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 30, 2016

Snowstorm (vii)

The story you're reading is just about forty years old. This version differs immensely from the original--not in substance, but in style. There are things I just wouldn't do anymore, things I changed because I couldn't live with what I'd written that long ago--changes in point of view, for instance, and a stilted style I chose back then because I wanted to sound as if I were writing this at the turn of the 20th century. Those things are gone. 

What hasn't changed is the story line: how a young teacher dealt with the reality of a brutal and dangerous storm just outside her door--and the mischief of an older boy within. There are two sources for the story--one is a yarn I found in an old history book and the other is my mother, who was a young schoolteacher long, long ago in a country school. She never forgot how one day an older boy made her so angry she could hardly go on. That's a story she told me years and years go. We've now come to my mother's story of the storm-within-the- storm. 

Miss Baarman had determined that the children would inevitably ask her to read something too, once all of them had had a turn. She thought of Whittier. It was a gamble, she knew, but they’d loved the story when first she’d read it, and something about reading it again now, putting them in the middle of a world just like the one they’d see just outside the windows—if they could see anything at all. Reading that old poem might just bring comfort, she thought. 

"I thought it might be fun today especially,” she told them, “to read 'Snowbound' again."

All assented, all around.

"I know we read it about a month ago, but with snow falling so beautifully outside our windows right now, it’s just a natural, don’t you think?”

"Read it, Miss Baarman."

"Yes, read it!"


If any kid weren’t interested, they weren’t speaking up. Besides, Teacher wasn't always willing to read to them.

She began slowly. The girls loved it, but they loved almost anything she’d read. Dirk sat up straight, all ears, arms up on the desk, head in his hands, eyes bright. The whole Whittier portrait was not only enticing, but enchanting, even though, all around, swirling winds whipped across the Iowa prairie.

The gray day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm.

No one looked out the window. Whittier's words were just too good, she thought, the reading weaving a spell for all of their vivid imaginations.

In those moments she’d look up, she did notice that the oldest boys were not as fully taken. Johnny Mulder’s hands were up in front of his as if to cover his eyes. He chewed at the cotton sleeve of his shirt, seemingly distracted.

Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged hearth about,
Content to let the north wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door.
While the red logs before us beat
The frost-line back with tropic heat.

The rest of the children were lost in a dream, and it thrilled her because somehow she understood that their listening to the inside story made what was happening outside far less frightful than it could be. They were soaring along through their own imaginations, up so high that all the world was with them.

And melt not in an acid sect
The Christian pearl of charity!

Then Johnny Mulder grunted as he raised his hand to get her attention.

"So days went on: a week had--"

Made her downright furious. She couldn’t believe he wanted her attention. The kids were spellbound. Her eyes stabbed into his. "What do you want?" she said, the book still up in front of her eyes.

The whole class turned. His voice was cocked with politeness and mock respect. "I dropped my bookmark by the stove," he said, as if it were of grave importance. "May I please retrieve it, please?"

She burned at his ridiculous, impetuous rudeness. She wanted to say, "No, of course not!" but she didn’t. "Yes, and hurry, please!" 

She looked down at the book, refusing to watch him carry the kids’ attention to him. Most of the others turned with her, anxious to hear the end.

She resumed reading the moment Johnny rose from his seat and took a few steps to the bricks around the stove. She started again because she knew it was a fight she had to win—it was going to be her reading of the poem against whatever mischief Johnny Mulder could muster, whatever attention he craved, no matter what kind of show he would create. She put her finger up to the text as if she was herself a grade-schooler and threw herself into the reading. She heard him blow his nose ridiculously loud, but she refused to acknowledge the silliness or anything about the boy, refused even to look.

Within our beds awhile we heard
The wind that round the gables roared,
With now and then a ruder shock,
Which made our very bedsteads rock.
We heard the loosened clapboards tost,
The board-nails snapping in the frost;
And on us, through the unplastered wall,
Felt the light sifted snow-flakes fall.
But sleep stole on, as sleep will do
When hearts are light and life is new;
Faint and more faint the murmurs grew,
Till in the summer-land of dreams
They softened to the sound of streams,
Low stir of leaves, and dip of oars,
And lapsing waves on quiet shores.

She could feel—and it made her furious—that the kids were distracted. Something rolled innocently across the hardwood floor so loud a resonant hum drew confused stares from students on both sides of the middle aisle. She stopped reading. It kept coming, kept rolling through the silence all around.

She glanced momentarily at the marble and closed the book, keeping a finger in the page, then faced the class with a smile meant to be sweet and nice. What she saw, however, was a crowd of faces tense with anticipation. Somehow, it never dawned on her that there might be a relationship between that marble and the tension she couldn’t help notice on all of their faces.

When finally it banged against the front of the room, she walked over,stooped down, and picked it up—ready to explode at Johnny Mulder. There was no reason for him--

She could not have held the marble for more than a fraction of a second. It was almost aflame. She shrieked and flapped her hand above her head, making her limp fingers fly as if to shake off the burn. Then she jammed her thumb and forefinger into her mouth and closed her eyes, all of this without getting up from her haunches. There she sat, cowering in hurt, wounded and angry. It was all done deliberately. He meant to hurt her. He meant only to hurt her.

"Why? Why now?" she said, fighting back tears she knew she shouldn’t let fall.

No one moved.

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