t want to happen. As long as she could keep their minds off of the danger they were actually in, she could keep fear away. 
She stood up from her chair up front and selected a book from the shelf behind her, boldly, as if she had prepared something herself just for this moment.



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