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Uncle Ralph Teaches The School a Thing or Two

Some episodes ago, now, I boasted here (perhaps in misguided self-satisfaction) that our family had observed such proper perfection over the years that none of us ever sinned by running for public office. This, like all protestations of human purity, seems to have an exception, and I was just reminded of it by a young lady of our acquaintance who stopped by to chat. She teaches English in a high-tax consolidated school system that runs about thus and so, and so on and so on and so forth and you name it.

This, you see, made me reflect that one time my Uncle Ralph, the country storekeeper, got himself elected to the school committee. The reforms he effected may not be important, but may have the virtue of being amusing.

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The community in which Uncle Ralph kept his general store had a mixed population. Basically Yankee, the old-seed stock had been augmented by several immigrant groups who, or which, at the time were eager to keep their separate heritages pure in the face of equal opportunities.

German, Scottish, Scandinavian, Polish, Russian, numerically numerous French-Canadians, and others in smaller minorities, had all been drawn to Maine to find work on farms, in the woods, and in the mills. They were segregated as bohunks, Swedes, krauts, and various gentilities, and my Uncle Ralph said he could trust all of them except the scheming Yankees who, he said, could steal the eyes out of your head and you looking at them.

Not too often, but once in a while, my Uncle Ralph would put on a souvenir derby hat when he pumped gasoline, and tourists thought he was a Yiddish merchant. I say these things to give you some idea of how things were.

And one fall, the day after school opened, a youngster came into the store on his way home and asked Uncle Ralph if maybe there might be some small after-school work he could do to earn a little money. He said his name was Chippy LaTouche and his father was Girard LaTouche, a loom-fixer in the Spaulding cotton mill.

Uncle Ralph, by that time, was conversant in all local languages, and he liked the way Chippy handled his English when he tried to avoid the French he was fetched up in. Uncle Ralph said he'd find things for Chippy to do, and made Chippy a member of the organization by giving him a bright red cap that said, "R.E. Gould, Gen'l Merch." Chippy's first job as general superintendent was to put five barrels of new potatoes in one-peck bags.

Uncle Ralph always characterized Chip as basically intelligent but not book-smart, and as Chip became closer to Uncle Ralph my uncle took a special interest in the kid and coached him in his school lessons. He found Chip willing, and reasonably smart. Chip at once became able in English.

So it was, you understand, that in no time at all, for two or three hours after school and all day Saturdays, Chip came to know all there was to know about a country store. He swept, he bagged onions, he helped make sausages, he memorized prices, he corned the beef, he tidied the shelves, he measured yard goods, and he even sat in when salesmen called because he knew if corn flakes were low or if the overshoes were sold out.

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So time ran along, and one evening as the store was being locked up Chippy said to my uncle, "I can come in all day now, I'm quitting school." Uncle Ralph said, "What's this all about?"

Chippy said the teachers didn't like him, they didn't want him in school. They said he was stupid, he was dumb, he couldn't do fractions, and he was just wasting everybody's time, including his own. Uncle Ralph heard him out, and said, "You stay in school; we'll work something out."

Well, the next afternoon, before school-out, Uncle Ralph walked to the town offices and went in to see the superintendent of schools. He opened the meeting by asking, "What makes you hire so much cheap help?" Thus well begun, he asked the super to come by the store the next afternoon and bring the math teacher.

AND as the math teacher who had said Chip couldn't do fractions and the superintendent and Uncle Ralph were in Uncle Ralph's little office, Chippy came in from school and stuck his head in to report on duty.

My uncle said, "Oh, Chip, I bought a hog today from Farmer Bodurkey. Go weigh it out and pay him at 22-1/2 cents a pound, and give him a nickel's worth of montevideos to treat his youngsters. He and the hog are awaiting your undivided attention."

So Chip came back after a few minutes and handed my Uncle Ralph a slip of paper that said, 284-1/4.

"You paid him?" my uncle asked.

"Yes, sir."

"You gave him a treat?"

"Yes, sir."

"You put a record in the register?"

"Yes, sir."

Uncle Ralph passed Chip's little slip of paper to the math teacher and said, "This is the boy you said can't do fractions."

Chippy did stay in school, and even if he didn't win a Rhodes scholarship he could weigh a hog first-rate. And tempted by this small incident, my Uncle Ralph did run for the school board. He got elected and found a new math teacher. After that, as long as he kept the store, if he heard that some neighborhood boy was falling behind in school he'd ask the lad to come in and bag a few potatoes.

He said that was a good place to start. If a kiddo learned to bag pertatters, up was the only way left to go.

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