“A man never rises so high as when he knows not whither he is going.”
The Battle is Joined
Crawling up alongside the red wooden façade of the schoolhouse, Jack and me peeked through the windows and scanned the room.There was Mike seated on one end of a bench, paying the strictest attention to master’s lesson.
“The sniveling little worm,” Jack said, scrunching up his nose. “I knew he didn’t have the nerve to skip,” said Jack. “Next, he’ll be kissing Whittemore’s ass-the little worm.”
“What are we gonna do?” I asked.
“What do ya mean what’a we gonna do? What are you gonna do you moron?” Jack said and rapped his knuckles on the wooden door of the school house as hard as he could, then bolted toward the hedges across the Meetinghouse Road, a’sayin’, “Run son if you knows what’s good for ya!”
A Disrupted Lesson
I ran as fast as I could, not a’wishin’ for master to catch me a’skippin’ school and a’knockin’ on his door like I was a’comin’ a’visitin’ which I couldn’t do now anyway because Jack whacked the door so loud as to be heard unmistakably as a rude intrusion on master’s lesson and so I had no choice-I scampered away like a cat escapin’ from a bulldog.
“Estimatin’ that I had only a second or two ‘afore master spotted me from the schoolhouse doorway where he would soon be a’standin, I dove headfirst over the green hedges and rolled on my side down the little hill seeing Jack on his back, laughing his fool head off. I started laughing too but I was annoyed at Jack havin’ set me up like that and forcin’ me to run and almost a’gettin’ me caught.”
“Jack Stone!” Master Whittemore’s voice boomed from the little red schoolhouse with the two chimneys. “I know it’s you! Better get in here!”
“Don’t say nothin’ and don’t move!” Jack whispered loudly.
We waited. Ten, twenty, thirty seconds.
“Jeremy! I know who it was who put you up to it so you get in here right now and own up else there’ll be hell to pay. I won’t beat you! I won’t tell your parents if you get in right now!
“Jeremy don’t you risk your whole education for that ne’re-do-well, that good-for-nothing Jack Stone! You want to graduate next year Jeremy, don’t you? If so, you’d better do the smart thing. Don’t let that fool Mr. Stone drag you down with him. He’s no friend of yours and his father’s a drunken bum and you’re going to end up just like him if you don’t listen to me. I am the master of this schoolhouse and I say come here now Jeremy! Get in here now! Jeremy! … Jeremy! I know you’re there hiding with that big coward! He’s so cowardly he’s afraid to show his face. Don’t you be like that stupid boy Jeremy. Do the right thing and I’ll forgive you. I’ll even make sure you get an A for all your subjects this week if you’ll show me now that you deserve it. Of course you’ll have to work hard but an A you’ll get, I assure you.”
“Say nothing!” said Jack.
“Jack Stone. You’re a stupid, lazy miscreant and you’ll be stupid all your life just like your mama-she can’t read and you won’t be able to do so either.”
I could see that Jack was mad and wanted to jump up and go and take a swing at master because he was a’grittin’ his teeth at the abuse master was a’sayin’ about his mom and pop so that the whole class could easily hear it.
“I think he saw us,” I said.
“Don’t budge!” Jack said. “He’s bluffin’. I saw everythin’ and he didn’t see neither of us.”
“Have it your way Jeremy,” said Master, and he slammed the door causing a tremendous bang.
Movin’ Up in the World
Inside the students were stealing looks out of the two long vertical rectangular windows facing onto Meetinghouse Street where the school was situated. They had their hands cupped near their heads and their noses on the glass a’tryin’ to see if they could spot the bad boy, Jack, the rebel who liked to call himself, “The midnight raider.” Secretly many of the boys wished they could be more like Jack.
“Mr. Brooks,” said the red-faced Master Whittemore, “you’ve done your work so well today that I’m going to give you a special task-one that I wouldn’t entrust to just any student and one that, if successfully accomplished, will earn you an A for the week in Civics studies. Who knows, with this kind of cooperation and devotion to duty I’m starting to see in you, you may even pass the fifth grade after all.”
♦♦♦ Brooksy and Other Bad Apples ♦♦♦
Twenty minutes before Jack rapped his knuckles on the big red wooden schoolhouse door, master had berated Brooksy for being an “imbecile” while grilling him in his math lesson-something about 500 marbles that Jack had something to do with. Brooksie was now wondering why master was treating like he was intelligent or somethin’. The look on his face was like he had just awoken and had no idea where he was.
