It was January in northern New York State, sixty-seven years ago. Snow lay deep everywhere. It loaded the bare limbs of oaks and maples and beeches, it bent the green boughs of cedars and spruces down into the drifts. Billows of snow covered the fields and the stone fences. Down a long road through the woods a little boy trudged to school, with his big brother Royal and his two sisters, Eliza Jane and Alice. Royal was thirteen years old, Eliza Jane was twelve, and Alice was ten. Almanzo was the youngest of all, and this was his first going-to-school, because he was not quite nine years old.
He had to walk fast to keep up with the others, and he had to carry the dinner-pail.
“Royal ought to carry it,” he said. “He’s bigger than I be.”
Royal strode ahead, big and manly in boots, and Eliza Jane said:
“No, ‘Manzo. It’s your turn to carry it now, because you’re the littlest.”
Eliza Jane was bossy. She always knew what was best to do, and she made Almanzo and Alice do it. Almanzo hurried behind Royal, and Alice hurried behind Eliza Jane, in the deep paths made by bobsied runners. On each side the soft snow was piled high. The road went down a long slope, then it crossed a little bridge and went on for a mile through the frozen woods to the schoolhouse.
The cold nipped Almanzo’s eyelids and numbed his nose, but inside his good woolen clothes he was warm. They were all made from the wool of his father’s sheep. His underwear was creamy white, but Mother had dyed the wool for his outside clothes.
Butternut hulls had dyed the thread for his coat and his long trousers. Then Mother had woven it, and she had soaked and shrunk the cloth into heavy, thick fullcloth. Not wind nor cold nor even a drenching rain could go through the good fullcloth that Mother made.
For Almanzo’s waist she had dyed fine wool as red as a cherry, and she had woven a soft, thin cloth. It was light and warm and beautifully red. Almanzo’s long brown pants buttoned to his red waist with a row of bright brass buttons, all around his middle.
The waist’s collar buttoned snugly up to his chin, and so did his long coat of brown fullcloth. Mother had made his cap of the same brown fullcloth, with cozy ear-flaps that tied under his chin. And his red mittens were on a string that went up the sleeves of his coat and across the back of his neck. That was so he couldn’t lose them.
He wore one pair of socks pulled snug over the legs of his underdrawers, and another pair outside the legs of his long brown pants, and he wore moccasins. They were exactly like the moccasins that Indians wore. Girls tied heavy veils over their faces when they went out in winter.
But Almanzo was a boy, and his face was out in the frosty air. His cheeks were red as apples and his nose was redder than a cherry, and after he had walked a mile and a half he was glad to see the schoolhouse. It stood lonely in the frozen woods, at the foot of Hardscrabble Hill.
Smoke was rising from the chimney, and the teacher had shoveled a path through the snowdrifts to the door. Five big boys were scuffling in the deep snow by the path. Almanzo was frightened when he saw them. Royal pretended not to be afraid, but he was. They were the big boys from Hardscrabble Settlement, and everybody was afraid of them.
They smashed little boys’ sleds, for fun. They’d catch a little boy and swing him by his legs, then let him go headfirst into the deep snow.
Sometimes they made two little boys fight each other, though the little boys didn’t want to fight and begged to be let off. These big boys were sixteen or seventeen years old and they came to school only in the middle of the winter term. They came to thrash the teacher and break up the school. They boasted that no teacher could finish the winter term in that school, and no teacher ever had.
This year the teacher was a slim, pale young man. His name was Mr. Corse. He was gentle and patient, and never whipped little boys because they forgot how to spell a word. Almanzo felt sick inside when he thought how the big boys would beat Mr. Corse. Mr. Corse wasn’t big enough to fight them. There was a hush in the schoolhouse and you could hear the noise the big boys were making outside.
The other pupils stood whispering together by the big stove in the middle of the room. Mr. Corse sat at his desk. One thin cheek rested on his slim hand and he was reading a book. He looked up and said pleasantly:
Royal and Eliza Jane and Alice answered him politely, but Almanzo did not say anything. He stood by the desk, looking at Mr. Corse.
Mr. Corse smiled at him and said: “Do you know I’m going home with you tonight?” Almanzo was too troubled to answer.
“Yes,” Mr. Corse said. “It’s your father’s turn.” Every family in the district boarded the teacher for two weeks. He went from farm to farm till he had stayed two weeks at each one. Then he closed school for that term.
When he said this, Mr. Corse rapped on his desk with his ruler; it was time for school to begin. All the boys and girls went to their seats. The girls sat on the left side of the room and boys sat on the right side, with the big stove and wood-box in the middle between them.
