"Chapter 5: What Grade is Betsy?" by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1958)
AFTER the singing the teacher gave Elizabeth Ann a pile of schoolbooks, some paper, some pencils, and a pen, and told her to set her desk in order. There were more initials carved inside, another big H. P. with a little A. P. under it. What a lot of children must have sat there, thought the little girl as she arranged her books and papers. As she shut down the lid the teacher finished giving some instructions to three or four little ones and said, "Betsy and Ralph and Ellen, bring your reading books up here."
Betsy sighed, took out her third-grade reader, and went with the other two up to the battered old bench near the teacher's desk. She knew all about reading lessons and she hated them, although she loved to read. But reading lessons . . . ! You sat with your book open at [Page 90] some reading that you could do with your eyes shut, it was so easy, and you waited and waited and waited while your classmates slowly stumbled along, reading aloud a sentence or two apiece, until your turn came to stand up and read your sentence or two, which by that time sounded just like nonsense because you'd read it over and over so many times to yourself before your chance came. And often you didn't even have a chance to do that, because the teacher didn't have time to get around to you at all, and you closed your book and put it back in your desk without having opened your mouth. Reading was one thing Elizabeth Ann had learned to do very well indeed, but she had learned it all by herself at home from much reading to herself. Aunt Frances had kept her well supplied with children's books from the nearest public library. She often read three a week–very different, that, from a sentence or two once or twice a week.
When she sat down on the battered old bench she almost laughed aloud, it seemed so funny [Page 91] to be in a class of only three. There had been forty in her grade in the big brick building. She sat in the middle, the little girl whom the teacher had called Ellen on one side, and Ralph on the other. Ellen was very pretty, with fair hair smoothly braided in two little pig-tails, sweet, blue eyes, and a clean blue-and-white gingham dress. Ralph had very black eyes, dark hair, a big bruise on his forehead, a cut on his chin, and a tear in the knee of his short trousers. He was much bigger than Ellen, and Elizabeth Ann thought he looked rather fierce. She decided that she would be afraid of him, and would not like him at all.
"Page thirty-two," said the teacher. "Ralph first."
Ralph stood up and began to read. It sounded very familiar to Elizabeth Ann, for he did not read at all well. What was not familiar was that the teacher did not stop him after the first sentence. He read on and on till he had read a page, the teacher only helping him with the hardest words. [Page 92]
"Now Betsy," said the teacher.
Elizabeth Ann stood up, read the first sentence, and paused, like a caged lion pausing when he comes to the end of his cage.
"Go on," said the teacher.
Elizabeth Ann read the next sentence and stopped again, automatically.
"Go on," said the teacher, looking at her sharply.
The next time the little girl paused the teacher laughed out good-naturedly. "What is the matter with you, Betsy?" she said. "Go on till I tell you to stop."
So Elizabeth Ann, very much surprised but very much interested, read on, sentence after sentence, till she forgot they were sentences and just thought of what they meant. She read a whole page and then another page, and that was the end of the selection. She had never read aloud so much in her life. She was aware that everybody in the room had stopped working to listen to her. She felt proud and less afraid than she had ever thought she [Page 93] could be in a schoolroom. When she finished, "You read very well!" said the teacher. "Is this book very easy for you?"
"Oh, yes! " said Elizabeth Ann.
"I guess, then, that you'd better not stay in this class," said the teacher. She took a book out of her desk. "See if you can read that."
Elizabeth Ann began in her usual school-reading style, very slow and monotonous, but this didn't seem like a "reader" at all. It was poetry, full of hard words that were fun to try to pronounce, and it was all about an old woman who would hang out an American flag, even though the town was full of rebel soldiers. She read faster and faster, getting more and more excited, till she broke out with "Halt!" in such a loud, spirited voice that the sound of it startled her and made her stop, fearing that she would be laughed at. But nobody laughed. They were all listening, very eagerly, even the little ones, with their eyes turned toward her.
"You might as well go on and let us see how [Page 94] it came out," said the teacher, and Betsy finished triumphantly.
"Well," said the teacher, "there's no sense in your reading along in the third reader. After this you'll recite out of the seventh reader with Frank and Harry and Stashie."