Earlier – before Jack banged the door – Master had told Brooksie, “Mr. Brooks. Mr. Brooks! Sit up straight Mr. Brooks and sir, don’t make me tell you again or anyone else for that matter!” Master warned casting an icy glance at the other students.
“You think the purpose of education is to slouch in your chair all day?” said the master whose thirteen students were mostly about twelve years old but some were ten. And some of the young’uns were gettin’ better marks than the twelve-year-olds for the same material. This was an eternal aggravation to Master Whittemore.
The youngsters paid a lot of attention but some of the older children didn’t and were in fact a’settin’ bad examples. At least that was what Master Whittemore told us almost every day. And that the reason why he continually had bad kids each year was that the older kids set bad examples. They were rotting the rest of the apples in the barrel, he said. So his mission this year was that he was gonna stamp it out and get the bad apples out of the barrel. And Mike was a bad apple. And of course Jack, when he attended, was a bad apple. And me, I was in the middle. Master wasn’t ready to chuck me out yet.
And Jeremiah Brooks was a bad apple but one that master wanted to keep around cuz Jeremiah really didn’t know why he was a bad apple except that he was dumb, which master told him that he was at least once a week. I think master needed to have someone around who he could call dumb whenever he wanted and make cry if he wanted to so that he could put the fear of God into the rest of the class. At least that’s what Jack said. Jeremiah tried to do the work but he just couldn’t get it through his head. So he wasn’t a bad apple who misbehaved and snickered at the master behind his back and such, like Jack and Mike — he was a bad apple just because he was dumb. That’s what Jack said anyway and I guess I had seen it that way too, even without Jack’s assistance.
Jack disliked having Brooksy around except when he needed someone to pick on and tease in front of the other boys to make himself look bigger and smarter than he was. So he made sure Brooksy was around a lot. But everyone knew that Brooksy just went along. And he went along and didn’t seem to mind the teasin’ much. Jack called him a horse’s ass but Brooksy didn’t care-at least he never acted like he did. Brooksy wanted to be accepted, to be liked and approved of-that’s what was most important to him. His father always put him down because he was so dumb I guess, or because he acted that way. Sometimes, I thought that Brooksy just acted dumb because that’s how everyone wanted him to act so that he was just filling the role of the dumb kid. “Hey jackass, give me some cookies,” Jack would say, and Brooksy would give Jack all he wanted because, even though he was insulted in the process, he got a kind of approval in a way because he felt he was needed, and if he was needed, Brooksy must of felt that was approval enough. Some was better than none, I guess.
I told Jack on more than one occasion that he shouldn’t talk to Brooksy that way but he said he was so dumb he couldn’t be talked to any other way and that if it weren’t pointed out to him constantly he’d never learn nothing. I saw his point but really didn’t think his way with Brooksy was all that helpful.
INSERt DIAMONDS and Title in Word
A teaching method: The Nucklebreaker
As the class sat there on the day of Jack’s anticipated battle with Master Whittemore, most of them looking over at Brooksy to see if he’d cry or say something pathetic as master began interrogating him about his learning, the little ones were so afraid to move that they sat with their backs perfectly straight and their heads unnaturally high and their necks stretched out trying to show master they were doing as well as they could to comply with his orders.
“Now Mr. Brooks, may I assume Mr. Brooks you’re almost fifteen years right now?”
“Yes sir, in June.”
“Well then Mister, would I be right in assuming that, after eight years in this school that you now know, undoubtedly and incontestably, what the difference is between the fraction one-quarter and the fraction one-half? Would I be right in that modest assumption Mr. Brooks?” said Master Whittemore, tapping the thick wooden ruler we called the nucklebreaker in his long bony hand.
Jeremiah Brooks wondered whether he should say yes or no and, not understanding half of what master was saying, made a garbled guess that the affirmative would be the correct answer. “Yes,” Brooks added.
“Good!” said master. “Then tell me Mr. Brooks what is the difference?” (Illustration #4)
“The difference master?” Brooks said.
“The difference,” master said. “You are aware of the difference are you not?”
“Sir, the difference sir is one-quarter.”
“Really? And how did you did you come to such a knowledgeable conclusion sir?”
“Sir Jimmy Swanson gave me two quarters for 500 of my marbles the other day and he said it was half of a dollar.”
“And how much did you pay for those marbles, Mr. Brooks?”
“Why, I get’em for two pennies each,” Brooksy said.
“And how long did it take to collect 500 marbles mister?”
“Sir it took me not a long time at all. Jack Stone give them to me, except I bought some myself.”
