School Life: A Literary Pastiche

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From the smell of chalk to the pain of separation, writers of the 20th century have left indelible word-pictures that convey what school was like for children and their communities at various moments in time. Assistant Commentary Editor Ihsan K. Taylor compiled the following collection of excerpts from notable novels, autobiographical essays, and memoirs.

The New Teacher

The board walls were not battened. Streaks of sunshine streamed through the cracks upon a row of six homemade seats and desks that marched down the middle of the room. Beyond them on the studding of the opposite wall, a square of boards had been nailed and painted black, to make a blackboard. In front of the seats stood a big heating stove. Its round sides and top were cherry-red from the heat of the fire, and standing around it were the scholars that Laura must teach. They all looked at Laura. There were five of them, and two boys and one girl were taller than she was.

"Good morning," she managed to say.

They all answered, still looking at her. A small window by the door let in a block of sunshine. Beyond it, in the corner by the stove, stood a small table and a chair. "That is the teacher's table," Laura thought, and then, "Oh my; I am the teacher."

--Laura Ingalls Wilder These Happy Golden Years (1943) Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Vocational Angst

High School was swell. Everything about it was different from Grammar School. She wouldn't have liked it so much if she had had to take a stenographic course like Hazel and Etta had done--but she got special permission and took mechanical shop like a boy. Shop and Algebra and Spanish were grand. English was mighty hard. Her English teacher was Miss Minner. Everybody said Miss Minner had sold her brains to a famous doctor for ten thousand dollars, so that after she was dead he could cut them up and see why she was so smart. On written lessons she cracked such questions as "Name eight famous contemporaries of Doctor Johnson," and "Quote ten lines from 'The Vicar of Wakefield.'" She called on people by the alphabet and kept her grade book open during the lessons. ...

--Carson McCullers The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) Reprinted with permission from Bantam.

Miss Caroline's Alphabet

Miss Caroline began the day by reading us a story about cats. The cats had long conversations with one another, they wore cunning little clothes and lived in a warm house beneath a kitchen stove. By the time Mrs. Cat called the drugstore for an order of chocolate malted mice the class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms. Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature. Miss Caroline came to the end of the story and said, "Oh, my, wasn't that nice?"

Then she went to the blackboard and printed the alphabet in enormous square capitals, turned to the class and asked, "Does anybody know what these are?"

Everybody did; most of the first grade had failed it last year.

--Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

'God and Home and the Southern Way of Life'

Unlike the white high school, Lafayette County Training School distinguished itself by having neither lawn, nor hedges, nor tennis court, nor climbing ivy. Its two buildings (main classrooms, the grade school and home economics) were set on a dirt hill with no fence to limit either its boundaries or those of bordering farms. There was a large expanse to the left of the school which was used alternately as a baseball diamond or a basketball court. ... Over this rocky area relieved by a few shady tall persimmon trees the graduating class walked. ... Only a small percentage would be continuing on to college--one of the South's A&M (agricultural and mechanical) schools, which trained Negro youths to be carpenters, farmers, handymen, masons, maids, cooks and baby nurses. Their future rode heavily on their shoulders, and blinded them to the collective joy that had pervaded the lives of the boys and girls in the grammar school graduating class.

Parents who could afford it had ordered new shoes and ready-made clothes for themselves from Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward. They also engaged the best seamstresses to make the floating graduating dresses and to cut down secondhand pants which would be pressed to a military slickness for the important event.

Oh, it was important, all right. Whitefolks would attend the ceremony, and two or three would speak of God and home, and the Southern way of life, and Mrs. Parsons, the principal's wife, would play the graduation march while the lower-grade graduates paraded down the aisles and took their seats below the platform. The high school seniors would wait in empty classrooms to make their dramatic entrance.

--Maya Angelou I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) Reprinted with permission from Random House Inc.

Wet Raincoats

The marvelous smell of the classroom on rainy days, with all the raincoats and rubbers. A schoolroom on a rainy day, steamy with wet raincoats in the closet and wet rubbers. The windows fogged with steam, the rain dripping down the outside of the windows. The hot lunch program. The hot soup. To each other the teachers spoke Yiddish, which was ridiculous because nine tenths of all children were Jewish and they understood Yiddish from the mothers and fathers, from their grandfathers. The maps that pulled down like shades. The watercolors of Washington and Lincoln and Coolidge framed in glass high on the walls.

