“And now, whetted intemperately by what he
had felt, he began, at school….to breathe the
mixed odors of the earth….”
—Thomas Wolfe, “Look Homeward, Angel”
He yearned to go. He was too little, they said, and too young. Wait a few years. Your time will come soon enough. He watched his brothers leave each morning, swinging their lunch pails. The house was quiet when they were gone. They returned each afternoon around 3:30. They spoke to him of their day, of the things they had seen and learned. And of the books they’d read.
He chafed. The days passed, the weeks and months. He was five years old. He waited impatiently.
When you turn six, his mother told him. Then you can go. She smiled at him.
He was her fifth son and ninth child. His curly black hair a mass of wild uncontrolled waves, he peered about with large deep brooding brown eyes. “Shock-haired Peter,” his sisters teasingly called him. He harbored in his heart no exalted perceptions of his own importance.
He was soft-hearted and sensitive and a bit shy, not particularly manly traits in the earthy culture that had produced him.
Once, in the barn, he had caught a young sparrow, fluttering vainly against a window pane to reach freedom it could see but not attain. Sparrows were pests. But instead of twisting its head from its body, as he’d seen his brothers and friends do, he’d felt in his hands the frantic pulse of its trip-hammer heartbeat, and pitied. He’d walked a few steps through the barn door to the open air and set it free. It flew away. He had never told anyone.
His birthday arrived in August. His sixth. Now he was old enough. And big enough. He could go to school.
His first day. Early September. The bite of fall weather and a faint whisper of frost in the air. He was excited. He left the house with his brothers and trudged importantly down the road to the west, clutching his pencils and a slide rule. And a new blue-green lunch box. Oblong and rectangular, the top half flipped open to reveal a little wire contraption that cradled a thermos. His mom had fixed a sandwich, a little jar of fruit, and some crackers. The thermos had been removed.
They approached the east school house, where children attended from grades one through three. His brothers Stephen and Titus kept walking the half mile west to their school, which took grades four through eight.
Swinging his lunch box, he strode bravely up the cracked and ancient concrete walkway, past the old pump with its weathered handle and up the steps into the big white school house.
To him it was an imposing structure. The community had purchased it at public auction a few years before from the local English school district. He entered the little porch and walked into the classroom. Many of his classmates had already arrived and were milling about. He knew them as playmates in church. Harold Stoll. Jerry Eicher. Willis Stoll. Abraham Marner. Lydia Wagler, his first cousin. And Lois Gascho, neighbor John’s daughter.
He gaped in awe at the interior of the old one-room school house, its high ceiling, the great square wood stove in the back. At the massive double oak doors separating the porch from the classroom. The doors and all the trim were painted a dull pale green. A row of great windows, tall as a man, provided natural light from the east and west.
They stood around, wide-eyed and shy. The second and third graders marched about importantly. They glanced condescendingly at the little first grade rookies. They were old hands who knew what it was all about. He knew all of them.
Miss Eicher, the only teacher for the three grades at the school, came around and greeted the first graders and assigned to each a desk. She smiled and spoke to them kindly in their native PA Dutch. A few looked like they might cry. She showed them where to place their lunch boxes in the large green shelved closet with double doors that stood in the corner.
Miss Eicher’s title would be simply “Teacher.” She told them they could go out and play until the bell rang. They clamored out, relieved. Some minutes later she rang the hand-held bell. They trooped back in and sat for the first time in their old-fashioned desks, set in straight rows and fastened to slats on the floor. Where they would spend many hours in the coming months.
He knew his ABCs. He’d learned them at home from his older siblings. He could read a bit from the tattered remnants of Dick and Jane books he had at home. He could count in blocks of ten.
With his classmates, he quickly fell into the routine at school. They learned to print their letters, on rough paper in uneven heavily pressed pencil lines. They learned to count and write their numbers. To add and subtract.
They learned to speak English. That was the rule, English only at school. After a few months, they all were moderately fluent in the language.
They used the Pathway Publishers textbooks. With real phonics. They sounded out the words. Learned the vowels. Long and short sounds. A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y. Stood beside their desks and recited them at a moment’s notice for occasional visitors.
They played outside during recess and the lunch hour. Softball, with a soft rubber ball, an air-filled replica of the real thing. They played King’s base and hide and seek. Played “Andy Over” across the woodshed roof. Swung on the great green iron swing set. Laughed and shouted and ran hatless in the sun among the dandelions through the coarse tall unmown grass.
He liked and feared Miss Eicher, and tried to please her. She was a decent teacher. Pretty fair, overall, in her treatment of students. Like most teachers, she had favorites, a few pets. He wasn’t one of them. But he and his friends didn’t really discuss the matter; it was just a fact of life. They survived the best they could.
He liked school, although he could not admit it. Girls liked school. Boys weren’t sup-posed to. When asked by an adult, he scoffed and claimed he didn’t. But he did.
During winter, they played outside in the snow, sledding and making trails. He loved the grown-up feel of carrying a packed lunch to school in his blue-green lunch box. In the winter months, he sometimes had hot dogs, wrapped in aluminum foil. At 11:30, students were allowed to place their foil-wrapped food on the hot wood stovetop, where it simmered until noon. The delicious aroma of roasting hot dogs permeated the classroom.
The first year passed, then the summer and he entered second grade. Now he could strut about with his classmates and look pityingly on the poor, confused little first graders, huddled in groups. Some looked like they might cry.