“Jack Stone gave you some marbles? Seriously, he gave them to you? And what did you give Jack Stone in return Mister Brooks?”
“Sir I can’t tell you that cuz I’d be breakin a promise to Jack not to say nothin.”
“Really,” said Master. “Tell me Mister Brooks, do you want to pass the fifth grade this time? Remember what happened last year when you lied about something Mr. Stone did and suggested it was someone else?”
“Sir. No sir. I mean yes sir, I remember but I didn’t lie. I just didn’t tell you when you asked if Jack had thrown the cherry at your back while you was writing on the board.”
“Do you want to pass this year, Mr. Stone?” the master, getting red in the face and frustrated, said.
“Sir. I’m not Mr. Stone. I’m Mr. Brooks.” The whole class snickered.
“Shut your faces!” master said.
“And you Mr. Brooks, I’m getting a little tired of your antics. You owe me a detailed explanation of how you got your answer and now, Mr. Brooks, I want to know, what did you give to Mister Stone in return for the 500 marbles?”
“Sir,” Brooksy said in a barely audible voice, “I gave him my father’s canoe.”
“I see,” said master. “So it appears, class, that Mister Stone has made a rather slippery transaction and has once again shown his true colors having essentially stolen that poor boy’s father’s expensive canoe for which he traded this poor fool a handful of cheap marbles!
“And this is how you learn mathematics by believing what Jimmy Swanson told you, the same Jimmy Swanson who hasn’t gotten above a D in any of his subjects including the venerable subject of mathematics all year long?” Master asked as Jimmy turned red in the face while the entire class shifted their gaze to him as if on cue.
“Well sir, I also studied my mathematics sheet before school today and last night so I’d knowed the answers when you asked me so I knowed it both ways sir.”
“Very good Mr. Brooks. You are really quite impressive. Really I am truly beginning to see that you aren’t as stupid as I thought you were. Yes maybe you’ll amount to something yet.”(Illustration #5)
Brooksy blushed beat red in the face at that comment from master who had never said anything good about him in the past. Having master say he might amount to something was to Jeremiah the highest praise he could ever expect. He felt a rush of pride and he beamed a great smile as the class snickered.
“Thank you. Oh thank you sir,” Jeremiah finally blurted out in an uncharacteristic public comment ushered in by a surge of self-confidence, the like of which no-one had ever seen before on the face of Jeremiah Brooks.”
“Don’t thank me Mr. Brooks, t’was you who did the homework and it paid off handsomely. Your classmates have taken note of your erudition and you have won favor in their eyes and even in my eyes. Not a bad demonstration, Mr. Brooks, not a bad one at all. Applying yourself to your work is the most noble of all activity in God’s creation, except for the activities of prayer and churchgoing,” Master Whittemore pronounced.
“I hope that the others here have applied themselves with at least equal effort and determination. For the root of all evil, Mr. Brooks, is in idleness and laziness and in failing to apply thyself in accordance with God’s plan which is the noble activities of work and prayer. Don’t forget that sir.”
“No sir, I won’t. You really have taught me a great lesson today, master, one I’ll never forget. Sir, if you don’t mind me a’sayin, I think you’re the greatest teacher in the whole city of Charleston and probably in the whole state of South Carolina, and maybe even the whole country.”
“Why thank you Mr. Brooks,” said master, and don’t think that I haven’t paid notice to the intelligent nature of your logic-it astounds me to have discovered it only at this moment, I must say, but discover it I did. Now class, those of you who are working on fractions I want you to copy on your slates for homework the problems you see on the board. I will check to see who has done their duty and who has not.”
♦♦♦ The Tortoise, the Hare and Brooksy ♦♦♦
Twenty minutes later, master returned to the classroom red-faced having been outwitted by Jack. “Yes sir, Mr. Brooks, I am going to give you a special task-I’m starting to see that you have the potential to be a model student in our illustrious class of learners.”
The students kept looking toward the windows.
“Don’t pay any attention to what is outside the schoolhouse, boys and girls, and don’t get distracted by those who have no respect for education so I want you to concentrate on your fractions,” Whittemore said, tapping the nucklebreaker against his podium.
Addressing Brooksy, master said, “Yes, yes, Mr. Brooks, I don’t know why I hadn’t seen this possibility before. Yes sir, Mr. Brooks-and class, do take note of this little lesson-some flowers are big and bright and fine almost as soon as they are born and others, dear children, take some time. Mr. Brooks here, I believe I am now seeing for the first time, is of the latter category. He is what is known as a late bloomer. And a late bloomer, Mr. Brooks,” master said winking his eye and tipping his head in a strange manner, “can sometimes be a very bright and useful individual indeed.”