The big ones sat in the back seats, the middle-sized ones in the middle seats, and the little ones in the front seats. All the seats were the same size. The big boys could hardly get their knees under their desks, and the little boys couldn’t rest their feet on the floor.
Almanzo and Miles Lewis were the primer class, so they sat on the very front seat and they had no desk. They had to hold their primers in their hands. Then Mr. Corse went to the window and tapped on it. The big boys clattered into the entry, jeering and loudly laughing.
They burst the door open with a big noise and swaggered in. Big Bill Ritchie was their leader. He was almost as big as Almanzo’s father; his fists were as big as Almanzo’s father’s fists. He stamped the snow from his feet and noisily tramped to a back seat. The four other boys made all the noise they could, too.
Mr. Corse did not say anything. No whispering was permitted in school, and no fidgeting. Everyone must be perfectly still and keep his eyes fixed on his lesson. Almanzo and Miles held up their primers and tried not to swing their legs. Their legs grew so tired that they ached, dangling from the edge of the seat.
Sometimes one leg would kick suddenly, before Almanzo could stop it. Then he tried to pretend that nothing happened, but he could feel Mr. Corse looking at him. In the back seats the big boys whispered and scuffled and slammed their books. Mr. Corse said sternly: “A little less disturbance, please.” For a minute they were quiet, then they began again.
They wanted Mr. Corse to try to punish them. When he did, all five of them would jump on him. At last the primer class was called, and Almanzo could slide off the seat and walk with Miles to the teacher’s desk. Mr. Corse took Almanzo’s primer and gave them words to spell. \
When Royal had been in the primer class, he had often come home at night with his hand stiff and swollen. The teacher had beaten the palm with a ruler because Royal did not know his lesson.
Then Father said: “If the teacher has to thrash you again, Royal, I’ll give you a thrashing you’ll remember.”
But Mr. Corse never beat a little boy’s hand with his ruler. When Almanzo could not spell a word, Mr. Corse said: “Stay in at recess and learn it.” At recess the girls were let out first.
They put on their hoods and cloaks and quietly went outdoors. After fifteen minutes, Mr. Corse rapped on the window and they came in, hung their wraps in the entry, and took their books again. Then the boys could go out for fifteen minutes.
They rushed out shouting into the cold. The first out began snowballing the others. All that had sleds scrambled up Hardscrabble Hill; they flung themselves, stomach-down, on the sleds and swooped down the long, steep slope. They upset into the snow; they ran and wrestled and threw snowballs and washed one another’s faces with snow, and all the time they yelled as loud as they could.
When Almanzo had to stay in his seat at recess, he was ashamed because he was kept in with the girls. At noontime everyone was allowed to move about the schoolroom and talk quietly. Eliza Jane opened the dinner-pail on her desk. It held bread-and-butter and sausage, doughnuts and apples, and four delicious apple-turnovers, their plump crusts filled with melting slices of apple and spicy brown juice.
After Almanzo had eaten every crumb of his turnover and licked his fingers, he took a drink of water from the pail with a dipper in it, on a bench in the corner. Then he put on his cap and coat and mittens and went out to play.
The sun was shining almost overhead. All the snow was a dazzle of sparkles, and the woodhaulers were coming down Hardscrabble Hill. High on the bobsleds piled with logs, the men cracked their whips and shouted to their horses, and the horses shook jingles from their string of bells. All the boys ran shouting to fasten their sleds to the bobsleds’ runners, and boys who had not brought their sleds climbed up and rode on the loads of wood.
They went merrily past the schoolhouse and down the road. Snowballs were flying thick. Up on the loads the boys wrestled, pushing each other off into the deep drifts. Almanzo and Miles rode shouting on Miles’ sled. It did not seem a minute since they left the schoolhouse. But it took much longer to go back. First they walked, then they trotted, then they ran, panting. They were afraid they’d be late. Then they knew they were late. Mr. Corse would whip them all.
The schoolhouse stood silent. They did not want to go in, but they had to. They stole in quietly. Mr. Corse sat at his desk and all the girls were in their places, pretending to study. On the boys’ side of the room, every seat was empty. Almanzo crept to his seat in the dreadful silence.
He held up his primer and tried not to breathe so loud. Mr. Corse did not say anything. Bill Ritchie and the other big boys didn’t care. They made all the noise they could, going to their seats. Mr. Corse waited until they were quiet. Then he said: “I will overlook your tardiness this one time. But do not let it happen again.” Everybody knew the big boys would be tardy again. Mr. Corse could not punish them because they could thrash him, and that was what they meant to do.