Guest post by Karen
First Day of School, Laura wakes up in the unpleasant Brewster house instead of home, and plunges out of her couch bed into a cold morning. Mr. Brewster sets off to start a fire in the schoolhouse, which was nice for Laura as apparently that would have been her job in some schools. Maybe if she’d been a male teacher? (Teaching timeline: http://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/timeline.html and one-room schoolhouses:http://hoover.nara.gov/LIW/DeSmet/desmet_oneroomschool.html)
Another “delicious” meal of fried salt pork and potatoes for breakfast. (Wikipedia: Salt pork or white bacon is salt-cured pork. It is prepared from one of three primal cuts: pork side, pork belly, or fatback. Long used as a shipboard ration, salt pork now finds use in traditional American cuisine, particularly Boston baked beans, pork and beans, and to add its flavor to vegetables cooked in water, or with greens as in soul food.) Laura tries to make small talk with Mrs. Brewster and be helpful, but the woman is just unhappy and unfriendly. Clinical depression? Seasonal affective disorder? Living a hard life of isolation on the prairie when she wants to return home (as we learn later); I pity both her and her husband and neglected child.
Caught between the rock and hard place of the unpleasant Brewster home and the frightening prospect of teaching school, Laura soldiers ahead and arrives at the drafty, small one-room schoolhouse. Five students, three of whom are older than Laura, face her at her teachers’ table. She takes their names and ages once the clock strikes nine. They have meager resources, just some shared books and a chalkboard at the front of the room. Once they get through the logistics of who is at what place in their studies, it’s time for a fifteen-minute recess. The “kids” go out to “play in the snow” while Laura uses the time to plan the rest of the day.
The students take turns reading aloud until it’s time for the hour-long noon lunch break. (My modern, efficient side wonders why they didn’t use just half an hour for lunch to get finished with the day earlier, but in thinking about it the children probably enjoyed this rare opportunity to socialize with each other.) Laura eats her lunch of bread and butter alone while the students talk and eat and the boys run races outside.
The fire is fueled by coal here on the largely woodless prairie, and more needs to be added after lunch. We get the sense that Clarence is quick-witted and impish while Charles is a bit slow and Martha, his sister, is sweet-tempered and quicker on the uptake. In an era of physical punishment, Laura wonders how she will discipline Clarence if it needs to happen, since he is a “chunky, husky boy, bigger than she was, and older.”
Even with just five students, Laura has them come to the front to recite, just as in the town school. She has to punish the two older boys for not knowing their lessons well, and sends them to the board to write the words they missed. Clarence says the board’s too small, but Laura sweetly tells him to erase his words and write smaller.
The day ends at four o’clock. They bundle up for their 1/2 or 1 mile walks home. Laura worries that she won’t see a blizzard coming given the school’s layout, but finishes her tidying up and heads to the Brewsters’. “Her first day as a teacher was over. She was thankful for that.”