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1 THE BATTLE IS JOINED
Crawling up alongside the red wooden façade of the school house, Jack and I peeked through the windows and scanned the room. There was Mike sitting 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. Next, he’ll be licking Whittemore’s boots – 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, saying, “Run son if you knows what’s good for ya!”
2 A DISRUPTED LESSON
I ran as fast as I could, not wishing for master to catch me skipping school and knocking on his door like I was coming to visit, which I couldn’t do now anyway because Jack whacked the door so loud as to be heard unmistakably as a rude intrusion into master’s lesson and so I had no choice – I scampered away like a cat escaping from a bulldog.
Estimating that I had only a second or two before master spotted me from the school house doorway where he would soon be standing, I dove head first 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 with Jack for setting me up like that and having forced me to run and almost getting me caught.
“Jack Stone!” Master Whittemore’s voice boomed from the doorway of the little brick school house with the two crooked 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 or else there’ll be hell to pay! I won’t beat you! I won’t tell your parents if you get in right now!”
One full minute elapsed.
“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 school house 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 nothin’!” 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 take a swing at master because he was gritting his teeth as master was showering him with abuse probably hoping Jack would jump up and reveal himself. The whole class could easily hear what master was shouting.
“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.
3 MOVIN’ UP IN THE WORLD
Inside the school house, students were stealing looks out of the two long vertical rectangular windows facing onto Meetinghouse Road next to where the school was situated. They had their hands cupped on the sides of their heads and their noses pressed against the glass trying 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.”
4 BROOKSY AND OTHER BAD APPLES
Ten minutes earlier, master had berated Brooksy for being an “imbecile” before grilling him in his math lesson – something about 500 marbles that Jack had something to do with.
“Mr. Brook! Mr. Brooks! Sit up straight Mr. Brooks and sir, don’t make me tell you again or anyone else for that matter!” Master snapped, casting an icy glance at the other students.
“You think the purpose of education is to slouch in your chair all day?” said Master Whittemore, whose thirteen students were mostly between twelve and fourteen years old but some were ten. Brooksy, however, was 16. And some of the younger ones were getting better grades than the older ones for the same material. This was an eternal aggravation to the master.
The youngsters paid a lot of attention but some of the older children didn’t and were in fact setting 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 going to 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.
Given the contempt that most of his students had back then in 1860 for Master Whittemore, it amazes me now – one year after the War Between the States – that I, Jeremy Foser, became a teacher after leaving the Army.
And Jeremiah Brooks was a bad apple but one that master wanted to keep because Jeremiah really didn’t know why he was a bad apple except that he thought 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 intimidate 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, he was a bad apple just because Master Whittemore believed 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. He didn’t seem to mind the teasing 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. Getting approval was what was most important to him. 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 have felt that was approval enough. Some was better than none, I guess. I told Jack 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 anything. I didn’t think his way with Brooksy was all that helpful.
The amused students sat there waiting for Jack and me to disrupt master’s lesson again. They had their eyes glued on Brooksy to see if he would cry or say something pathetic as master began interrogating him about his learning. Mike would kick Jimmy – seated next to him at a wooden desk that had all kinds of student engravings cut into it – whenever master turned his back. Jimmy would do the same to Mike.
The little ones usually were so afraid to move that they would sit with their backs perfectly straight, heads unnaturally high and their necks stretched out just to show master they were trying hard to comply with his orders.
Now, however, Jack had given them cause to wonder what was going to happen next and when it would happen. They waited for the “bad boy” to make his next move and were in a state of quiet excitement.
“Now Mr. Brooks, may I assume Mr. Brooks that you’re sixteen years old right now?”
“No sir, in June. I’ll be 16 in June.”
“Well then mister, would I be right in assuming that, after several 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 knuckle breaker 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?”
“The difference master?” Brooks said.
“The difference,” master said. “You are aware of the difference are you not?”
“Oh yes sir, Mr. Whittemore, sir!”
“Well then, what in tarnation is it?”
“What in tarnation is what sir?”
“What is the difference between the fraction one-half and one-quarter sir?”
“The difference, sir, is, ah, um, 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 gave 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.” Several students chuckled.
“Do you want to pass this year, Mr. Stone?” the master – his face reddening and looking like he was about to explode – said angrily.
“But Master Whittemore sir, I’m not Mr. Stone. I’m Mr. Brooks.”
The whole class snickered.
“Shut your faces!” master said.
“Mr. Brooks, I’m getting tired of your antics! You owe me a detailed explanation of how you got your answer so tell me what did you give to Mister Stone in return for the 500 marbles?”
“Sir,” Brooksy said in a barely audible voice, his head lowered, “I gave him my father’s canoe.”
“Your father’s canoe! You gave Mister Stone your daddy’s canoe? And I am sure that your poor old daddy knew nothing of this swindle,” said Whittemore. “Oh I do see!” said master. “So it appears, class, that Mister Stone has made a rather slippery transaction here and has once again shown his true colors, having essentially stolen that poor boy’s daddy’s expensive canoe for which he traded this poor fool a handful of cheap marbles!
“Is that how you learn mathematics by believing what Jimmy Swanson tells 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 Brooksy 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.”
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.”