From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume III, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 488-503.
BY MYRA KELLY
On the first day of school, after the Christmas holidays, Teacher found herself surrounded by a howling mob of little savages in which she had much difficulty in recognizing her cherished First-Reader Class. Isidore Belchatosky’s face was so wreathed in smiles and foreign matter as to be beyond identification; Nathan Spiderwitz had placed all his trust in a solitary suspender and two unstable buttons; Eva Kidansky had entirely freed herself from restraining hooks and eyes; Isidore Applebaum had discarded shoe-laces; and Abie Ashnewsky had bartered his only necktie for a yard of “shoe-string” licorice.
Miss Bailey was greatly disheartened by this reversion to the original type. She delivered daily lectures on nail-brushes, hair-ribbons, shoe polish, pins, buttons, elastic, and other means to grace. Her talks on soap and water became almost personal in tone, and her insistence on a close union between such garments as were meant to be united, led to a lively traffic in twisted and disreputable safety-pins. And yet the First-Reader Class, in all other branches of learning so receptive and responsive, made but halting and uncertain progress toward that state of virtue which is next to godliness.
Early in January came the report that “Gum Shoe 489 Tom” was on the war-path and might be expected at any time. Miss Bailey heard the tidings in calm ignorance until Miss Blake, who ruled the adjoining kingdom, interpreted the warning. A license to teach in the public schools of New York is good for only one year. Its renewal depends upon the reports of the Principal in charge of the school and of the Associate Superintendent in whose district the school chances to be. After three such renewals the license becomes permanent, but Miss Bailey was, as a teacher, barely four months old. The associate Superintendent for her vicinity was the Honorable Timothy O’Shea, known and dreaded as “Gum Shoe Tim,” owing to his engaging way of creeping softly up back-stairs and appearing, all unheralded and unwelcome, upon the threshold of his intended victim.
This, Mrs. Blake explained, was in defiance of all the rules of etiquette governing such visits of inspection. The proper procedure had been that of Mr. O’Shea’s predecessor, who had always given timely notice of his coming and a hint as to the subjects in which he intended to examine the children. Some days later he would amble from room to room, accompanied by the amiable Principal, and followed by the gratitude of smiling and unruffled teachers.
This kind old gentleman was now retired and had been succeeded by Mr. O’Shea, who, in addition to his unexpectedness, was adorned by an abominable temper, an overbearing manner, and a sense of cruel humor. He had almost finished his examinations at the nearest school where, during a brisk campaign of eight days, he had caused five dismissals, nine cases of nervous exhaustion, and an epidemic of hysteria.
Day by day nerves grew more tense, tempers more unsure, sleep and appetite more fugitive. Experienced 490 teachers went stolidly on with the ordinary routine, while beginners devoted time and energy to the more spectacular portions of the curriculum. But no one knew the honorable Timothy’s pet subjects, and so no one could specialize to any great extent.
Miss Bailey was one of the beginners, and Room 18 was made to shine as the sun. Morris Mogilewsky, Monitor of the Gold-Fish Bowl, wrought busily until his charges glowed redly against the water plants in their shining bowl. Creepers crept, plants grew, and ferns waved under the care of Nathan Spiderwitz, Monitor of the Window Boxes. There was such a martial swing and strut in Patrick Brennan’s leadership of the line that it inflamed even the timid heart of Isidore Wishnewsky with a war-like glow and his feet with a spasmodic but well-meant tramp. Sadie Gonorowsky and Eva, her cousin, sat closely side by side, no longer “mad on themselves,” but “mit kind feelings.” The work of the preceding term was laid in neat and docketed piles upon the low book-case. The children were enjoined to keep clean and entire. And Teacher, a nervous and unsmiling Teacher, waited dully.
A week passed thus, and then the good-hearted and experienced Miss Blake hurried ponderously across the hall to put Teacher on her guard.
