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The University of Hard Knocks - Chapter 8
Memories of the Price We Pay
WHAT a price we pay for what we know! I laugh as I look backward--and weep and rejoice.
I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, altho it is quite evident that I could have handled a pretty good-sized spoon. But father being a country preacher, we had tin spoons. We never had to tie a red string around our spoons when we loaned them for the ladies' aid society oyster supper. We always got our spoons back. Nobody ever traded with us by mistake.
Do you remember the first money you ever earned? I do. I walked several miles into the country those old reaper days and gathered sheaves. That night I was proud when that farmer patted me on the head and said, "You are the best boy to work, I ever saw." Then the cheerful old miser put a nickel in my blistered hand. That nickel looked bigger than any money I have since handled.
That "Last Day of School"
Yet I was years learning it is much easier to make money than to handle it, hence the tale that follows.
I was sixteen years old and a school teacher. Sweet sixteen--which means green sixteen. But remember again, only green things grow. There is hope for green things. I was so tall and awkward then--I haven't changed much since. I kept still about my age. I was several dollars the lowest bidder. They said out that way, "Anybody can teach kids." That is why I was a teacher.
I had never studied pedagogy, but I had whittled out three rules that I thought would make it go. My first rule was, Make 'em study. My second, Make, em recite. That is, fill 'em up and then empty 'em.
My third and most important rule was, Get your money!
I walked thirteen miles a day, six and a half miles each way, most of the time, to save money. I think I had all teaching methods in use. With the small fry I used a small paddle to win their confidence and arouse their enthusiasm for an education. With the pupils larger and more muscular than their teacher I used love and moral suasion.
We ended the school with an "exhibition." Did you ever attend the old back-country "last day of school exhibition"? The people that day came from all over the township. They were so glad our school was closing they all turned out to make it a success. They brought great baskets of provender and we had a feast. We covered the school desks with boards, and then covered the boards with piles of fried chicken, doughnuts and forty kinds of pie.
Then we had a "doings." Everybody did a stunt. We executed a lot of literature that day. Execute is the word that tells what happened to literature in District No. 1, Jackson Township, that day. I can shut my eyes and see it yet. I can see my pupils coming forward to speak their "pieces." I hardly knew them and they hardly knew me, for we were "dressed up." Many a head showed father had mowed it with the sheepshears. Mother had been busy with the wash-rag--clear back of the ears! And into them! So many of them wore collars that stuck out all stiff like they had pushed their heads on thru their big straw hats.
I can see them speaking their "pieces." I can see "The Soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers." We had him die again that day, and he had a lingering end as we executed him. I can see "The boy stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled." I can see "Mary's little lamb" come slipping over the stage. I see the tow-headed patriot in "Give me liberty or give me death." I feel now that if Patrick Henry had been present, he would have said, "Give me death."
There came a breathless hush as "teacher" came forward as the last act on the bill to say farewell. It was customary to cry. I wanted to yell. Tomorrow I would get my money! I had a speech I had been saying over and over until it would say itself. But somehow when I got up before that "last day of school" audience and opened my mouth, it was a great opening, but nothing came out. It came out of my eyes. Tears rolled down my cheeks until I could hear them spatter on my six-dollar suit.
And my pupils wept as their dear teacher said farewell. Parents wept. It was a teary time. I only said, "Weep not for me, dear friends. I am going away, but I am coming back." I thought to cheer them up, but they wept the more.
Next day I drew my money. I had it all in one joyous wad--$240. I was going home with head high and aircastles even higher. But I never got home with the money. Talk about the fool and his money and you get very personal.
For on the way home I met Deacon K, and he borrowed it all. Deacon K was "such a good man" and a "pillar of the church." I used to wonder, tho, why he didn't take a pillow to church. I took his note for $240, "due at corncutting," as we termed that annual fall-time paying up season. I really thought a note was not necessary, such was my confidence in the deacon.
For years I kept a faded, tear-spattered, yellow note for $240, "due at corncutting," as a souvenir of my first schoolteaching. Deacon K has gone from earth. He has gone to his eternal reward. I scarcely know whether to look up or down as I say that. He never left any forwarding address.
I was paid thousands in experience for that first schoolteaching, but I paid all the money I got from it--two hundred and forty thirteen-mile-a-day dollars to learn one thing I could not learn from the books, that it takes less wisdom to make money, than it does to intelligently handle it afterwards. Incidentally I learned it may be safer to do business with a first-class sinner than with a second-class saint.
Which is no slap at the church, but at its worst enemies, the foes of its own household.
Calling the Class-Roll
A lyceum bureau once sent me back to my home town to lecture. I imagine most lecturers have a hard time lecturing in the home town. Their schoolmates and playmates are apt to be down there in the front rows with their families, and maybe all the old scores have not yet been settled. The boy he fought with may be down there. Perhaps the girl who gave him the "mitten" is there.