--E.L. Doctorow The Book of Daniel (1971) Reprinted with permission from Random House Inc.

Repository of Art

In the country the repository of art and science was the school, and the schoolteacher shielded and carried the torch of learning and of beauty. ... It was far from an easy job, and it had duties and obligations beyond belief. The teacher had no private life. She was watched jealously for any weakness of character. She could not board with one family for more than one term, for that would cause jealousy--a family gained social ascendency by boarding a teacher. If a marriageable son belonged to the family where she boarded a proposal was automatic. ... Teachers rarely lasted very long in the country schools.

--John Steinbeck East of Eden (1952) Reprinted with permission from Penguin Putnam Inc.

Rulers and Rosaries

The old dump was St. Patrick's grammar school; and St. Patrick's meant a number of things to Studs. It meant school, and school was a jailhouse that might just as well have had barred windows. It meant the long, wide, chalk-smelling room of the seventh- and eighth-grade boys, with its forty or fifty squirming kids. It meant the second floor of the tan brick, undistinguished parish building on Sixty-first Street that had swallowed so much of Studs' life for the past eight years. It meant the black-garbed Sisters of Providence, with their rattling beads, their swishing strides, and the funny-looking wooden clappers they used, which made a dry snapping sound and which hurt like anything when a guy got hit over the head with one. It meant Sister Carmel, who used to teach fourth grade, but was dead now; and who used to hit everybody with the edge of a ruler because she knew they all called her the bearded lady. It meant Studs, twisting in his seat, watching the sun come in the window to show up the dust on the floor, twisting and squirming, and letting his mind fly to all kinds of places that were not like school. --James T. Farrell Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy (1935) Originally published by The Vanguard Press.

A Walk to School

Rufus' house was on the way to school for a considerable neighborhood, and within a few minutes after his father had waved for the last time and disappeared, the walks were filled with another exciting thing to look at as the boys and girls who were old enough for school came by. At first he was content to watch them through the front window; they were creatures of an all but unimaginable world; he personally knew nobody who was big enough even for kindergarten. Later he felt more kinship with them, more curiosity, great envy, and considerable awe. It did not yet occur to him that he could ever grow up to be one of them, but he began to feel that in any case they were somehow of the same race. He wandered out into the yard, even to the sidewalk, even, at length, to the corner, where he could see them coming from three ways at once. He was fascinated by the way they looked, the boys so powerfully dressed and the girls almost as prettily as if they were going to a party. Nearly all of them walked in two's and three's, and members of these groups often called to others of the groups. You could see how well they all knew each other; any number of people; a whole world. And they all carried books of different colors and thickness, and lunches done up in packages or boxes, and pencils in still other boxes; or carried all these things together in a satchel. He loved the way they carried these things, it seemed to give them wonderful dignity and purpose, to be the mark that set them apart in the privileged world. He particularly admired and envied the way the boys who carried their books in brown canvas straps could swing them, except when they swung them at his head. Then he was at the same time frightened and very much surprised, and the boy who had pretended he meant to hit him, and anyone else who saw, would laugh to see that look of fear and surprise on his face, and he felt puzzled and unhappy because they laughed.

--James Agee A Death in the Family (1957) Originally published by Grosset & Dunlap.

'Dickensian' Deprivation

There were, I believe, only fifty-odd boys. We were poor. The school was poor. Many schools at the end of the Depression were poor, but the threadbare nature of Christchurch was almost Dickensian in its pathos. The library, for instance. At sixteen, I had a natural inclination for geography and I loved to pore over maps, but in the library there was only one geography book. It was not a bad atlas, had it been left undamaged, but it had been divested of Africa and all of Eastern Europe--something which to this day has produced significant gaps in my knowledge of the earth. The works of American literature stopped with Jack London--no Hemingway, no Fitzgerald, no Thomas Wolfe, no Theodore Dreiser; in compensation, we had the laudable work Tom Sawyer, but even this boy's classic palled upon perhaps the fifth reading. The Encyclopaedia Britannica was of such antique vintage that its information in the technological sphere alone ceased, I remember, with the invention of the telegraph and the diving bell. The pride of the entire library was a complete twenty-volume Shakespeare, but at least three volumes had been left out in the rain and the pages were stuck together, while someone else had stolen both King Lear and Richard III. Despite all this deprivation, I managed to get educated enough to pass on to college and acquit myself with at least passable honor. Our masters, good-natured and hideously underpaid drudges who possessed nonetheless high ideals and admirable patience, dispensed as much learning as was within their power. I still salute them in memory.

