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Essay

For the first day of school. . .

By August 27, 2021 2 Comments
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A few scrappy, three-foot cuttings, no bigger than buggy whips, are coming up from the front yards of a half-dozen houses that, together, may someday call itself a town. That’s it–the only trees for miles around. Mr. Taylor, a school board member who lives in the back of his own shop, sends his hired man around to take you to the Talbot’s sod house, about a mile out of town. You don’t know the Talbot’s.

It’s 1888, and you’d never been on a perfectly endless landscape like the one you’re on. It’s hot, very hot, but there’s a breeze–feel it?–the only thing keeping you from sweaty suffocation. 

This place is not home. You’ve just come out of Normal School in eastern Iowa, determined to be a teacher, determined to go west like so many others. Now that you’re here, you wonder if you simply lost your mind.

But the Talbots are kind. They take you in sweetly, Mrs. Talbot offering reassurance that there is some humanity here, some love, some comfort. 

The next morning after a remarkable breakfast, you take the hand of the little Talbot girl, then leave the sod house for the school, which is yet another soddie, twelve feet by fifteen feet–that’s it. But it’s the place where you’re going to be a teacher, a soddie so small it’s little bigger than mother’s summer porch.

Brush and weeds cover the ceiling so thinly you try not to look up because when you do it’s blue sky all over. You step back outside and look around at nothing but grass as far as the eye can see. You can’t help thinking no one else is coming to school because no one, nothing, is anywhere near. Where would the children come from?–you ask yourself.

In a half hour, you know you were wrong. 

Your name is Mrs. J. J. Douglas, and, years later, you’re remembering your first year of teaching, years as if in a dream, because it all seems so museum-like that the whole sod house story is almost embarrassing, and would be if remembering those times weren’t so greatly blessed.

“I found in that little, obscure school house some of the brightest and best boys and girls it was ever my good fortune to meet,” Mrs. Douglas says in a memoir she titled “Reminiscences of Custer County.” And then this: “There soon sprang up between us a bond of sympathy.”

Sympathy? How so?

“I sympathized with them in their almost total isolation from the world,” she says, as if each of the kids in that 12×15 foot schoolhouse were suffering. 

She may have assumed that, but somehow I doubt that they were.

And then this: “. . .and they sympathized with me in my loneliness and homelessness.”

I don’t think sympathy moved equally in both directions. I’m guessing the kids didn’t think they were suffering, but their barely-older-than-a-child teacher did.

Besides, the kids were sweethearts, and that’s what she remembers. They were singers, she writes, “so many sweet voices,” especially two little girls who seemed “remarkable,” she says, “for children of their age.” When you’re a first-year teacher, every kid is remarkable.

Mrs. Douglas’s reminiscence ends with a perfectly heavenly image. One bright day, having dismissed her scholars, she stood outside that sodhouse door and watched the kids walk out into the horizon by way of a path that led into a stretch of big blue stem so tall it hid the them completely. 

But what that grass didn’t hide was their beatific singing. “I could hear those sweet tones long after the children were out of sight in the tall grass,” that teacher says, a moment she claims she often recalls because “I shall never forget how charmingly that music seemed to me.” A blessing.

She doesn’t say it, but I will. I wonder whether those girls’ music wasn’t created just for their teacher, music of the spheres, for her “loneliness and homelessness,” music sung by the angels.

I think that’s how she remembers it.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

2 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This deserves a comment, for sweetness and light. Children singing is the most beautiful sound on earth.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Do we have any certain knowledge of the sound of birds on prairie grass? And do you know Meindert de Jong’s boek The Singing Hills?

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