The School Marm
Carolina gripped the seat tightly as the wagon bounced along the rutted mountain trail. Her hair was a mass of damp tendrils under her calico bonnet. Her face was covered with a fine layer of dust and sweat. She closed her eyes and tried to rest, but the incessant creaking of the wheels, and the slap, slap of the leather straps on the backs of the mule team made sleep impossible. Despite fatigue, born of many days travel, Carolina was full of eager anticipation for the task ahead of her... a one-room school house full of children... her first job as a school marm.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Carolina finished sweeping the floor, then made straight the benches, just in front of the little table that would serve as her desk. She stopped to look in the small looking glass, and nervously tucked an errant curl back into the neat bun that she hoped would make her look older than her sixteen years. After all, some of her students were just a few years younger than she. She took a deep breath and rang the bell that would summon her new charges to their very first day of school.
She presented each child who came to school with a new slate and two pieces of chalk. She was met with shy smiles and curious stares, that were quickly replaced by ducking heads, if she looked their way. All in all, she felt the first day went well, and gave each child a piece of hard candy at the end of the day.
Her pleasure was turned to dismay when she arrived at the little school house the next morning. She found no students... instead, she found a neatly stacked pile of slates and chalk at the door. Hurt and confused, she sought out the old pastor who had contacted her church, looking for a suitable teacher for the school.
“Dear Carolina,” Pastor Sam spoke kindly. “Mountain people are proud, hard-working folks. They don't take well to charity, no matter how well intentioned.”
“But, Pastor Sam,“ Carolina protested, “these are things the children need in order to learn. It's not charity... not a handout. It would be a crying shame for me to have come this far to teach them if their parents do not let them come to school. Can you help me make them understand?”
“Come to Sunday meeting, and I will see what I can do.” Pastor Sam promised.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Carolina stood with Pastor Sam at the front of the meeting house. She looked into the faces before her, the children and their parents.
“I apologize for offending you... it was not my intent. There are things the children need in order to learn. Thanks to the kind people in my church, I have the supplies. It's not a handout.”
A man stood up in the middle of the room.
“Meaning no disrespect, Miss... I reckon it's up to us to be deciding what is and what ain't a handout.”
“I understand, sir,” Carolina spoke respectfully. “There are things that I will need, in order to stay here, that my family and church are too far away to provide. Perhaps we can work out a trade of sorts...”
The man nodded his approval. “Mayhaps we can, Miss.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
From then on, the children came to school. Carolina gave them back their slates and chalk. From time to time, her church sent packages from the mercantile. The little girls got hair ribbons. The boys got whittlin' knives. A supply of shoes came just before the first snow.
In return, Carolina was well supplied. Eggs from one family's chickens. Milk from another family's cow. Fresh vegetables. Potatoes from someone's root cellar. Blackberry preserves... honey from a bee tree. Fair trades.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In the spring, tragedy struck. Thunder rumbled through the mountains. Lightning claimed the school house, and Carolina's little cabin. Carolina broke her ankle trying to haul water from the creek, in order to put out the fire. She fainted as the torrential downpour began.
She woke... warm and dry... and very confused. She sat bolt upright...
“Never you mind, Miss,” a gentle voice spoke.
She recognized the man who had spoken that first Sunday meeting.
“We'uns are gonna rebuild your school house, and your little cabin. The women folk will see to your other needs... clothes, house goods and the like...”
“I have nothing left to trade...” Carolina whispered.
“Makes no nevermind, Miss... this ain't no handout.”
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