--William Styron The Quiet Dust and Other Writings (1982) Reprinted with permission from Random House Inc.

To the 'Land of Schools'

So early in September Amory, provided with "six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T shirt, one jersey, one overcoat, winter, etc." set out for New England, the land of schools. There were Andover and Exeter with their memories of New England dead--large, college-like democracies; St. Mark's, Groton, St. Regis'--recruited from Boston and the Knickerbocker families of New York; St. Paul's, with its great rinks; Pomfret and St. George's, prosperous and well-dressed; Taft and Hotchkiss, which prepared the wealth of the Middle West for social success at Yale; Pawling, Westminster, Choate, Kent, and a hundred others; all milling out their well-set-up, conventional, impressive type, year after year; their mental stimulus the college entrance exams; their vague purpose set forth in a hundred circulars as "To impart a Thorough Mental, Moral, and Physical Training as a Christian Gentleman, to fit the boy for meeting the problems of his day and generation, and to give a solid foundation in the Arts and Sciences."

--F. Scott Fitzgerald This Side of Paradise (1920) Originally published by Scribners.

'As Routine Bowed to the Sacred'

It was the religious calendar that governed my school year. In early September there was a nine o'clock mass on the Friday of the first week of school to pray for academic success. (Students were grouped according to class; behind my class would be my new teacher's face, a face I still wasn't used to.) In June, there was a mass of graduation for the eighth-graders. Between those events, school often stopped or flowered as routine bowed to the sacred. In the middle of a geography or an arithmetic lesson, the nuns would lead us out of our classrooms and we would walk--four hundred students in double lines--down a block to church, stopping traffic (We were Catholics!) to attend a First Friday mass or a rosary to Mary. In Lent there were Friday Stations of the Cross. (Fourteen meditations on the passion of Christ--He stumbled, He fell--fourteen times the priest intoning, 'We adore Thee, O Christ. ... ') Benediction, the adoration of the Host, followed. The lovely hymn, the Tantum Ergo sounded as smoke of incense rose like vine. Upon the high altar stood a golden monstrance in the shape of a sunburst, at the center of which--exposed through a tiny window--was the round wafer of bread. We returned to the classroom, came back to the same paragraph in a still-opened book. Routine resumed. Sacred dramas of Church thus fitted into a day, never became the routine; rather they redeemed the routine. --Richard Rodriguez Hunger of Memory (1982) Reprinted with permission from David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.

Lolita's School

I had hoped Beardsley School for girls, an expensive day school, with lunch thrown in and a glamorous gymnasium, would, while cultivating all those young bodies, provide some formal education for their minds as well. Gaston Godin, who was seldom right in his judgment of American habitus, had warned me that the institution might turn out to be one of those where girls are taught, as he put it with a foreigner's love for such things: "not to spell very well, but to smell very well." I don't think they achieved even that. At my first interview with headmistress Pratt, she approved of my child's "nice blue eyes" (blue! Lolita!) and of my own friendship with that "French genius" (a genius! Gaston!)--and then, having turned Dolly over to a Miss Cormorant, she wrinkled her brow in a kind of recueillement and said:

"We are not so much concerned, Mr. Humbird, with having our students become bookworms or be able to reel off all the capitals of Europe which nobody knows anyway, or learn by heart the dates of forgotten battles. What we are concerned with is the adjustment of the child to group life. This is why we stress the four D's: Dramatics, Dance, Debating and Dating. ... "

--Vladimir Nabokov Lolita (1955) Reprinted with permission from Random House Inc.