Elizabeth Ann could not believe her ears. To be "jumped" four grades in that casual way! It wasn't possible! She at once thought, however, of something that would prevent it entirely, and while Ellen was reading her page in a slow, careful little voice, Elizabeth Ann was feeling miserably that she must explain to the teacher why she couldn't read with the seventh-grade children. Oh, how she wished she could! When they stood up to go back to their seats she hesitated, hung her head, and looked very unhappy. "Did you want to say something to me?" asked the teacher, pausing with a bit of chalk in her hand.
The little girl went up to her desk and said, what she knew it was her duty to confess: "I [Page 95] can't be allowed to read in the seventh reader. I don't write a bit well, and I never get the mental number-work right. I couldn't do anything with seventh-grade arithmetic!"
The teacher looked a little blank and said: "I didn't say anything about your number-work! I don't know anything about it! You haven't recited yet." She turned away and began to write a list of words on the board. "Betsy, Ralph, and Ellen study their spelling," she said. "You little ones come up for your reading."
Two little boys and two little girls came forward as Elizabeth Ann began to con over the words on the board. At first she found she was listening to the little, chirping voices, as the children struggled with their reading, instead of studying "doubt," "travel," "cheese," and the other words in her lesson. But she put her hands over her ears, and her mind on her spelling. She wanted to make a good impression with that lesson. After a while, when she was sure she could spell them all correctly, she be- [Page 96] gan to listen and look around her. She always "got" her spelling in less time than was allowed the class, and usually sat idle, looking out of the window until that study period was over. But now the moment she stopped staring at the board and moving her lips as she spelled to herself the teacher said, just as though she had been watching her every minute instead of conducting a class, "Betsy, have you learned your spelling?"
"Yes, ma'am, I think so," said Elizabeth Ann, wondering very much why she was asked.
"That's fine," said the teacher. "I wish you'd take little Molly over in that corner and help her with her reading. She's getting on so much better than the rest of the class that I hate to have her lose her time. Just hear her read the rest of her little story, will you, and don't help her unless she's really stuck."
Elizabeth Ann was startled by this request, which was unheard-of in her experience. She was very uncertain of herself as she sat down on a low chair in the corner of the schoolroom [Page 97] away from the desks, with the little child leaning on her knee. And yet she was not exactly afraid, either, because Molly was such a shy little roly-poly thing, with her crop of yellow curls, and her bright blue eyes very serious as she looked hard at the book and began: "Once there was a rat. It was a fat rat." No, it was impossible to be frightened of such a funny little girl, who peered so earnestly into the older child's face to make sure she was doing her lesson right.
Elizabeth Ann had never had anything to do with children younger than herself, and she felt very pleased and important to have anybody look up to her! She put her arm around Molly's square, warm, fat little body and gave her a squeeze. Molly snuggled up closer, and the two children put their heads together over the printed page, Elizabeth Ann correcting Molly very gently indeed when she made a mistake, and waiting patiently when she hesitated. She had so fresh in her mind her own suffering from quick, nervous corrections that [Page 98] she took the greatest pleasure in speaking quietly and not interrupting the little girl more than was necessary. It was fun to teach, lots of fun! She was surprised when the teacher said, "Well, Betsy, how did Molly do?"
"Oh, is the time up?" said Elizabeth Ann. "Why, she does beautifully, I think, for such a little thing."
"Do you suppose," said the teacher thoughtfully, just as though Betsy were a grown-up person, "do you suppose she could go into the second reader, with Eliza? There's no use keeping her in the first if she's ready to go on."
Elizabeth Ann's head whirled with this second light-handed juggling with the sacred distinction between the grades. In the big brick schoolhouse nobody ever went into another grade except at the beginning of a new year, after you'd passed a lot of examinations. She had not known that anybody could do anything else. The idea that everybody took a year to a grade, no matter what! was so fixed in her [Page 99] mind that she felt as though the teacher had said: "How would you like to stop being nine years old and be twelve instead? And don't you think Molly would better be eight instead of six?"
However, just then her class in arithmetic was called, so that she had no more time to be puzzled. She came forward with Ralph and Ellen again, very low in her mind. She hated arithmetic with all her might, and she really didn't understand a thing about it! By long experience she had learned to read her teachers' faces very accurately, and she guessed by their expression whether the answer she gave was the right one. And that was the only way she could tell. You never heard of any other child who did that, did you?