And he has gotten his lecture out of that home town. The heroes and villains live there within striking distance. Perhaps they have come to hear him. "Is not this the carpenter's son?" Perhaps this is why some lecturers and authors are not so popular in the home town until several generations pass.
I went back to the same hall to speak, and stood upon the same platform where twenty-one years before I had stood to deliver my graduating oration, when in impassioned and well modulated tones I had exclaimed, "Greece is gone and Rome is no more, but fe-e-e-e-ear not, for I will sa-a-a-a-ave you!" or words to that effect.
Then I went back to the little hotel and sat up alone in my room half the night living it over. Time was when I thought anybody who could live in that hotel was a superior order of being. But the time had come when I knew the person who could go on living in any hotel has a superior order of vitality.
I held thanksgiving services that night. I could see better. I had a picture of the school in that town that had been taken twenty-one years before, just before commencement. I had not seen the picture these twenty-one years, for I could not then afford to buy one. The price was a quarter.
I got a truer perspective of life that night. Did you ever sit alone with a picture of your classmates taken twenty-one years before? It is a memorable experience.
A class of brilliant and gifted young people went out to take charge of the world. They were so glad the world had waited so long on them. They were so willing to take charge of the world. They were going to be presidents and senators and authors and authoresses and scientists and scientist-esses and geniuses and genius-esses and things like that.
There was one boy in the class who was not naturally bright. It was not the one you may be thinking of! No, it was Jim Lambert. He had no brilliant career in view. He was dull and seemed to lack intellect. He was "conditioned" into the senior class. We all felt a little sorry for Jim.
As commencement day approached, the committee of the class appointed for that purpose took Jim back of the schoolhouse and broke the news to him that they were going to let him graduate, but they were not going to let him speak, because he couldn't make a speech that would do credit to such a brilliant class. They hid Jim on the stage back of the oleander commencement night.
Shake the barrel!
The girl who was to become the authoress became the helloess in the home telephone exchange, and had become absolutely indispensable to the community. The girl who was to become the poetess became the goddess at the general delivery window and superintendent of the stamp-licking department of the home postoffice. The boy who was going to Confess was raising the best corn in the county, and his wife was speaker of the house.
Most of them were doing very well even Jim Lambert. Jim had become the head of one of the big manufacturing plants of the South, with a lot of men working for him. The committee that took him out behind the schoolhouse to inform him he could not speak at commencement, would now have to wait in line before a frosted door marked, "Mr. Lambert, Private." They would have to send up their cards, and the watchdog who guards the door would tell them, "Cut it short, he's busy!" before they could break any news to him today.
They hung a picture of Mr. Lambert in the high school at the last alumni meeting. They hung it on the wall near where the oleander stood that night.
Dull boy or girl--you with your eyes tear-dimmed sometimes because you do not seem to learn like some in your classes can you not get a bit of cheer from the story of Jim?
Hours pass, and still as I sat in that hotel room I was lost in that school picture and the twenty-one years. There were fifty-four young people in that picture. They had been shaken these years in the barrel, and now as I called the roll on them, most of them that I expected to go up had shaken down and some that I expected to stay down had shaken up.
Out of that fifty-four, one had gone to a pulpit, one had gone to Congress and one had gone to the penitentiary. Some had gone to brilliant success and some had gone down to sad failure. Some had found happiness and some had found unhappiness. It seemed as tho almost every note on the keyboard of human possibility had been struck by the one school of fifty-four.
When that picture was taken the oldest was not more than eighteen, yet most of them seemed already to have decided their destinies. The twenty-one years that followed had not changed their courses.
The only changes had come where God had come into a life to uplift it, or where Mammon had entered to pull it down. And I saw better that the foolish dreams of success faded before the natural unfolding of talents, which is the real success. I saw better that "the boy is father to the man."
The boy who skimmed over his work in school was skimming over his work as a man. The boy who went to the bottom of things in school was going to the bottom of things in manhood. Which had helped him to go to the top of things!
Jim Lambert had merely followed the call of talents unseen in him twenty-one years before.
The lazy boy became a "tired" man. The industrious boy became an industrious man. The sporty boy became a sporty man. The domineering egotist boy became the domineering egotist man.
The boy who traded knives with me and beat me--how I used to envy him! Why was it he could always get the better of me? Well, he went on trading knives and getting the better of people. Now, twenty-one years afterwards, he was doing time in the state penitentiary for forgery. He was now called a bad man, when twenty-one years ago when he did the same things on a smaller scale they called him smart and bright.
The "perfectly lovely" boy who didn't mix with the other boys, who didn't whisper, who never got into trouble, who always had his hair combed, and said, "If you please," used to hurt me. He was the teacher's model boy. All the mothers of the community used to say to their own reprobate offspring, "Why can't you be like Harry? He'll be President of the United States some day, and you'll be in jail." But Model Harry sat around all his life being a model. I believe Mr. Webster defines a model as a small imitation of the real thing. Harry certainly was a successful model. He became a seedy, sleepy, helpless relic at forty. He was "perfectly lovely" because he hadn't the energy to be anything else. It was the boys who had the hustle and the energy, who occasionally needed bumping--and who got it--who really grew.