“I’ve just had a note from one of the grammar teachers,” she panted. “ ‘Gum Shoe Tim’ is up in Miss Green’s room! He’ll take this floor next. Now, see here, child, don’t look so frightened. The Principal is with Tim. Of course you’re nervous, but try not to show it, and you’ll be all right. His lay is discipline and reading. Well, good luck to you!”
Miss Bailey took heart of grace. The children read surprisingly well, were absolutely good, and the enemy 491 under convoy of the friendly Principal would be much less terrifying than the enemy at large and alone. It was, therefore, with a manner almost serene that she turned to greet the kindly concerned Principal and the dreaded “Gum Shoe Tim.” The latter she found less ominous of aspect than she had been led to fear, and the Principal’s charming little speech of introduction made her flush with quick pleasure. And the anxious eyes of Sadie Gonorowsky, noting the flush, grew calm as Sadie whispered to Eva, her close cousin:
“Say, Teacher has a glad. She’s red on the face. It could to be her papa.”
“No. It’s comp’ny,” answered Eva sagely. “It ain’t her papa. It’s comp’ny the whiles Teacher takes him by the hand.”
The children were not in the least disconcerted by the presence of the large man. They always enjoyed visitors, and they liked the heavy gold chain which festooned the wide waistcoat of this guest; and, as they watched him, the Associate Superintendent began to superintend.
He looked at the children in all their clean and smiling rows; he looked at the flowers and the gold-fish; at the pictures and the plaster casts; he looked at the work of the last term and he looked at Teacher. As he looked he swayed gently on his rubber heels and decided that he was going to enjoy the coming quarter of an hour. Teacher pleased him from the first. She was neither old nor ill-favored, and she was most evidently nervous. The combination appealed both to his love of power and his peculiar sense of humor. Settling deliberately in the chair of state, he began:
“Can the children sing, Miss Bailey?”
They could sing very prettily and they did.
“Very nice, indeed,” said the voice of visiting authority. 492 “Very nice. Their music is exceptionally good. And are they drilled? Children, will you march for me?”
Again they could and did. Patrick marshaled his line in time and triumph up and down the aisles to the evident interest and approval of the “comp’ny,” and then Teacher led the class through some very energetic Swedish movements. While arms and bodies were bending and straightening at Teacher’s command and example, the door opened and a breathless boy rushed in. He bore an unfolded note and, as Teacher had no hand to spare, the boy placed the paper on the desk under the softening eyes of the Honorable Timothy, who glanced down idly and then pounced upon the note and read its every word.
“For you, Miss Bailey,” he said in the voice before which even the school janitor had been known to quail, “Your friend was thoughtful, though a little late.” And poor palpitating Miss Bailey read:
“Watch out! ‘Gum-Shoe Tim’ is in the building. The Principal caught him on the back-stairs, and they’re going round together. He’s as cross as a bear. Greene in dead faint in the dressing-room. Says he’s going to fire her. Watch out for him, and send the news on. His lay is reading and discipline.”
Miss Bailey grew cold with sick and unreasoning fear. As she gazed wide-eyed at the living confirmation of the statement that “Gum Shoe Tim” was “as cross as a bear,” the gentle-hearted Principal took the paper from her nerveless grasp.
“It’s all right,” he assured her. “Mr. O’Shea understands that you had no part in this. It’s all right. You are not responsible.”
But Teacher had no ears for his soothing. She could only watch with fascinated eyes as the Honorable Timothy reclaimed the note and wrote across it’s damning 49 face: “Miss Greene may come to. She is not fired. — T. O’S.”
“Here, boy,” he called; “take this to your teacher.” The puzzled messenger turned to obey, and the Associate Superintendent saw that though his dignity had suffered his power had increased. To the list of those whom he might, if so disposed, devour, he had now added the name of the Principal, who was quick to understand that an unpleasant investigation lay before him. If Miss Bailey could not be held responsible for this system of inter-classroom communication, it was clear that the Principal could.
