And Never Let Us Cry series begins
April 14, 2006
By William Christy
A series of stories sliced from life during the thirties in the central and Sandhill areasof Nebraska
The Ain’t Box
Part 1 of 5
Miss Knickerson had taken normal training in high school and had spent eight weeks going to college one summer. So, the school board felt fortunate when she returned to teach at Sandy Corner for the third year. Of course thirty-seven dollars a month was quite a bit to pay someone for teaching in a school with only thirteen pupils. The railroad, however, owned land in the district and with the property tax clear up to four mills, the district could well afford the best. The best being, it appeared to I.I. Mintle, President of the School Board, Miss Knickerson. I.I. had summed it up rather nicely when the other two members met with him to hire a teacher: “She looks good, she smells good, and she writes good.” There were no dissenting votes.
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Students weren’t required to take tablets or pencils to school. The school furnished everything. Mart’s mother bought him a pencil box anyway, and his father got him a big black dinner pail with a thermos bottle inside. Mart felt he was ready.
Then, his mother and father frightened him by explaining the rather complicated procedure one must go through in order to go to the toilet. “Put your hand out like this,” said Father, “and when the teacher says your name, you say, “May I leave the room?”
“Remember,” said Mother, “there are two toilets, so be sure and find out which is for boys. Ask one of the other boys before you go the first time.”
Mart was trying to remember. “May I leave the room?” he mumbled.
“You sure can,” his father answered. They smiled at one another. Mart felt better again. He would remember what to say.
He felt strange going into the schoolhouse alone the next morning. All eyes were watching as Miss Knickerson told him where to put his dinner pail and showed him where to sit. Mart wished someone would say something kind to him, but everyone was quiet, so, he sat down and tried to make himself small and quiet.
He noticed that his desk had a crack about as wide as his thumb running all the way across the top. The imperfection bothered him. He wondered if it might be some sort of punishment being imposed upon him.
Miss Knickerson showed him how to make letters and told him what they were. Then she made him say them over and over and had him write them again and again in his tablet. He wondered if she thought he couldn’t understand very well. He started to ask, but she put here finger to her lips and went, “Shhh,” so Mart kept on making the letters and tried not to let his pencil poke through the paper where it lay over the crack in his desk.
Every morning after the bell rang, they all stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance and then sang songs. At first, Mart didn’t know the words, but he moved his mouth and held his hand over his heart during the flag salute, and no one said anything about it. Then while the group sang God Bless American, Juanita, and Old Folks at Home, he just looked about shyly and didn’t move his mouth unless he knew someone was looking at him.
He spent a lot of time making rather sloppy letters and filled page after page with nothing but his name. He wished Miss Knickerson would teach him to read, but she never said anything about it. Mart was worried. He had been in school almost two weeks now.
One day after they had sung their songs, Miss Knickerson gave a little speech. She told the boys and girls that they had been saying words they shouldn’t ever say. Mart wondered if she had heard him talking with Orrie Fenster behind the coal shed. She went on: “There is not a word called ain’t.” Mart was shocked. “Now none of us should say a word that isn’t really a word. Do you see this box? It is an ain’t box. Now if anyone hears another person say ain’t, he should write that person’s name on a slip of paper and put it in the box. In a month I’ll check and see what must be done.”
Mart worried about not saying ain’t. He warned his parents and some relative about it too. He certainly didn’t want anyone he loved getting into trouble. He had two main difficulties, however, in delivering this information; first, his relative were reluctant to listen, and secondly, Mart felt he couldn’t use the crucial word in his explanation. And as if these problems weren’t enough, his mother frequently modified his discourse by adding here own interpretation. She would inject a comment to the effect that it was just some game the children played at school. At times like this Mart would become speechless much to the satisfaction of his parents. He wondered how they could ignore such an important issue.
One Sunday afternoon, after being swiftly and bluntly deprived of an opportunity to crusade for his special cause, he drifted outside the house and walked in the shade of the boxelder trees. There sitting on the wash bench was Uncle Andrew. Uncle Andrew wore winter underwear all the time. When it was warm he rolled up his shirt sleeves and let his underwear legs hang over the tops of his shoes for better ventilation. This wasn’t the approved mode of dress among the family, but Uncle Andrew had managed to spend precious little time during his life considering what was approved and what was not approved. In addition to this strange quirk of mind, he was blessed with a mysterious physical infirmity – partial deafness. He could partially hear those things he wished to hear.