Under Washington's Gaze

School started the day after Labor Day, Tuesday, the Tuesday when my grandfather went, and in 1918 my father, and in 1948 me. It was the same day, in the same brick schoolhouse, the former New Albion Academy, now named Nelson School. The same misty painting of George Washington looked down on us all from above the blackboard, next to his closest friend, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was kind and patient and we looked to him for sympathy. Washington looked as if he had a headache. His mouth was set in a prim, pained expression of disapproval. Maybe people made fun of him for his long, frizzy hair, which resembled our teacher's, Mrs. Meiers', and that had soured his disposition. She said he had bad teeth--a good lesson for us to remember: to brush after every meal, up and down, thirty times. The great men held the room in their gaze, even the back corner by the windows. I bent over my desk, trying to make fat vowels sit on the line like fruit, the tails of consonants hang below, and colored the maps of English and French empires, and memorized arithmetic tables and state capitals and major exports of many lands, and when I was stumped, looked up to see George Washington's sour look and Lincoln's look of pity and friendship, an old married couple on the wall. School, their old home, smelled of powerful floor wax and disinfectant, the smell of patriotism.

--Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon Days (1985) Reprinted with permission from Penguin Putnam Inc.

'Pomp and Circumstance'

Perhaps, thought Miss Thornton defensively, the entire evening's performance would be comical to an outsider. Certainly, the scratchiness of the Peyton Place High School band attempting to play a composition as pretentious as "Pomp and Circumstance" had its comical aspects. And Jared Clarke, while he had not actually remarked that the graduates were "standing with reluctant feet" had most certainly implied it. ... But Miss Thornton had not been amused. When seventy-two children, among them the forty-odd whom she had taught all year, rose in a body to sing, "Hail, Alma Mater fair, our song to thee we raise," Miss Thornton had been filled with emotion which some might have called "sentimentality" and others, of a younger, more tactless generation, perhaps would label as "corny." Graduation, to Miss Thornton, was a time of sadness and a time of joy, but most of all it was a time of change. On graduation night, the change meant more to Miss Thornton than a simple transition from one school to another. She regarded it as the end of an era. Too many of her boys and girls had ceased to be children this night. ...

It's all too fast, thought Miss Thornton, realizing that she was not thinking a new thought. She seemed to be full of cliches this evening, the way she was after every graduation, and her mind persisted in framing phrases like, The best years of their lives, and, What a pity that youth is wasted on the young.

--Grace Metalious Peyton Place (1956) Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.

Metropolitan High

I am writing this during my free ... oops! unassigned period, at the end of my first day of teaching. So far, I have taught nothing--but I have learned a great deal. To wit: We have to punch a time clock and abide by the Rules.

We must make sure our students likewise abide, and that they sign the time sheet whenever they leave or reenter a room.

We have keys but no locks (except in lavatories), blackboards but no chalk, students but no seats, teachers but no time to teach.

The library is closed to the students.

Yet I'm told that Calvin Coolidge is not unique; it's as average as a large metropolitan high school can be. There are many schools worse than this (the official phrase is "problem-area schools on the lower socio-economic levels") and a few better ones. Kids with an aptitude in a trade can go to vocational high schools; kids with outstanding talents in math, science, drama, dance, music, or art can attend special high schools which require entrance tests or auditions; kids with emotional problems or difficulties in learning are sent to the "600 schools." But the great majority, the ordinary kids, find themselves in Calvin Coolidge or its reasonable facsimile. And so do the teachers.

--Bel Kaufman Up the Down Staircase (1964) Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers Inc.


It was when I found out I had to talk that school became a misery, that the silence became a misery. I did not speak and felt bad each time that I did not speak. I read aloud in first grade, though, and heard the barest whisper with little squeaks come out of my throat. "Louder," said the teacher, who scared the voice away again. The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl. --Maxine Hong Kingston The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976) Reprinted with permission from Random House Inc.