Every trace of interest had left Mr. O’Shea’s voice as he asked:
“Can they read?”
“Oh, yes, they read,” responded Teacher, but her spirit was crushed and the children reflected her depression. Still, they were marvelously good and that blundering note had said, “Discipline is his lay.” Well, here he had it.
There was one spectator of this drama, who, understanding no word nor incident therein, yet dismissed no shade of the many emotions which had stirred the light face of his lady. Toward the front of the room sat Morris Mogilewsky, with every nerve tuned to Teacher’s, and with an appreciation of the situation in which the other children had no share. On the afternoon of one of those dreary days of waiting for the evil which had now come, Teacher had endeavored to explain the nature and possible result of this ordeal to her favorite. It was clear to him now that she was troubled, and he held the large and unaccustomed presence of the “comp’ny mit whiskers” responsible. Countless generations of ancestors had followed and fostered the instinct which now led Morris to propitiate an angry power. Luckily, he was prepared 494 with an offering of a suitable nature. He had meant to enjoy it for yet a few days, and then to give it to Teacher. She was such a sensible person about presents. One might give her one’s most cherished possession with a brave and cordial heart, for on each Friday afternoon she returned the gifts she had received during the week. And this with no abatement of gratitude.
Morris rose stealthily, crept forward, and placed a bright blue bromo-seltzer bottle in the fat hand which hung over the back of the chair of state. The hand closed instinctively as, with dawning curiosity, the Honorable timothy studied the small figure at his side. It began in a wealth of loosely curling hair which shaded a delicate face, very pointed as to chin and monopolized by a pair of dark eyes, sad and deep and beautiful. A faded blue “jumper’ was buttoned tightly across the narrow chest; frayed trousers were precariously attached to the “jumper,” and impossible shoes and stockings supplemented the trousers. Glancing from boy to bottle, the “comp’ny mit whiskers” asked:
“What’s this for?”
“What’s in it?”
Mr. O’Shea removed the cork and proceeded to draw out incredible quantities of absorbent cotton. When there was no more to come, a faint tinkle sounded within the blue depths, and Mr. O’Shea, reversing the bottle, found himself possessed of a trampled and disfigured sleeve link of most palpable brass.
“It’s from gold,” Morris assured him. “You puts it in your — ’scuse me — shirt. Wish you health to wear it.”
“Thank you,” said the Honorable Tim, and there was a tiny break in the gloom which had enveloped him. And 495 then, with a quick memory of the note and of his anger:
“Miss Bailey, who is this young man?”
And Teacher, of whose hobbies Morris was one, answered warmly: “That is Morris Mogilewsky, the best of boys. He takes care of the gold-fish, and does all sorts of things for me. Don’t you, dear?”
“Teacher, yiss ma’an,” Morris answered. “I’m lovin’ much mit you. I gives presents on the comp’ny over you.”
“Ain’t he rather big to speak such broken English?” asked Mr. O’Shea. “I hope you remember that it is part of your duty to stamp out the dialect.”
“Yes, I know,” Miss Bailey answered. “But Morris has been in America for so short a time. Nine months, is it not?”
“Teacher, yiss ma’an. I comes out of Russia,” responded Morris, on the verge of tears and with his face buried in Teacher’s dress.
Now Mr. O’Shea had his prejudices — strong and deep. He had been given jurisdiction over that particular district because it was his native heath, and the Board of Education considered that he would be more in sympathy with the inhabitants than a stranger. The truth was absolutely the reverse. Because he had spent his early years in a large old house on East Broadway, because he now saw his birthplace changed to a squalid tenement, and the happy hunting grounds of his youth grown ragged and foreign — swarming with strange faces and noisy with strange tongues — Mr. O’Shea bore a sullen grudge against the usurping race.