Just how long have you been in the fifth grade Mr. Brooks?”
Several students snickered, one of them, Johnny Jenkins, burst out laughing after trying to muffle his laughter with both hands.
“Hold both your hands out, Mr. Jenkins,” said Master who approached the boy.
Crying profusely now, the ten-year-old held out both hands, his head looking away as though he was afraid to witness what was coming. “Ow! Ow!” the boy said before Whittemore even rapped his knuckles once. (Illustration #6)
“Stop crying!” you little sissy, and take it like a young man,” said master.
He then whacked little Jimmy on the knuckles causing the boy to scream.
“No please, don’t! I’ll be good master.”
Some of the students tried not to look and were cowering but others were highly amused and waited impatiently for master to whack little Jimmy’s nuckles.
“One more crack out of you and it won’t be the nucklebreaker – it’ll be the board of education on the rump ten times for all to see.”
Mr. Whittemore went to the front of the room where Brooksy was still standing, his head down and his hands in his pockets. You could hear a pin drop.
“So Mr. Brooks, to continue with our little conversation sir we were having before being so rudely interrupted, once again how many times have you been in the fifth grade?”
“Um. This is my third time,” Brooksy said.
“Well Mr. Brooks we all know the story of the tortoise and the hare. Look at Jeremy and Jack, they started out as hares – lightning fast, oh yes, but slippery, slippery and deceitful, I say – but it’s highly questionable whether either of those miscreants will ever cross the finish line and I do hope someone here will inform them of my sentiments. As for you Mr. Brooks, you are looking more and more like the tortoise in Aesop’s wise fable. You have been persistent and you have plodded on ahead, always keeping your eye on the finish line even while you were kept back two times in two separate years in the fifth grade. And if I’m not mistaken you were kept back too in the first grade, am I mistaken Mr. Brooks?”
“No sir,” Jeremiah Brooks declared with pride.
“And so sir, three – not two times – but three times you were held at the discretion of your good teachers and still you plodded ahead, never to be defeated nor deterred, you knew that their advice was always of the highest caliber, and you listened to them so that now you are in the enviable position, Mr. Brooks, of being one of the few students in this classroom where we sit right now who is almost assured of passing the fifth grade. I do believe applause is in order girls and boys, ladies and gentlemen. All of the students, even Mike, who mercilessly picked on Brooksy, clapped their hands.
Jeremiah Brooks, who only this morning believed himself to be the dumbest kid in the school, now felt at the pinnacle of educational success. He looked at Jimmy with camaraderie, pride and gratitude for having bought his 500 marbles – which incidentally could be bought for one cent each – and in so doing gave Jeremiah the valuable arithmetic lesson that catapulted him to venerable esteem not only in the eyes of his classmates, but most of all, in the eyes of Master Whittemore – surely the best teacher on the planet for who else could have achieved so much in only one day. And Brooksy beamed again with pride as Master Whittemore said in front of the whole class, “Mr. Brooks, kindly come to my desk so that we can have a talk about your future. The rest of you copy the lines I have written on the board onto your slates concerning the question of why it may be necessary for South Carolina to take the lead and secede from the United States if necessary. The upper level students need write an essay as to why secession might be necessary and why we and Texas and all other states must stand firm against the vicious, northern abolitionists. Now Mr. Brooks, I’ll see you at my desk.”
“Yes sir, yes sir!” said Brooks, who sheepishly approached the master. Brooks couldn’t fathom why master was suddenly treating him so differently, with such respect like he was a proper student or something, just because he got one answer right, and he even half-guessed at that because he was never quite certain no matter who told him what, or what he read in a book, whether an answer was this way or that way. Master always had treated him with disdain and utter contempt as though he was a stupid dunce, incapable of learning anything, and in fact, just the other day master had said as much in front of the whole class. And even this morning Brooks believed that he was incapable of learning. So, he reasoned, master had seen that he was wrong about him all along – that he wasn’t a dunce but was actually capable of learning. And now that he had gotten so much approval he never wanted it to end so he promised himself to try to please master all of the time. That was surely the high road to success.
“Mr. Brooks, I think that you are making very important progress in your educational development and I do believe that you have made a turn today at a crucial juncture. But it’s important that you do not reverse this progress. I will be sending a letter of approval home to your mother and your father if he’s not too drunk to read it. He can read can’t he?”
“Oh yes sir but my mom can’t. He does all the reading, enough for both of them.”