They had mental arithmetic, of course (Elizabeth Ann thought it just her luck!), and of course it was those hateful eights and sevens, and of course right away poor Betsy got the one she hated most, 7 x 8. She never knew that one! She said dispiritedly that it was 54, re- [Page 100] membering vaguely that it was somewhere in the fifties. Ralph burst out scornfully, "56!" and the teacher, as if she wanted to take him down for showing off, pounced on him with 9 x 8. He answered, without drawing breath, 72. Elizabeth shuddered at his accuracy. Ellen, too, rose to the occasion when she got 6 x 7, which Elizabeth Ann could sometimes remember and sometimes not. And then, oh horrors! It was her turn again! Her turn had never before come more than twice during a mental arithmetic lesson. She was so startled by the swiftness with which the question went around that she balked on 6 x 6, which she knew perfectly. And before she could recover Ralph had answered and had rattled out a 108 in answer to 9 x 12; and then Ellen slapped down an 84 on top of 7 x 12. Good gracious! Who could have guessed, from the way they read, they could do their tables like this! She herself missed on 7 x 7 and was ready to cry . After this the teacher didn't call on her at all, but showered questions down on the other two, [Page 101] who sent the answers back with sickening speed.
After the lesson the teacher said, smiling, "Well, Betsy, you were right about your arithmetic. I guess you'd better recite with Eliza for a while. She's doing second-grade work. I shouldn't be surprised if, after a good review with her, you'd be able to go on with the third-grade work."
Elizabeth Ann fell back on the bench with her mouth open. She felt really dizzy. What crazy things the teacher said! She felt as though she was being pulled limb from limb.
"What's the matter?" asked the teacher, seeing her bewildered face.
"Why–why," said Elizabeth Ann, "I don't know what I am at all. If I'm second-grade arithmetic and seventh-grade reading and third grade spelling, what grade am I?"
The teacher laughed at the turn of her phrase. "You aren't any grade at all, no matter where you are in school. You're just yourself, aren't you? What difference does it [Page 102] make what grade you're in? And what's the use of your reading little baby things too easy for you just because you don't know your multiplication table?"
"Well for goodness' sakes! " ejaculated Elizabeth Ann, feeling very much as though somebody had stood her suddenly on her head.
"Why, what's the matter?" asked the teacher again.
This time Elizabeth Ann didn't answer, because she herself didn't know what the matter was. But I do, and I'll tell you. The matter was that never before had she known what she was doing in school. She had always thought she was there to pass from one grade to another, and she was ever so startled to get a little glimpse of the fact that she was there to learn how to read and write and cipher and generally use her mind, so she could take care of herself when she came to be grown up. Of course, she didn't really know that till she did come to be grown up, but in that moment, she had her first dim notion of it, and it made her [Page 103] feel the way you do when you're learning to skate and somebody pulls away the chair you've been leaning on and says, "Now, go it alone!"
The teacher waited a minute, and then, when Elizabeth Ann didn't say anything more, she rang a little bell. "Recess time," she said, and as the children marched out and began putting on their wraps she followed them into the cloak-room, pulled on a warm, red cap and a red sweater, and ran outdoors herself. "Who's on my side!" she called, and the children came darting out after her. Elizabeth Ann had dreaded the first recess time with the strange children, but she had no time to feel shy, for in a twinkling she was on one end of along rope with a lot of her schoolmates, pulling with all her might against the teacher and two of the big boys. Nobody had looked at her curiously, nobody had said anything to her beyond a loud, "Come on, Betsy!" from Ralph, who was at the head on their side.
They pulled and they pulled, digging their [Page 104] feet into the ground and bracing themselves against the rocks which stuck up out of the playground. Sometimes the teacher's side yanked them along by quick jerks, and then they'd all set their feet hard when Ralph shouted out, "Now, all together!" and they'd slowly drag the other side back. And all the time everybody was shouting and yelling together with the excitement. Betsy was screaming too, and when a wagon passing by stopped and a big, broad-shouldered farmer jumped down laughing, put the end of the rope over his shoulder, and just walked off with the whole lot of them till he had pulled them clear off their feet, Elizabeth Ann found herself rolling over and over with a breathless, squirming mass of children, her laughter rising even above the shouts of merriment of the others. She laughed so she could hardly get up on her feet again, it was such an unexpected ending to the contest.
