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Large Lessons Learned In a Small Old Schoolhouse

The atmosphere was quiet and expectant whenever Mrs. Daly called for attention in the one-room schoolhouse I attended as a child.

Our teacher was a master of the storyteller's art, especially tidy little morality tales based on her childhood on a Vermont farm. She gave us visions of her father plowing the fields, and of how his integrity and reliability gained him the respect of his neighbors and their help during hard times. She told of her mother and sisters making soap, and of how their charity toward others was returned many times over.

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Work, honesty, and virtue paid off in personal happiness and emotional stability, she seemed to be saying. And she had to prove it on a daily basis. Alone with six grades - kindergarten through fifth - in one not-so-big space, she had to be umpire, disciplinarian, and counselor.

Each weekday I would walk about a mile with my brother to the clapboard structure, looking forward to that strangely anachronistic world, a vestige of back-country culture in the midst of an otherwise modern Connecticut society. In winter an oil stove in the middle of the room gave off petrochemical smells and warmth - something much welcome after a trip to one of the outhouses in back.

A sober-faced little man appeared one afternoon with Mrs. Daly at the head of the room, wearing a gray suit and redolent of officialdom. "This is the superintendent of schools," Mrs. Daly explained with proper solemnity. We had no clue what a superintendent was, but knew he belonged to an alien world of big schools and bureaucracies.

Our world, on the other hand, was about people and life on a small scale. Its special environment created a feeling of isolation and self-determination, as if we were on a ship and could rely only on those on board. Mrs. Daly was the skipper, but we knew the fortunes of the vessel lay almost equally with the crew - us - and with how we conducted ourselves. Older children tutored younger ones and acted as coaches out in the yard at recess.

And each student was treated by Mrs. Daly as a unique individual. Sometimes she would detail for the class the special virtues of each member: Dorothy was a terrific reader; Fred was a wonderful athlete - oh, the way he could throw himself around.

When infractions occurred you could be confident that justice would be tailored to the individual and would be ringing with a kind of elemental decency. In rare instances of more serious offenses, her approach could be memorable and redeeming, as it was in the case of the missing fountain pen.

For Christmas one year I received a red pen that instantly became a cherished possession. When called up front for a lesson, I would first meticulously place the pen on top of the pencils piled on the ledge inside my ancient lift-top wooden desk. On my return I would immediately lift the top to get a peek at my treasure.

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One day after a lesson, I lifted the desktop for my reassuring peek and discovered the pen was missing. I turned to the person who happened to sit nearest me - Fred - and asked if he'd seen anyone opening the desk. He was a tough kid who'd frequently gotten into trouble with Mrs. Daly and even with the authorities for small-time offenses. No, he'd observed nothing and had no idea what had happened to the pen, he said with total conviction.

When I told Mrs. Daly about the loss, she called for attention, explained the problem to the class - rather matter-of-factly, I felt - and made an agreement with us: We would all put our heads down on our desks and close our eyes. The person who had taken the pen would have three minutes to return it, anonymously, to the teacher's table up front. And that would be that, she assured us; no questions asked.

When the time was past and we lifted up our heads, no pen had appeared on her desk. Very well, she said - still rather matter-of-factly - she would have to take further steps. She began quietly speaking to students, sometimes stepping into the back room for privacy. When she and Fred went in there, they seemed to stay a long time, we noticed. When they finally emerged and walked toward the front of the room, Fred had the pen in his hand. It was the gravest offense we'd been aware of since being in school. It betrayed the very nature of the place. What justice would be meted out? we wondered. Would Fred be sent home in disgrace? Would Mrs. Daly invoke the ultimate penalty - going outside our tight little world of school and parents to contact the authorities?

At the front of the room, Fred uttered one sentence: "I took it."

And that, Mrs. Daly announced firmly, was the end of it. No one will mention this again - to Fred or anyone else - or you'll answer to me. None of us would have dreamed of violating that dictum. Fred was secure in the knowledge that his offense had been paid for and he could move on.

And he did. Years later I drove to a field near the school and decided to cross it and walk into the woods. A man with a little boy in tow was coming toward me. As he got closer, I realized it was Fred, whom I hadn't seen since leaving the school. He stopped me, smiled, and said he had a job with a company he had been with for years. He'd also married and had two kids - including the boy holding his hand.

Looking fulfilled, he spoke admiringly of the school still standing not far away and the ideas behind Mrs. Daly's stories and rules of justice. He found they worked as well for him in his modern world as they once had for her on a secluded Vermont farm.

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