McGuffey Reader Memoir
by PamFord Davis
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As a Montana schoolmarm, I fight melancholy. I’m from one of Boston’s most aristocratic families, meaning nothing to people who have never traveled more than fifty miles from their birthplace. I’m an outsider with no one in which to confide.
Yet, I cannot renege on my pledge to God to instill knowledge in impressionable young minds. As Mr. Hankins, owner of the mercantile, would say, “By cracky that’s just what I’m gonna’ do!”
“Children open your McGuffey Readers. Today we will continue our study on the proper use of accented syllables.”
Twelve-year-old William rolls his eyes, stretches lanky legs under his desk and slowly reaches inside for his tattered book. Placing it atop the desk, he leafs through pages and looks upward at instructions on the blackboard.
“Turn to page thirty and copy the list of words onto your slates. After completion of that task, divide the words into syllables and underline syllables that you would accent. You have twenty minutes to complete your assignment. After you have finished, turn your slates over.”
I will never adjust to the irritating squeaking of chalk on slate. The class of fifteen does their work hastily. I announce recess and they head outside for swinging, jumping rope, and games of ball or marbles.
Collecting slates, I stack them on my desk and begin to grade student’s work. As a fledgling teacher, I find satisfaction in seeing how many have accurately worked with syllables.
Deborah, a strawberry-blonde in ringlets, with brown eyes and freckled nose, peers through an opened window.
“Teacher, can I ring the bell when recess ends?”
“Yes, you may now ring the bell.”
I view her standing tiptoe to pull the bell’s hemp rope. Smiling like a Cheshire cat, she watches classmates scurrying past her. Freddy, the class bully pulls her hair, as he kicks up dust, before coming inside. Wincing, she drops the rope.
“Freddy, I saw you pull Deborah’s hair; apologize this instant!”
He shuffles his feet on plank flooring as he approaches Deborah. In humiliation, he gruffly says, “I’m sorry I pulled your hair.”
“Class, I’m dismissing you early today because I have a meeting with the school board. I will see you Monday morning.”
Hearing the surprise of an early end of class time, boys and girls join in unison.
“Good bye, Miss Dunster!”
The room empties as my mind fills with anxiety.
Have parents complained? Will school board members terminate me?
Trembling, I gather my books and place them inside Grandmother’s tapestry satchel. I straighten my gray brocade suit and reach back to adjust braided hair. Sitting rigidly in a straight back chair, I hear footsteps coming up outside stairs. I rise.
Three school board representatives file through the opened door, and down the aisle.
“Good afternoon. Please take a seat.”
Mr. Griffin, spokesman-standing, wrings his wide brimmed straw hat with calloused hands.
“Miss Dunster, sorry ta’ bother ya’ Ma am, but we been talkin.’ Towns folk just can’t ford’ to pay ya’ a full months’ pay. Drought’s got ranchers in a fix.” He studies his scuffed boots, and then slowly looks up, searching my eyes.
Smiling, I warmly address the concerned gathering of country folk.
“Don’t fret; I have a small amount of money set aside from my last birthday.”
Tense muscles in necks begin to relax, as I move from behind my desk, to stand directly before them.
“I am willing to fill this teaching position, one month at a time, if that’s agreeable.”
Nodding heads of approval and extended hands to shake mine seal the agreement. I walk outside with them, lock the door, and meander to the mercantile.
I hope to receive long overdue letters from family and friends. Inside, I notice Mr. Hankins handing a pouch of pipe tobacco to an impeccably dressed man.
“Apple-blend, sir, you have made my day,” said the stranger. He pays with current exchange, turns towards me, and tips his Derby. “Good-day, Miss.”
I detect a Boston accent; heart aflutter, I search for a way to query his reason for coming to Montana.
“Hello; please don’t think me forward, but I’m far away from my home in Boston. I believe I detect a marked Boston accent.”
“Indeed! I’m Jonathan Loughton, here to research Chippewa for the Gazette newspaper. You would be Miss Dunster, the daughter of my editor and friend!”
With a steady gaze, he looks into my tearful eyes.
“Oh, for goodness sakes; you know Father!”
“Yes, and he sends his love!”
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