PHOEBE'S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
(excerpt from A Home For Phoebe)
Phoebe looked out the window near her desk. She watched Maseppa climb onto the buckboard and flick the reins at Ginger. Maseppa didn’t look back. She didn’t wave. Phoebe watched as they disappeared around the corner. (Always Maseppa was nearby. Always Maseppa was there when she needed her. Now, Maseppa was gone!) Panic filled her throat and chest. A sudden urge to run after the wagon flooded over her! (Maseppa, come back! )Tears filled her eyes and it was hard to breathe.
The children filled the room, laughing . . . staring . . . whispering. Phoebe put her head down on her arm. Greta took her other hand and gently squeezed her fingers. Phoebe wiped her tears and tried to be brave.
Miss Pratt introduced Phoebe and asked the class to make her feel welcome. She heard snickers from the boys’ side of the room. Next, they stood during the pledge to the flag and the roll call. Miss Pratt read a Psalm, and the class recited it back to her verse by verse. Phoebe knew some of the words because Granny had taught it to her.
Once the classes began, Phoebe was more curious than shy. Some students were set to studying their spelling words, while the older ones did calculations on the blackboard. Miss Pratt gave Phoebe a piece of paper and a quill. She taught her to dip the feather in the inkwell at the top of the desk and write with the sharpened tip. She asked Phoebe to write the alphabet.
A quill was much harder to use than a stick in clay or even a charcoal splint on a rock. The ink smeared, and the quill slipped in ways that Phoebe didn’t want it to go. By the time she got to “Z”, her paper and hands were a mess. She even had ink on her nose, where she scratched an itch.
When Miss Pratt looked at her paper and smiled. “Good work, Phoebe. I can see that you have learned your letters well. You’ll need more practice on neatness, but that will come in time. Greta, please help Phoebe wash at the pump.”
Phoebe heard Hector chuckle as she walked by his desk.
Outside, Greta pulled the big handle of the pump as Phoebe let the cold water splash over her hands. The ink smeared but didn’t just wash away. Greta fetched a rag hanging on a nail. With a bit of scrubbing, they got most of it off, even the bit on her nose. Phoebe was determined to be neater next time. They both drank from the tin dipper. Phoebe thought the water didn’t taste as cold or sweet as the water in Granny’s well.
“That’s the outhouse over there,” said Greta. “The door on the left is for the girls. The other one is for the boys.” Phoebe never saw an outhouse with two doors.
“Does your leg hurt?”
“Sometimes it does, when I try to run.”
“What happened to your leg?”
“When I was little, Elmer and I were sledding. My leg caught on a tree, and it broke. The bone stuck right out of my skin. The doctor tried to straighten it, but I guess it will always be crooked.”
“Is Elmer your brother?”
Greta nodded. “He’s in the sixth class. Papa says he has to apprentice at the tannery next year. He has twelve years. I’ve only eight. How many years do you have?”
Phoebe had never been asked that question. “I don’t know. Maybe Maseppa knows. I’ll ask her.”
“Is Maseppa your servant or a nanny?”
Phoebe didn't know what to say. “We better get back inside.”
The rest of the morning went quickly. Each class came to the front and faced Miss Pratt. Phoebe listened to the second class recite their addition tables, and the fourth class read a story about George Washington.
Greta’s class spelled a list of words, then Miss Pratt asked Phoebe to read from her primer. She stumbled over a few words, but Miss Pratt seemed pleased and said she could start studying the next book. Miss Pratt also wanted her to study the first arithmetic lesson. Phoebe found it hard to concentrate with so much going on around her.
Soon it was noon. Everyone spilled into the schoolyard and settled under trees or on the steps to open their lunch pails. William and Hector came over to the oak tree where Phoebe sat with Greta, Thelma, and Annie. Jostling each other with their elbows, the boys stood side by side and chanted,
There once was a girl with a curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad, she was
Then they ran off, laughing and shoving each other about. Annie stood up. “That was mean! I’m going to tell Miss Pratt!” She marched into the schoolhouse.
Greta leaned close. “Annie is such a tattle-tale. Boys can be pests, but just ignore them, Phoebe. That’s just the way boys are. My brother teases me all the time.”
Thelma agreed. "My brother pulls our braids and puts frogs in our desks."
Phoebe wasn’t sure she could ignore the boys. (Hector is surely hard to understand. Sometimes, he wants to be my friend, but when he's with the other boys, he can be cruel. I reckon the other children don’t know that he’s afraid of snakes. )She smiled to herself.
After lunch, Miss Pratt gave them all a lecture on making someone feel welcome. She made William and Hector apologize to Phoebe in front of the whole class. The rest of the day they studied the settling of Jamestown. Before long, it was time to go home. Gabe waited as Phoebe gathered her books and said farewell to her friends. Miss Pratt reminded her to take her lunch pail and bonnet.
That bonnet was going to be hard to get used to. Phoebe never wore one the whole time she and Maseppa gathered herbs. Granny made her wear one when they went to church, but Phoebe didn’t like them. They were hot and tight around her neck.
Greta and Elmer lived a few miles on the other side of Hoags Corner. Phoebe thought it must hurt Greta to walk so far. Joey Courtier lived a ways beyond the Falls. Hector and Alice walked with Phoebe and Gabe, too.
Alice was twelve years and in the eighth class. Next fall, she planned to go to secondary school to learn to be a teacher. She asked Phoebe how her day went and then read a book as she walked along. The boys ignored Phoebe and talked of their ball game until they got to Alice and Hector’s house.
Phoebe, Gabe, and Joey continued on past Mister Shillinger’s house. Phoebe waved at him in the window. As they neared Gabe’s farm, Joey said that he’d walk with Phoebe the rest of the way. Gabe decided that he better go with them, at least today, so that Granny would know that he had kept his promise to watch her. Phoebe thought that Thelma and Annie were wrong. (Not all boys are pests. )
Phoebe told Maseppa and Granny about everything. She told them about Penny and Thelma and Annie. She told them about William and Hector teasing her at lunch. “Granny, that Hector is so mean! He and William called me names and threw pine cones at us during lunch. He can’t even cipher up to twen-”
Granny interrupted her. “We shouldn’t talk ill about people, Phoebe. You must learn to watch your tongue.
‘There is so much good in the worst of us
And so much bad in the best of us,
That is hardly becomes any of us
To talk about the rest of us.’
Edward Hock wrote that. It would be good for you to learn its meaning.”
“I’m sorry, Granny.”
Maseppa said, “What be on your hands, Phoebe? You eat berries?”
Phoebe rubbed her purple palms. “No, it’s that horrible ink. It just won’t wash away!
Maseppa scrubbed Phoebe's hands with lye soap to no avail. It would wear off. After filling the wood box and filling the kitchen water bucket, Phoebe was so tired she could hardly eat supper. She read one page of her new reader to Granny. She wanted to read more, but her eyes were heavy and her mind was too fuzzy to think straight. She kissed Granny, and Maseppa tucked her into bed.
"Maseppa, I was afraid when you left, but the day went fast, and I made new friends and learned so much."
"That is good. It be a long day for me without you, but I am glad you are happy."
Phoebe was asleep before the cuckoo called out seven o’clock.