Miss Eicher was his second grade teacher, too. They progressed in their learning. Read more complicated lessons. Calculated more intricate arithmetic problems.
He loved books and spent hours absorbing great chunks of words, to the detriment of his other studies. He gorged on the colorful pages of the tattered set of Golden Ency-clopedias, and later the World Book Encyclopedias. Reading the volumes at random from front to back. He tried to imagine the pictures he saw as real places, but could not. They existed only on the flat world of the pages before him.
During that year, his class learned penmanship, writing in script. He loathed and hated it passionately. Their usual lesson consisted of writing sentences from their lesson book. Ten or twenty. Usually when they were done, Teacher allowed the class to go outside and play, even though it wasn’t recess.
His friends Jerry and Harold zipped through their writing exercises, scrawling their sentences in mere minutes. They then rushed outside to play. He sat at his desk, laboring mightily to finish his writing so he could join them. It took him forever.
It happened again and again. Eventually, his frustration reached a fever pitch, becom-ing too much for him to bear. So one fateful day, he scrawled a few illegible lines across the vast barren expanse of his notebook paper and claimed to be done. Rushed out to join his playmates. With no thought of tomorrow. Teacher didn’t usually check their writing assignments.
He kept doing it and got away with it for weeks. It was his furtive little secret.
But the day of reckoning approached. Then it arrived. The first bell rang to close the noon hour. He was outside. A sudden clamor. A public buzz. He heard someone call his name. Teacher wanted to see him at his desk. A tremor of fear sliced through him.
He walked inside with a sinking heart. She was sitting at his desk, looking down at his writing notebook. A crowd of his classmates clustered around her. A low murmur drifted through the group. He caught snatches, whispers, “aaaahhh, oooohhh, didn’t do his writing, just made scribbles, Teacher just caught it…..gasssp.”
His classmates lined the aisle as he walked the gauntlet, staring at him with wide accusing eyes, jostling for a better view of the imminent inquisition. He sensed no pity in them. Only morbid fascination.
He bravely approached his desk with dragging feet and stood with hanging head before his judge. She looked at him sternly.
“What’s the meaning of this?” she demanded, motioning to his notebook, spread open on his desk. The damning scribbles seemed to leap from the pages, screaming accu-sations at him before all the world.
He stood mute and wide eyed. He’d get a whipping now for sure. For lying. She had her established methods for dealing with miscreants. The prisoner was escorted out-side to the woodshed. Left there to ponder his fate while she came back in, slipped on her coat and walked by her desk at the front of the room. There she quietly slid open a desk drawer and slipped a sturdy wooden ruler into her coat pocket and marched back out to the woodshed. Where swift and severe punishment was administered.
He had seen it. He had heard it. It had happened to his friends. Now his time had come, he knew. He swallowed, his brown eyes brimmed with tears. But he didn’t cry.
He feared that his mom would find out. Oh, the shame. And his dad. He’d get another whipping at home too. The seconds crawled by. Teacher did not soften her stern unrelenting gaze.
Abruptly, she instructed his classmates to fetch their writing books so she could check their work. Jerry and Harold, the two swiftest writers, scrambled piously to comply. They gleefully showed her all their finished lessons. They cast scornful glances at him. They wouldn’t dream of doing what he had done.
He stood hunched silently in the docket, guilty before them all. He offered no defense.
Teacher got up and rang the second bell. Afternoon classes resumed.
She did not spank him, or ever tell his parents, as far as he knew. But she did make him stay inside at recess and during lunch hour and finish every single abominable writing exercise he had avoided. It took a few days. She carefully checked his pro-gress. When he had laboriously completed the last dreadful assignment, she released him to join his classmates. He ran outside gratefully.
And that was the end of that. It was never mentioned again.
They had art class twice a month, on Friday afternoons. Art consisted of the students drawing simple little things like birds and a sun with cascading beams in the upper corner with short slogans like “God is Love” or “Love” at the bottom. They colored their work with crayons. Teacher hung their little masterpieces on the wall, where they stayed until replaced by the next batch of crude pictures.
One day, at recess he and his friends Willis and Jerry and Philip stood examining the art displayed on the wall, trying to guess who drew what. One drawing had the usual “Love” slogan at the bottom.
They stood there with their hands in their barn-door pants pockets, or with thumbs hooked on their galluses, as they’d seen their fathers do at church. They discussed whether they should love everyone. Even their enemies.
They agreed they should.
“But what about Satan?” Philip asked. “Should we love him too?”
They respected Philip. He was a year older and a grade above them. Next year he would graduate to the west school, where the big students went.
It was a startling thought. They grappled with the disturbing concept.
“Satan is bad. We shouldn’t love him,” he said tentatively. But he was unsure of his statement.
Satan was wicked, that they knew from countless sermons. He’d tempted Eve in the Garden and even now lurked about trying to get little children to do bad things.
But weren’t they supposed to love everyone? Even him? They could not imagine that they should hate anything or anyone.
In the next few minutes, the four of them, clustered before the bulletin board, hashed it out with serious observations and solemn comments. Balanced the sin of loving evil versus the sin of not loving at all.
They finally reached consensus. Agreed that perhaps they were obligated to love Satan just a little bit. Not much, but just enough so they wouldn’t hate him, because hating was wrong.
Satisfied, they disbanded as the bell rang, and returned to their desks.
They told no one of their conclusion.
He pondered the issue in his heart for months.Share