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- BACK HOME - 5/31 -


"Not good Rum, either," says the publican.

Fight it out. It's an even thing between the two of you; Literature and Liquor, Books and Booze, which can take a man's mind off his business most effectually.

Still, merely as a matter of taste, I will defend the quality of McGuffey's School Readers against all comers. I don't know who McGuffey was; but certainly he formed the greatest intellects of our age, present company not excepted. The true test of literature is its eternal modernity. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. It always seems of the age in which it is read. Now, almost the earliest lection in McGuffey's First Reader goes directly to the heart of one of the greatest of modern problems. It does not palter or beat about the bush. It asks right out, plump and plain: "Ann, how old are you?"

Year by year, until we reached the dizzy height of the Sixth Reader, were presented to us samples of the best English ever written. If you can find, up in the garret, a worn and frayed old Reader, take it down and turn its pages over. See if anything in these degenerate days compares in vital strength and beauty with the story of the boy that climbed the Natural Bridge, carving his steps in the soft limestone with his pocket knife. You cannot read it without a thrill. The same inspired hand wrote "The Blind Preacher," and who that ever can read it can forget the climax reached in that sublime line: "Socrates died like a philosopher, but Jesus Christ like a god!"

Not long ago I walked among the graves in that spot opposite where Wall Street slants away from Broadway, and my feet trod on ground worth, in the market, more than the twenty-dollar gold pieces that would cover it. My eye lighted upon a flaking brownstone slab, that told me Captain Michael Cresap rested there. Captain Michael Cresap! The intervening years all fled away before me, and once again my boyish heart thrilled with that incomparable oration in McGuffey's Reader, "Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one." Captain Cresap was the man that led the massacre of Logan's family.

And there was more than good literature in those Readers. There was one piece that told about a little boy alone upon a country road at night. The black trees groaned and waved their skinny arms at him. The wind-torn clouds fitfully let a pale and watery moonlight stream a little through. It was very lonely. Over his shoulder the boy saw indistinct shapes that followed after, and hid themselves whenever he looked squarely at them. Then, suddenly, he saw before him in the gloom, a gaunt white specter waiting for him - waiting to get him, its arms spread wide out in menace. He was of our breed, though, this boy. He did not turn and run. With God knows what terror knocking at his ribs, he trudged ahead to meet his fate, and lo! the grisly specter proved to be a friendly guide-post to show the way that he should walk in. Brother (for you are my kin that went with me to public school, in the life that you have lived since you first read the story of Harry and the Guide-post, has it been an idle tale, or have you, too, found that what we dreaded most, what seemed to us so terrible in the future has, after all, been a friendly guide-post, showing us the way that we should walk in?

McGuffey had a Speller, too. It began with simple words in common use, like a-b ab, and e-b eb, and i-b, ib, proceeding by gradual, if not by easy stages to honorificatudinibility and disproportionableness, with a department at the back devoted to twisters like phthisic, and mullein-stalk, and diphtheria, and gneiss. We used to have a fine old sport on Friday afternoons, called "choose-up-and-spell-down." I don't know if you ever played it. It was a survival, pure and simple, from the Old Red School-house. There was where it really lived. There was where it flourished as a gladiatorial spectacle. The crack spellers of District Number 34 would challenge the crack spellers of the Sinking Spring School. The whole countryside came to the school-house in wagons at early candle-lighting time, and watched them fight it out. The interest grew as the contest narrowed down, until at last there were the two captains left - big John Rice for District Number 34, and that wiry, nervous, black-haired girl of 'Lias Hoover's, Polly Ann. She married a man by the name of Brubaker. I guess you didn't know him. His folks moved here from Clarke County. Polly Ann's eyes glittered like a snake's, and she kept putting her knuckles up to the red spots in her cheeks that burned like fire. Old John, he didn't seem to care a cent. And what do you think Polly Ann missed on? "Feoffment." A simple little word like "feoffment!" She hadn't got further than pheph -- " when she knew that she was wrong, but Teacher had said "Next!" and big John took it and spelled it right. She had a fit of nervous crying, and some were for giving her the victory, after all, because she was a lady. But big John said: "She missed, didn't she? Well. And I spelled it right, didn't I? Well. She took her chances same as the rest of us. 'Taint me you got to consider, it's District Number 34. And furthermore. AND FURTHERMORE. Next time somebuddy asts her to go home with him from singin'-school, mebby she won't snigger right in his face, and say 'No! 's' loud 'at everybuddy kin hear it."