The big farmer was laughing too. "You ain't so smart as you think you are, are you!" [Page 105] he jeered at them good-naturedly. Then he started, yelling "WHOA there!" to his horses, which had begun to walk on. He had to run after them with all his might, and just climbed into the back of the wagon and grabbed the reins the very moment they broke into a trot. The children laughed, and Ralph shouted after him, "Hi there, Uncle Nate! Who's not so smart as he thinks he is, now! " He turned to the little girls near him. "They 'most got away from him that time!" he said. "He's awful foolish about leaving them standing while he's funning or something. He thinks he's awful funny, anyhow. Some day they'll run away on him and then where'll he be?"
Elizabeth Ann was thinking to herself that this was one of the queerest things that had happened to her even in this queer place. Never, why never once, had any grown-up, passing the playground of the big brick building, dreamed of such a thing as stopping for a minute to play. They never even looked at the children, any more than if they were in another [Page 106] world. In fact she had felt the school was in another world.
"Ralph, it's your turn to get the water," said the teacher, handing him a pail. "Want to go along?" said Ralph gruffly to Ellen and Betsy. He led the way and the little girls walked after him. Now that she was out of a crowd Elizabeth Ann felt all her shyness come down on her like a black cloud, drying up her mouth and turning her hands and feet cold as ice. Into one of these cold hands she felt small, warm fingers slide. She looked down and there was little Molly trotting by her side, turning her blue eyes up trustfully. "Teacher says I can go with you if you'll take care of me," she said. "She never lets us first-graders go without somebody bigger to help us over the log."
As she spoke they came to a small, clear, swift brook, crossed by a big white-birch log. Elizabeth Ann was horribly afraid to set foot on it, but with little Molly's hand holding tightly to hers she was ashamed to say she was [Page 107] afraid. Ralph skipped across, swinging the pail to show how easy it was for him. Ellen followed more slowly, and then–oh, don't you wish Aunt Frances could have been there!–Betsy shut her teeth together hard, put Molly ahead of her, took her hand, and started across. As a matter of fact Molly went along as sure-footed as a little goat, having done it a hundred times, and it was she who steadied Elizabeth Ann. But nobody knew this, Molly least of all.
Ralph took a drink out of a tin cup standing on a stump near by, dipped the pail into a deep, clear pool, and started back to the school. Ellen took a drink and offered the cup to Betsy, very shyly, without looking up. After they had all three had a drink they stood there for a moment, much embarrassed. Then Ellen said, in a very small voice, "Do you like dolls with yellow hair the best?"
Now it happened that Elizabeth Ann had very positive convictions on this point which she had never spoken of, because Aunt Fran- [Page 108] ces didn't really care about dolls. She only pretended to, to be company for her little niece.
"No, I don't! " answered the little girl emphatically. "I get just sick and tired of always seeing them with that old, bright-yellow hair! I like them to have brown hair, just the way most little girls really do!"
Ellen lifted her eyes and smiled radiantly. "Oh, so do I!" she said. "And that lovely old doll your folks have has got brown hair. Will you let me play with her some time?"
"My folks?" said Elizabeth Ann blankly.
"Why yes, your Aunt Abigail and your Uncle Henry."
"Have they got a doll? " said Betsy, thinking this was the very climax of Putney queerness.
"Oh, my, yes!" said Molly eagerly. "She's the one Mrs. Putney had when she was a little girl. And she's got the loveliest clothes! She's in the hair trunk under the eaves in the attic. They let me take her down once when I was
Betsy shut her teeth together hard, and started across.
[Page 109] there with Mother. And Mother said she guessed, now a little girl had come there to live, they'd let her have her down all the time. I'll bring mine over next Saturday, if you want me to. Mine's got yellow hair, but she's real pretty anyhow. If Father's going to mill that day, he can leave me there for the morning."
Elizabeth Ann had not understood more than one word in five of this, but just then the school-bell rang and they went back, little Molly helping Elizabeth Ann over the log and thinking she was being helped, as before.
They ran along to the little building, and there I'm going to leave them, because I think I've told enough about their school for one while. It was only a poor, rough, little district school anyway, that no Superintendent of Schools would have looked at for a minute, except to sniff.
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