He resented the caressing air with which Teacher held the little hand placed so confidently within her own and he welcomed the opportunity of gratifying his still ruffled temper and his racial antagonism at the same time. He would take a rise out of his young woman about her little 496 Jew. She would be comforted later on. Mr. O’Shea rather fancied himself in the rôle of comforter, when the sufferer was neither old nor ill-favored. And so he set about creating the distress which he would later change to gratitude and joy. Assuredly the Honorable Timothy had a well-developed sense of humor.
“His English is certainly dreadful,” remarked the voice of authority, and it was not an English voice, nor is O’Shea distinctively an English name. “Dreadful. And, by the way, I hope you are not spoiling these youngsters. You must remember that you are fitting them for the battle of life. Don’t coddle your soldiers. Can you reconcile your present attitude with discipline?”
“With Morris — yes,” Teacher answered. “He is gentle and tractable beyond words.”
“Well, I hope you’re right,” grunted Mr. O’Shea, “but don’t coddle them.”
And so the incident closed. The sleeve link was tucked, before Morris’s yearning eyes, into the reluctant pocket of the wide white waistcoat, and Morris returned to his place. He found his reader and the proper page, and the lesson went on with brisk serenity; real on the children’s part, but bravely assumed on Teacher’s. Child after child stood up, read, sat down again, and it came to be the duty of Bertha Binderwitz to read the entire page of which the others had each read a line. She began jubilantly, but soon stumbled, hesitated, and wailed:
“Stands a fierce word. I don’t know what it is,” and Teacher turned to write the puzzling word upon the blackboard.
Morris’s heart stopped with a sickening suddenness and then rushed madly on again. He had a new and dreadful duty to perform. All his mother’s counsel, all his father’s precepts told him that it was his duty. Yet fear held him 497 in his little seat behind his little desk, while his conscience insisted on this unalterable decree of the social code: “So somebody’s clothes is wrong it’s polite you says ‘ ’scuse’ and tells it out.”
And here was Teacher whom he dearly loved, whose ideals of personal adornment extended to full sets of buttons on jumpers and to laces in both shoes, here was his immaculate lady fair in urgent need of assistance and advice, and all because she had on that day inaugurated a delightfully vigorous exercise for which, architecturally, she was not designed.
There was yet room for hope that some one else would see the breach and brave the danger. But no. The visitor sat stolidly in the chair of state, the Principal sat serenely beside him, the children sat each in his own little place, behind his own little desk, keeping his own little eyes on his own little book. No. Morris’s soul cried with Hamlet’s:
“The time is out of joint; — O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!”
Up into the quiet air went his timid hand. Teacher, knowing him in his more garrulous moods, ignored the threatened interruption of Bertha’s spirited résumé, but the windmill action of the little arm attracted the Honorable Tim’s attention.
“The best of boys wants you,” he suggested, and Teacher perforce asked:
“Well, Morris, what is it?”
Not until he was on his feet did the Monitor of the Gold-Fish Bowl appreciate the enormity of the mission he had undertaken. The other children began to understand, and watched his struggle for words and breath with sympathy or derision, as their natures prompted. 498 But there are no words in which one may politely mention ineffective safety-pins to one’s glass of fashion. Morris’s knees trembled queerly, his breathing grew difficult, and Teacher seemed a very great way off as she asked again:
“Well, what is it, dear?”
Morris panted a little, smiled weakly, and then sat down. Teacher was evidently puzzled, the “comp’ny” alert, the Principal uneasy.
“Now, Morris,” Teacher remonstrated, “you must tell me what you want.”
But Morris had deserted his etiquette and his veracity, and murmured only:
“Just wanted to be noticed,” said the Honorable Tim. “It is easy to spoil them.” And he watched the best of boys rather closely, for a habit of interrupting reading lessons, wantonly and without reason, was a trait in the young of which he disapproved.
When this disapprobation manifested itself in Mr. O’Shea’s countenance, the loyal heart of Morris interpreted it as a new menace to his sovereign. No later than yesterday she had warned them of the vital importance of coherence. “Every one knows,” she had said, “that only common little boys and girls come apart. No one ever likes them,” and the big stranger was even now misjudging her.