It's quite a thing to be a good speller, but there are people who can spell any word that ever was, and yet if you should ask them right quick how much is seven times eight, they'd hem and haw and say: "Seven tums eight? Why - ah, lemme see now. Seven tums - what was it you said? Oh, seven tums eight. Why - ah, seven tums eight is sixty-three - fifty-six I mean." There's nothing really to spelling. It's just an idiosyncrasy. If there was really anything useful in it, you could do it by machinery -just the same as you can add by machinery, or write with a typewriter, or play the piano with one of these things with cut paper in it. Spelling is an old-fashioned, hand-powered process, and as such doomed to disappear with the march of improvement.

One Friday afternoon we chose up and spelled down, and the next Friday afternoon we spoke pieces. Doubtless this accounts for our being a nation of orators. I am far from implying or seeming to imply that this is anything to brag of. Anybody that can be influenced by a man with a big mouth, a loud voice, and a rush of words to the face - well, I've got my opinion of all such.

Oratory and poetry - all foolishness, I say. Better far are drawing-lessons, and raffia-work, and clay-modeling than: "I come not here to talk," and "A soldier of the Legion lay dying at Algiers," and "Old Ironsides at anchor lay." (I observe that these lines are more or less familiar to you, and that you are eager to add selections to the list, all of them known to me as well as you.) That children, especially boys, loathe to speak a piece is a fact profoundly significant. They know it is nothing in the world but foolishness; and if there is one thing above another that a child hates, it is to be made a fool in public. That's what makes them work their fingers so, and gulp, and stammer, and tremble at the knees. That is what sends them to their seats, after all is over, mad as hornets. This is something that I know about. It happened that, instead of getting funny pieces to recite as I wanted to, discerning that one silly turn deserves another, my parents, well-meaning in their way, taught me solemn things about: "O man immortal, live for something!" and all such, and I had to humiliate myself by disgorging them in public. The consequence was, that not only on Friday afternoons but whenever anybody came to visit the school, I was butchered to make a Roman holiday. Teacher was so proud of me, and the visitors let on that they were tickled half to death, but I knew better. I could see the other scholars look at one another, as much as to say: "Well, if you'll tell me why!" Even in my shame and anger I could see that. But there is one happy memory of a Friday afternoon. Determined to show my friends and fellow-citizens that I, too, was born in Arcadia, and was a living, human boy, I announced to Teacher: "I got another piece."

"Oh, have you?" cried she, sure of an extra O-man-immortal intellectual treat. "Let us hear it, by all means."

Whereupon I marched up to the platform and declaimed that deathless lyric:

"When I was a boy, I was a bold one. My mammy made me a new shirt out o' dad's old one."

All of it? Certainly. Isn't that enough? That was the only distinctly popular platform effort I ever made. I am proud of it now. I was proud of it then. But the news of my triumph was coldly received at home.

I don't know whether it has since gone out of date, but in my day and time a very telling feature of school exhibitions was reading in concert. The room was packed as full of everybody's ma as it could be, and yet not mash the children out of shape, and a whole lot of young ones would read a piece together. Fine? Finest thing you ever heard. I remember one time teacher must have calculated a leetle mite too close, or else one girl more was in the class than she had reckoned on; but on the day, the two end girls just managed to stand upon the platform and that was all. They recited together:

"There was a sound of revelry by night And Belgium's capital . . . . "

I forget the rest of it. Well, anyhow, they were supposed to make gestures all together. Teacher had rehearsed the gestures, and they all did it simultaneously, just as if they had been wound up with a spring. But, as I said, the two end girls had all they could do to keep on the platform, and it takes elbow room for: "'T is but the car rattling over the stony street," and one girl - well, she said she stepped off on purpose, but I didn't believe her then and I don't now. We had our laugh about it, whichever way it was.

We had our laugh . . . . Ah, life was all laughter then. That was before care came to be the shadow at our heel. That was before black Sorrow met us in the way, and would not let us pass unless we gave to her our dearest treasure. That was before we learned that what we covet most is, when we get it, but a poor thing after all, that whatsoever chalice Fortune presses to our lips, a tear is in the bottom of the cup. In those happy days gone by if the rain fell, 't was only for a little while, and presently the sky was bright again, and the birds whistled merrily among the wet and shining leaves. Now "the clouds return after the rain."

It can never be with us again as once it was. For us the bell upon the Old Red School-house calls in vain. We heed it not, we that hearkened for it years ago. The living tide of youth flows toward the school-house, and we are not of it. Never again shall we sit at those old desks, whittled and carved with rude initials, and snap our fingers, eager to tell the answer. Never again shall we experience the thrill of pride when teacher praised us openly. Never again shall we sit trembling while the principal, reads the note, and then scowls at us fiercely with: "Take off your coat, sir!" Ah, me! Never again, never again.

Well, who wants it to be that way again? We're men and women now.


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