You'd have thought, wouldn't you, that Rita O'Hagan's teachers would have been protective of her, and maybe some of them were, but there was Mrs. Donnehower in eighth grade English who spoke in a bemused patient voice to Rita when it was her turn to read aloud (we were reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling--we'd been reading it for weeks) and Rita stammered and blushed and lost her way though moving her forefinger with fanatic precision beneath the lines of print; and there were numerous episodes of humiliation in gym class from which that teacher did not trouble to spare her, poor Rita with jiggling breasts and hips amid a little group of overweight or myopic or illcoordinated girls barely tolerated by the rest; and worst of all was ninth grade math where Mr. Buttinger's drawling nasal voice rang out repeatedly, "Rita! Ri-ta! Go to the blackboard please and show us how it's done!" and the class sniggered in anticipation as Rita fumbled even taking the piece of chalk from Mr. Buttinger's fingers and went to the board in a daze of incomprehension and mute physical shame. Not that Rita O'Hagan was the slowest and stupidest pupil in Mr. Buttinger's class (though for amusement's sake she could be made to appear so) but rather that she was the pupil most humbled by her mistakes, most apologetic, most likely to burst into tears. And what big jewel-like tears, streaming down her face! So Mr. Buttinger might at last take pity on her, as her chalk-scribblings came to so little, for even if Rita knew the correct answer she could not reproduce it in front of so many scornful eyes, nor did he really expect it of her, sending her back to her seat with flurried waves of his hands as you might drive along a dog or a sheep, shaking his head, smiling, winking out at the class, "That's enough, Rita--you've exposed yourself enough."

--Joyce Carol Oates Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (1993) Reprinted with permission from Penguin Putnam Inc.

Feminine Skills

I reached high school at the close of the sixties, in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, whose ranking on educational spending was I think around fifty-first, after Mississippi and whatever was below Mississippi. Recently Kentucky has drastically changed the way money is spent on its schools, but back then, the wealth of the county decreed the wealth of the school, and few coins fell far from the money trees that grew in Lexington. Our county, out where the bluegrass begins to turn brown, was just scraping by. Many a dedicated teacher served out earnest missions in our halls, but it was hard to spin silk purses out of a sow's ear budget. We didn't get anything fancy like Latin or Calculus. Apart from English, the only two courses of study that ran for four consecutive years, each one building upon the last, were segregated: Home Ec for girls and Shop for boys. And so I stand today, a woman who knows how to upholster, color-coordinate a table setting, and plan a traditional wedding--valuable skills I'm still waiting to put to good use in my life. --Barbara Kingsolver High Tide in Tucson (1995) Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

War and Memory

I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on. Perhaps the school wasn't as well kept up in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war. I didn't entirely like the glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that's exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.

--John Knowles A Separate Peace (1959) Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.

The Old Schoolhouse

I am always saddened, driving through small towns in the United States, to come upon the old schoolhouse. Sometimes it is a grand brick building with ivy and an avenue of oak trees leading up to its high granite steps and arched doorway. Sometimes it is a stone schoolhouse with tall windows. In little villages it is often a white clapboard building with a hip roof and a bell tower. But one thing you can be almost sure of: it won't be a school anymore. If the town is sad and poor, the old schoolhouse will be abandoned, with broken windows, rotting door frames, and graffiti spray-painted on its walls. If the town is lucky and imaginative, the old schoolhouse will have been transformed into offices and condominiums, or little craft shops reeking of potpourri made from wood shavings soaked in synthetic oil of cinnamon.

In Granville, Vermont (population 309), the old schoolhouse is downtown, next to the town hall. It's a white clapboard building with green trim and a steep roof. In the high front gable a plaque says 1857. The paint is bright, the picket fence in front is in good shape. And on a spring day in 1991 when I pushed open the schoolhouse's heavy paneled door and stepped inside, there were no weary office workers in their cubicles separated by imitation wood-grain partition walls, or chatty tourists buying Kountry Krafts and miniature plastic jugs of maple syrup. Instead, in this old one-room schoolhouse there were actually students--seventeen little girls and boys aged six through eleven, and their teacher, Ms. Roland. They were attentively going about the business of reading and writing and doing arithmetic, just as many of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had done at Granville School in 1857.

Of course, changes have been made. Under the five east windows that look out across the snowy playground to the great red barn of the farm next door, four computers sat on a shelf, and under one of the high windows at the back of the schoolroom a reading loft had been constructed. There was a copy machine and a TV set, and two bathrooms in the back....

--Bailey White Sleeping at the Starlite Motel (1995) Reprinted with permission from Perseus.


Vol. 18, Issue 24, Page 38-41

Published in Print: February 24, 1999, as School Life: A Literary Pastiche
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