Again his short arm agitated the quiet air. Again his trembling legs upheld a trembling boy. Again authority urged. Again Teacher asked:
“Well, Morris, what is it, dear?”
All this was as before, but not as before was poor harassed Miss Baileys swoop down the aisle, her sudden taking Morris’s troubled little face between her soft 499 hands, the quick near meeting with her kind eyes, the note of pleading in her repetition:
“What do you want, Morris?”
He was beginning to answer when it occurred to him that the truth might make her cry. There was an unsteadiness about her upper lip which seemed to indicate the possibility. Suddenly he found that he no longer yearned for words in which to tell her of her disjointment, but for something else — anything else — to say.
His miserable eyes escaped from hers and wandered to the wall in desperate search for conversation. There was no help in the pictures, no inspiration in the plaster casts, but on the blackboard he read, “Tuesday, January twenty-first, 1902.” Only the date, but he must make it serve. With Teacher close beside him, with the hostile eye of the Honorable Tim upon him, hedged round about by the frightened or admiring regard of the First-Reader Class, Morris blinked rapidly, swallowed resolutely, and remarked:
“Teacher, this year’s Nineteen-hundred-and-two,” and knew that all was over.
The caressing clasp of Teacher’s hands grew into a grip of anger. The countenance of Mr. O’Shea took on the beautiful expression of the prophet who has found honor and verification in his own country.
“The best of boys has off days, and this is one of them,” he remarked.
“Morris,” said Teacher, “did you stop a reading lesson to tell me that? Do you think I don’t know what the year is? I’m ashamed of you.”
Never had she spoken thus. If the telling had been difficult to Morris when she was “glad on him,” it was impossible now that she was a prey to such evident “mad feelings.” And yet he must make some explanation. So 500 he murmured: “Teacher, I tells you ’scuse. I know you knows what year stands, on’y it’s polite I tells you something, und I had a fraid.”
“And so you bothered your Teacher with that nonsense,” said Tim. “You’re a nice boy!”
Morris’s eyes were hardly more appealing than teacher’s as the two culprits, for so they felt themselves, turned to their judge.
“Morris is a strange boy,” Miss Bailey explained. “He can’t be managed by ordinary methods — ”
“And extraordinary methods don’t seem to work to-day,” Mr. O’Shea interjected.
“And I think,” Teacher continued, “that it might be better not to press the point.”
“Oh, if you have no control over him — ” Mr. O’Shea was beginning pleasantly, when the Principal suggested:
“You’d better let us hear what he has to say, Miss Bailey; make him understand that you are master here.” And Teacher, with a heart-sick laugh at the irony of this advice in the presence of the Associate Superintendent, turned to obey.
But Morris would utter no words but these, dozens of times repeated: “I have a fraid.” Miss Bailey coaxed, bribed, threatened and cajoled; shook him surreptitiously, petted him openly. The result was always the same: “It’s polite I tells you something out, on’y I had a fraid.”
“But, Morris, dear, of what?” cried Teacher. “Are you afraid of me? Stop crying now and answer. Are you afraid of Miss Bailey?”
“Are you afraid of the Principal?”
“Are you afraid,” — with a slight pause, during which 501 a native hue of honesty was foully done to death — “of the kind gentleman we are all so glad to see?”
“Well, then what is the matter with you? Are you sick? Don’t you think you would like to go home to your mother?”
“N-o-o-oh m-a-a-an; I ain’t sick. I tells you ’scuse.”
The repeated imitation of a sorrowful goat was too much for the Honorable Time.
“Bring that boy to me,” he commanded. “I’ll show you how to manage refractory and rebellious children.”
With much difficulty and many assurances that the gentleman was not going to hurt him, Miss Bailey succeeded in untwining Morris’s legs from the supports of the desk and in half carrying, half leading him up to the chair of state. An ominous silence had settled over the room. Eva Gonorowsky was weeping softly, and the redoubtable Isidore Applebaum was stiffened in a frozen calm.