At this time Uncle Andrew was in the act of executing a rather harmless group of boxelder bugs by drowning them with casually aimed streams of tobacco juice. Mart was fascinated as he watched the insects struggle. He looked at Uncle Andrew with new respect. Then, almost automatically, he began to inform him of the perils of saying a word that was not a word. Uncle Andrew was not impressed. “Say any damn thing I please!” he announced loudly to Mart, the bugs, and the world in general.
Mart surprised himself by shouting back, “I wish they had a damn box!”
Uncle Andrew shook his head in the affirmative, “Damn hot,” he agreed.
Mart backed away feeling inadequate. He opened his mouth a few times and closed it without saying anything. For the first time in his six years, he felt old. After this he contained his zeal as a crusader for the abolition of the nonword, but he thought about it constantly. He felt that if he closed his eyes he could see ain’t printed with red crayon in the back of his head. He read it without moving his lips. It was the only word except his name that he could read.
It was a little chilly Monday morning when Mart got to school. His mother had turned the earflaps down from inside his cap before she let him leave home and already his ears were beginning to itch. His mother had selected this cap for him and it fit quite well when the earflaps were turned up inside; but with them down, the cap became at once two sizes too large. In addition to causing itching ears, the incidental movements of his head made the cap settle close to the bridge of his nose. In order to see ahead any distance at all it was necessary for him to tip his head back sharply. This cap problem was peculiar to all the boys of that school, a problem which they had learned to live with without realizing it. The solution was quite simple. The boys would jerk off their caps with one deft motion and throw them on the ground when they wanted to see or hear clearly.
Mart had thrown his cap on the ground before he started to play “Red Rover.” It landed near the other caps and coats which had been discarded. When the bell rang there was a brief scramble and a hasty sorting of these garments.
“This is your cap,” said Agnes Worth, holding Mart’s cap out to Orrie Fenster.
“No, it ain’t,” said Orrie.
Agnes never even looked back as Mart and Orrie followed her into the schoolhouse. Deliberately she tore a small square of paper from a sheet in her tablet, wrote Orrie on it, and put the slip in the box.
Orrie Fenster seldom cried. He hadn’t cried when he fell off the coal shed and got a bloody nose. He hadn’t cried when a stray dog chewed up one of his overshoes. He hadn’t cried when his fat sister sat on his dinner pail by mistake and bent it so the lid would never shut properly again. He cried now. Large tears ran down his checks; his nose ran, and great terrible sobs racked his body.
Mart couldn’t help himself. He went over to Orrie and touched him. “Don’t cry, Orrie,” he said. “Nobody ain’t going to hurt you.” He clasped his hand over his mouth, but too late. He couldn’t look. When he finally did, it was just as he had feared. Agnes was putting another slip of paper into the box. Mart began to cry too.
Agnes Worth sang loudest of all during opening exercises that morning. Orrie and Mart wouldn’t even stand up. They just sat glumly not even moving their mouths. Agnes eyed them with an air of superior disdain. Suddenly she leaned toward them with insulting dignity and whispered, “Sing.”
Orrie looked up. His body stiffened with hate. “I hope the pigs eat you!” he shouted.
“You’re bad”, Mart screamed at her.
Miss Knickerson stopped playing the piano and descended upon them. She looked frantically about as if searching for something. “Boys,” she began, “remember you are big boys and Agnes is only a little girl. Now, we certainly don’t want to make her feel bad do we?”
Her question was met with silence. She stared to ask again and must have felt heavy resistance in the air. With wisdom beyond her nineteen years, she turned away and walked slowly toward her desk looking once at the large clock on the wall as she went. It was nine-fifteen. She felt it would be a long week.
Neither Orrie nor Mart knew what would happen to them when the box should be opened at the end of the month. They didn’t even know how long a month was. Their imaginations were active though, and they felt something terrible might happen to them at any time.
