Master William Horner came to our village to school when he was about eighteen years old: tall, lank, straight-sided, and straight-haired, with a mouth of the most puckered and solemn kind. His figure and movements were those of a puppet cut out of shingle and jerked by a string; and his address corresponded very well with his appearance. Never did that prim mouth give way before a laugh. A faint and misty smile was the widest departure from its propriety, and this unaccustomed disturbance made wrinkles in the flat, skinny cheeks like those in the surface of a lake, after the intrusion of a stone. Master Horner knew well what belonged to the pedagogical character, and that facial solemnity stood high on the list of indispensable qualifications. He had made up his mind before he left his father's house how he would look during the term. He had not planned any smiles (knowing that he must "board round"), and it was not for ordinary occurrences to alter his arrangements; so that when he was betrayed into a relaxation of the muscles, it was "in such a sort" as if he was putting his bread and butter in jeopardy.
Truly he had a grave time that first winter. The rod of power was new to him, and he felt it his "duty" to use it more frequently than might have been thought necessary by those upon whose sense the privilege had palled. Tears and sulky faces, and impotent fists doubled fiercely when his back was turned, were the rewards of his conscientiousness; and the boys—and girls too—were glad when working time came round again, and the master went home to help his father on the farm.
But with the autumn came Master Horner again, dropping among us as quietly as the faded leaves, and awakening at least as much serious reflection. Would he be as self-sacrificing as before, postponing his own ease and comfort to the public good, or would he have become more sedentary, and less fond of circumambulating the school-room with a switch over his shoulder? Many were fain to hope he might have learned to smoke during the summer, an accomplishment which would probably have moderated his energy not a little, and disposed him rather to reverie than to action. But here he was, and all the broader-chested and stouter-armed for his labors in the harvest-field.
Let it not be supposed that Master Horner was of a cruel and ogrish nature—a babe-eater—a Herod—one who delighted in torturing the helpless. Such souls there may be, among those endowed with the awful control of the ferule, but they are rare in the fresh and natural regions we describe. It is, we believe, where young gentlemen are to be crammed for college, that the process of hardening heart and skin together goes on most vigorously. Yet among the uneducated there is so high a respect for bodily strength, that it is necessary for the schoolmaster to show, first of all, that he possesses this inadmissible requisite for his place. The rest is more readily taken for granted. Brains he may have—a strong arm he must have: so he proves the more important claim first. We must therefore make all due allowance for Master Horner, who could not be expected to overtop his position so far as to discern at once the philosophy of teaching.
He was sadly brow-beaten during his first term of service by a great broad-shouldered lout of some eighteen years or so, who thought he needed a little more "schooling," but at the same time felt quite competent to direct the manner and measure of his attempts.
"You'd ought to begin with large-hand, Joshuay," said Master Horner to this youth.
"What should I want coarse-hand for?" said the disciple, with great contempt; "coarse-hand won't never do me no good. I want a fine-hand copy."
The master looked at the infant giant, and did as he wished, but we say not with what secret resolutions.
At another time, Master Horner, having had a hint from some one more knowing than himself, proposed to his elder scholars to write after dictation, expatiating at the same time quite floridly (the ideas having been supplied by the knowing friend), upon the advantages likely to arise from this practice, and saying, among other things,
"It will help you, when you write letters, to spell the words good."
"Pooh!" said Joshua, "spellin' ain't nothin'; let them that finds the mistakes correct 'em. I'm for every one's havin' a way of their own."
"How dared you be so saucy to the master?" asked one of the little boys, after school.
"Because I could lick him, easy," said the hopeful Joshua, who knew very well why the master did not undertake him on the spot.
Can we wonder that Master Horner determined to make his empire good as far as it went?
A new examination was required on the entrance into a second term, and, with whatever secret trepidation, the master was obliged to submit. Our law prescribes examinations, but forgets to provide for the competency of the examiners; so that few better farces offer than the course of question and answer on these occasions. We know not precisely what were Master Horner's trials; but we have heard of a sharp dispute between the inspectors whether a-n-g-e-l spelt angle or angel. Angle had it, and the school maintained that pronunciation ever after. Master Horner passed, and he was requested to draw up the certificate for the inspectors to sign, as one had left his spectacles at home, and the other had a bad cold, so that it was not convenient for either to write more than his name. Master Homer's exhibition of learning on this occasion did not reach us, but we know that it must have been considerable, since he stood the ordeal.
"What is orthography?" said an inspector once, in our presence.
The candidate writhed a good deal, studied the beams overhead and the chickens out of the window, and then replied,
"It is so long since I learnt the first part of the spelling-book, that I can't justly answer that question. But if I could just look it over, I guess I could."
Our schoolmaster entered upon his second term with new courage and invigorated authority. Twice certified, who should dare doubt his competency? Even Joshua was civil, and lesser louts of course obsequious; though the girls took more liberties, for they feel even at that early age, that influence is stronger than strength.
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The Schoolmaster's Progress
A Classic Funny Story
Caroline M.S. Kirkland