I have said little about the girls of the school. Fact was, at that age I didn't pay much attention to them. I regarded them as in the way. But I naturally thought of Clarice, our social pet of the class--our real pretty girl who won the vase in the home paper beauty contest. Clarice went right on remaining in the social spotlight, primping and flirting. She outshone all the rest. But it seemed like she was all out-shine and no in-shine. She mistook popularity for success. The boys voted for her, but did not marry her. Most of the girls who shone with less social luster became the happy homemakers of the community.
But as I looked into the face of Jim Lambert in the picture, my heart warmed at the sight of another great success--a sweet-faced irish lass who became an "old maid." She had worked day by day all these years to support a home and care for her family. She had kept her grace and sweetness thru it all, and the influence of her white, loving life radiated far.
The Boy I Had Envied
Frank was the boy I had envied. He had everything--a fine home, a loving father, plenty of money, opportunity and a great career awaiting him. And he was bright and lovable and talented. Everybody said Frank would make his mark in the world and make the town proud of him.
I was the janitor of the schoolhouse. Some of my classmates will never know how their thoughtless jeers and jokes wounded the sensitive, shabby boy who swept the floors, built the fires and carried in the coal. After commencement my career seemed to end and the careers of Frank and the rest of them seemed to begin. They were going off to college and going to do so many wonderful things.
But the week after commencement I had to go into a printing office, roll up my sleeves and go to work in the "devil's corner" to earn my daily bread. Seemed like it took so much bread!
Many a time as I plugged at the "case" I would think of Frank and wonder why some people had all the good things and I had all the hard things.
How easy it is to see as you look backward. But how hard it is to see when you look forward.
Twenty-one years afterward as I got off the train in the home town, I asked, "Where is he?" We went out to the cemetery, where I stood at a grave and read on the headstone, "Frank."
I had the story of a tragedy--the tragedy of modern unpreparedness. It was the story of the boy who had every opportunity, but who had all the struggle taken out of his life. He never followed his career, never developed any strength. He disappointed hopes, spent a fortune, broke his father's heart, shocked the community, and finally ended his wasted life with a bullet fired by his own hand.
Why Ben Hur Won
It revived the memory of the story of Ben Hur.
Do you remember it? The Jewish boy is torn from his home in disgrace. He is haled into court and tried for a crime he never committed. Ben Hur did not get a fair trial. Nobody can get a fair trial at the hands of this world. That is why the great Judge has said, judge not, for you have not the full evidence in the case. I alone have that.
Then they condemn him. They lead him away to the galleys. They chain him to the bench and to the oar. There follow the days and long years when he pulls on the oar under the lash. Day after day he pulls on the oar. Day after day he writhes under the sting of the lash. Years of the cruel injustice pass. Ben Hur is the helpless victim of a mocking fate.
That seems to be your life and my life. In the kitchen or the office, or wherever we work we seem so often like slaves bound to the oar and pulling under the sting of the lash of necessity. Life seems one futureless round of drudgery. We wonder why. We often look across the street and see somebody who lives a happier life. That one is chained to no oar. See what a fine time they all have. Why must we pull on the oar?
How blind we are! We can only see our own oar. We cannot see that they, too, pull on the oar and feel the lash. Most likely they are looking back at us and envying us. For while we envy others, others are envying us.
But look at the chariot race in Antioch. See the thousands in the circus. See Messala, the haughty Roman, and see! Ben Hur from the galleys in the other chariot pitted against him. Down the course dash these twin thunderbolts. The thousands hold their breath. "Who will win?" "The man with the stronger forearms," they whisper.
There comes the crucial moment in the race. See the man with the stronger forearms. They are bands of steel that swell in the forearms of Ben Hur. They swing those flying Arabians into the inner ring. Ben Hur wins the race! Where got the Jew those huge forearms? From the galleys!
Had Ben Hur never pulled on the oar, he never could have won the chariot race.
Sooner or later you and I are to learn that Providence makes no mistakes in the bookkeeping. As we pull on the oar, so often lashed by grim necessity, every honest effort is laid up at compound interest in the bank account of strength. Sooner or later the time comes when we need every ounce. Sooner or later our chariot race is on--when we win the victory, strike the deciding blow, stand while those around us fall--and it is won with the forearms earned in the galleys of life by pulling on the oar.
That is why I thanked God as I stood at the grave of my classmate. I thanked God for parents who believed in the gospel of struggle, and for the circumstances that compelled it.
I am not an example of success.
But I am a very grateful pupil in the first reader class of The University of Hard Knocks.