“Morris,” began the Associate Superintendent in his most awful tones, “will you tell me why you raised your hand? Come here, sir.”
Teacher urged him gently, and like dog to heel, he went. He halted within a pace or two of Mr. O’Shea, and lifted a beseeching face toward him.
“I couldn’t to tell nothing out,” said he. “I tells you ’scuse. I’m got a fraid.”
The Honorable Tim lunged quickly and caught the terrified boy preparatory to shaking him, but Morris escaped and fled to his haven of safety — his Teacher’s arms. When Miss Bailey felt the quick clasp of the thin little arms, the heavy beating of the over-tired heart, and the deep convulsive sobs, she turned on the Honorable Timothy O’Shea and spoke:
“I must ask you to leave this room at once,” she announced. 502 The Principal started and then sat back. Teacher’s eyes were dangerous and the Honorable Tim might profit by a lesson. “You’ve frightened the child until he can’t breathe. I can do nothing with him while you remain. The examination is ended. You may go.”
Now Mr. O’Shea saw he had gone a little too far in his effort to create the proper dramatic setting for his clemency. He had not expected the young woman to “rise” quite so far and high. His deprecating half-apology, half-eulogy, gave Morris the opportunity he craved.
“Teacher,” he panted; “I wants to whisper mit you in the ear.”
With a dexterous movement he knelt upon her lap and tore out his solitary safety-pin. He then clasped her tightly and made his explanation. He began in the softest of whispers, which increased in volume as it did in interest, so that he reached the climax at the full power of his boy soprano voice.
“Teacher, Missis Bailey, I know you know what year stands. On’y it’s polite I tells you something, und I had a fraid the while the ‘comp’ny mit the whiskers’ sets and rubbers. But, Teacher, it’s like this; your jumper’s sticking out und you could to take mine safety-pin.”
He had understood so little of all that had passed that he was beyond being surprised by the result of this communication. Miss Bailey had gathered him into her arms and had cried in a queer helpless way. And as she cried she had said over and over again: “Morris, how could you? Oh, how could you, dear? How could you?”
The Principal and “the comp’ny mit whiskers” looked solemnly at one another for a struggling moment, and had then broken into laughter, long and loud, until the visiting authority was limp and moist. The children waited in polite uncertainty, but when Miss Bailey, after some indecision 502 had contributed a wan smile, which later grew into a shaky laugh, the First-Reader Class went wild.
Then the Honorable Timothy arose to say good-by. He reiterated his praise of the singing and reading, the blackboard work and the moral tone. An awkward pause ensued, during which the Principal engaged the young Gonorowskys in impromptu conversation. The Honorable Tim crossed over to Miss Bailey’s side and steadied himself for a great effort.
“Teacher,” he began meekly, “I tells you ’scuse. This sort of thing makes a man fell like a bull in a china shop. Do you think the little fellow will shake hands with me? I was really only joking.”
“But surely he will,” said Miss Bailey, as she glanced down at the tangle of dark curls resting against her breast. “Morris, dear, aren’t you going to say good-by to the gentleman?
Morris relaxed one hand from its grasp on his lady and bestowed it on Mr. O’Shea.
“Good-by,” said he gently. “I gives you presents, from gold presents, the while you’re friends mit Teacher, I’m loving much mit her, too.”
At this moment the Principal turned, and Mr. O’Shea, in a desperate attempt to retrieve his dignity, began: “As to class management and discipline — ”
But the Principal was not to be deceived.
“Don’t you think, Mr. O’Shea,” said he, “that you and I had better leave the management of the little ones to the women? You have noticed, perhaps, that this is Nature’s method.”
* From Little Citizens; reprinted by permission of McClure, Phillips & Company.
Copyright 1903 by the S. S. McClure Company.
Copyright 1904 by McClure, Phillips & Company.