Miss Knickerson was uneasy too. She couldn’t understand where she might have gone wrong. She wished she had married that fellow she met at college during the summer. She wished now that she had given the matter more attention. Perhaps if … she put the thought out of her mind. It was too late now anyway, but next summer …
She felt tired as she swept the floor before going home that evening. As she swept around the orange crate that enthroned the ain’t box, she accidentally struck it with the broom. The box fell, the lid slipped off, and two neat squares of tablet paper fluttered out. Miss Knickerson stooped to pick them up and a thoughtful radiance glistened in her eyes. She had discovered a great truth and quite by accident. She began to make elaborate plans.
Mart and Orrie didn’t play “Red Rover” the next morning. When some one spoke to Mart he just stared vacantly from beneath the bill of his cap and then looked away. Orrie sat on the bottom step of the school house porch and dug a sizable hole with the toe of his left shoe and then covered it by pushing dirt in with the toe of his right shoe. After the bell rang, they went through the motions of opening exercises without making a sound. They were not surprised when Miss Knickerson walked to the back of the room, picked up the ain’t box, and brought it slowly to the front of the room.
No one watched more carefully than Orrie and Mart unless it was Agnes Worth. Agnes felt noble. She knew why the boys acted the way they did. Her father and mother had discussed it at length during supper the evening before.
“Them Irish got bad ways,” her father had explained. “They’re just natural mean. Can’t tell nothin’ about what they’ll do.”
“Well, I know,” her mother had added dramatically, “that them Fensters drinks beer and you can’t expect much from nobody whose folks puts beer right on the table where them little children can see it. Of course Mart’s folks goes to church and all, but that don’t always mean nothin’.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Worth had agreed sagely, “them folks of Mart’s do act strange. Why, one day they was a talkin’ to the minister in town and when Fenster walked up they just right up and introduced him. Of course the Reverend had to shake hands and talk to him and all. It ain’t right to embarrass a minister like that.”
“Some folks ain’t got no respect for nothin’,” Mrs. Worth observed sadly.
Agnes had listened to all this carefully. She was glad that she had had an opportunity to do good. Perhaps she could do more. Maybe she could even be a teacher some day. She shivered with joy at the thought.
Miss Knickerson faced the class. She had her feet together and her back was very straight. She held the ain’t box high without looking at it. Mart had a feeling that she was about to say the Pledge of Allegiance. His stomach felt funny.
He glanced at Orrie and saw that he had slid down in his seat until only the top of his head could be seen above the back of his desk. He stole a quick glance at Agnes. She was carefully printing her name on the front of a new tablet.
Miss Knickerson began to speak: “Some people here have made mistakes, but then everyone does from time to time. I’ve decided that some mistakes are better forgotten. So, we will bury the ain’t box! Bring the coal shovel and come with me.”
Everyone followed her out to the sandy place behind the coal shed. “Dig here,” she instructed one of the older boys, and he dug a neat hole. Then without ceremony she dropped the box into the hole and the boy covered it with sand. “We won’t continue with opening exercises this morning,” she said; “you may play for fifteen minutes.”
Eleven children played “Red Rover,” one teacher watched them, and two small boys stood over the grave talking. “Our names are still in there,” Mart said.
“Does it matter?” asked Orrie.
Mart thought a while, “It matters,” he said; “let’s take them out.”
“Can anyone see us?”
They began to dig away the sand with their hands. Mart stopped digging. “I’m going to get something,” he said, and walked toward the schoolhouse door. It was cool and quiet inside. He went to Agnes’s desk. Her tablet was still on top where she had left it, and Mart was sure that the word on the front was here name.
He took a sheet of his own paper and laboriously copied the letters. The result looked similar to the original. He copied it again. This time it was easier.
Orrie was opening the box when Mart returned. They both looked inside. Mart recognized his name and took the offending slip; Orrie took the other. Then Mart opened his other hand, and two ragged pieces of papers dropped into the box. “What’s on them?” asked Orrie.
Mart looked at him triumphantly, “Agnes,” he said.
They were laughing so hard they could hardly fill the hole. “Are you going to tell her?” asked Orrie.
“No,” said Mart, “because she’d tell the teacher. Will you tell?”
“I ain’t never going to tell,” Orrie promised.