“Fine then, I’ll address it to your father with instructions to let your mother know of your outstanding performance today. This has been long overdue, Mr. Brooks.”
“Thank you sir,” Brooks said, “I am trying so hard.”
“Well Mr. Brooks as part of your civics lesson today, I want you to do something for me that will more clearly and irrevocably demonstrate your social and civic character and convince me once and for all that I’m not uh, erring, uh, making a mistake in singling you out for meritorious distinction. Do you get my drift?”
“Um, yes sir. I do. I do. You want me to prove that I’m what you think I am, that I’m not a clown, or fool, or a dunce or a dummy, is that right master?”
“You are a perceptive boy. Don’t know why I never noticed before. Well Mr. Brooks, time is of the essence. Consider yourself like a soldier in the gallant army of Master Whittemore and that we’re about to make an assault on an intractable enemy who has scorned the pearls of knowledge that I have so diligently and honorably – God knows – cast upon the gentle waters that are the minds of my best students whose ranks of which you sir are now about to join.
“Know that you are being sent on a vital mission of the utmost importance and secrecy. The battle is now joined Mr. Brooks. The enemy is waiting outside this schoolhouse. He is out there and it is your duty Mr. Brooks to bring him to justice. Your mission is to go to the privy and tell no-one about this mission, then to lower yourself outside of the window – I hope you can still fit through it like you did last year mister when one Jack Stone tricked you into escaping from the same window so that you could retrieve his lunch. Can you still fit through Mister Brooks?”
Not knowing what to say because he had gained ten pounds at least since last year, and not wanting to disappoint master, Brooks said, “Yes, certainly I can sir, certainly.”
“Fine,” Mr. Brooks. “Then sir, you are to go to the south corner of the building, wait there and observe in the utmost secrecy -no-one is to see you – and look for the enemy who at present remains unseen. But out there he is – he will be watching, I assure you sir. But we will not let him get the upper hand, will we sir? No sir, we will not. Any questions Mr. Brooks?”
“Enemy sir?” said Brooks.
“Stone!,” said Master Whittemore. “Mr. Jack Stone you, you … you dear lad.”
“Even though we haven’t yet seen him, we do know who is out there, Mr. Brooks. Oh we know alright. But we need good hard evidence. That’s where you come in Mr. Brooks. That’s where your newfound intelligence will come into play, your acute powers of perception and observation. You’ll be my eyes, sir. While I am in here performing the duties of my illustrious calling, you’ll be my eyes and ears on the outside. And when he thinks he’s got safe ground to walk on, yes, when he thinks he’s outsmarted me at last, he will walk right into my cunning little trap, my little venus fly trap. And stick he will Mr. Brooks! He and his cohort, Jeremy Foster, will stick in that trap. But first I’ll let them get unalterably stuck by letting them lie about their activities today. They’ll deny rapping on my door and skipping school when I accuse them both in front of the whole class the next time they appear together – Monday I suspect as they’ll want to flaunt their supposed victory – and when those liars and good-for-nothings finally think they’ve won sure and good, that’s when I’ll spring the trap in front of my dedicated students, including present company Mr. Brooks, and produce you as my star witness, you Mr. Brooks who will tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God. You will say you saw both boys, Jeremy and Jack, pound the second time on my schoolhouse door. Your testimony, Mr. Brooks, will be incontrovertible and beyond question just like when you had so admirably acquitted yourself today during my fractions lesson. Yes the class knows of your sheer honesty in intellectual and other matters, Mr. Brooks, and so your word will be as good as gold, nay, better.
“So Mr. Brooks, without further commentary, go to the privy, squirrel your way out the window and leap to the ground, then go to the south corner of the building where you are to wait on your stomach with your head down but with your eyes looking, ever looking, across the roadway for the faces of Jack Stone and his fellow miscreant, Jeremy Foster, once a highly-trusted studious boy, a shining light like yourself who, alas, fell into the vilest den of darkest iniquities when he partook of the apple of evil offered by one Mr. Jack Stone.
“Remember mister, south corner. Keep out of sight. Stay there watching until I come out to get your report. Any questions?”
“The south corner sir?”
“Oh, of course. I should have taken obvious pains to clarify. When you get out the darn window and you’re facing away from the darn building, go to the darn corner on your darn right. You do know your left from your right don’t you Mr. Brooks?”
“Oh yes sir,” said Brooksy.
“Of course you do. Foolish of me for asking. That’s my boy, Mr. Brooks. That’s my boy. Now go. Remember: when you are looking directly away from the building, it’s the corner on your right. And don’t let anyone see you.”