March a novel, p.15

March: a novel, page 15


March: a novel

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  MeanwhzZe, I have chosen my “schoolroom.” It is to be in the building that once served as the carriage house. It stands empty now. One carriage took the mistress of this place hence to the city, where it remains at her service. The other, Mr. Canning reports, was driven off by looters, no doubt happy to find themselves so finely conveyed. I have swept the cobwebs out and have had the children gather boughs ofgreenery and festoons of spring blossoms for its decoration. Ihave made a banner for the door bearing our favorite verse:

  “The hills are reared, the seas are scooped in vain,

  If learning’s altar vanish from the plain.”

  Both children and adults alike seem hungry for instruction and many ask me each day when classes may begin. It is hard to fathom how a people kept so long in the darkest ignorance can have such a keen desire for mastery of the written word. Some of them, it is true, have been so degraded by slavery that they do not know the usages of civilized life; these are hands innocent ofpen or quill, having touched little else than the ax helve, the plow handle, and the cotton boll Yet even these are by no means unintelligent. Many of them, it seems, have acquired the habit of veiling any brilliance of mind under a thick coverlet of blank idiocy. I can only speculate that life was easier for them so: a supposed simpleton threatens little, nor promises much. Mr. Canning calls them dull and lazy, but where he looks to find evidence for this, I see instead evidence of wit. Example: he bemoans the fact that they are forever slipping off from cotton chores to tend their corn patch. Why shouldn’t they prefer to work a crop that can sustain them, when they have seen no evidence that a penny profit from the inedible one will flow back into their hands?

  We are so used to judge a man’s mind by how lettered he is; yet here I have already seen that there are many other measures. With book-learning so long denied them, they have, perforce, cultivated diverse other skills. Their visual acuity is remarkable, and their memories prodigious. For example, should a steamboat be plying the river, the Negroes can identify the vessel long before it approaches close enough to read the name on her side. When a new boat approaches they inquire as to her name and take careful note of how she is configured, so that even a year later they will be able to say, from a very great distance off, what vessel she is.

  I hope to start lessons after tomorrow, which is Sunday, and the occasion of my first sermon. The Negroes have a “praise house” in which they perform their own heartfelt devotions. I have invited the troops from a scouting party presently encamped here, such as care to come, to join us in prayer, and so I hope to continue my work of ministry to the soldiery as I advance in my new tasks with the coloreds. Think ofme, ifyou will, and send me your prayers and good wishes ...

  That afternoon I wandered to the riverbank, to a spot I had come to know, where a giant, deformed sycamore twisted and leveled itself out over the lazy brown water. It was an old tree; the survivor, I think, of some long ago lightning strike. Part of the trunk was blackened, dead, and hollowed out; the remainder pale, vigorous, and full of life-sustaining sap. There was a place where the dead met the living wood in a gently curved depression, which made a most comfortable seat. I perched there, thinking out the content of my sermon, for which I had decided to take as my text: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”

  When I had some pages that seemed good to me I gathered them up and, instead of walking back to a cheerless dinner with Canning, decided to detour to the campsite of the scouts from Waterbank, to see if I could glean any news from them of the wider world. Unlike Canning, who would dine in the town anytime he found a moment’s liberty to do so, I did not like to go there. The Union troops garrisoned there were, by and large, a rough sort: conscripts, many of them Irish, serving with ill grace and no fervor for the cause, and infamous for their depredations on the property of the surrounding civilians. They took the people’s chickens or their pigs, and if some old man tried to defend his property their answer was a beating, or worse. The women they insulted with their inappropriate attentions. No wonder, then, when any Yankee appeared, the townspeople were surly. The wives and mothers of the fighting men were especially cold, and turned their backs if one offered a good day. So, since Waterbank held no prospect of agreeable society, I was content to wait for what news came to me.

  There were ten in the scouting party, and when I approached they hailed me with good cheer and bade me sit with them. They had a cook fire under way at a little distance, and on it a kettle of molasses beans bubbled, rich and brown. My mouth watered. As a private ladled steaming portions into the tin cups of his brothers in arms and carried them up to distribute, the men passed about a big stone jar of corn liquor. It went from hand to hand and, when it came to me, I passed it on without, I hope, any show of disapprobation, though I noted that the contents were more than two-thirds gone. I asked if they had come upon anything untoward in their scouting forays, and they reported an exchange, two days earlier, with a party of guerrillas, which they had chased to within range of their garrisons’ artillery. Once fired upon, the guerrillas had retreated, deliquescing like dew, as was their unnerving capacity, into what hidden burrows no one had yet been able to determine.

  “It’s that store in Waterbank,” said one fair-bearded, pale-eyed corporal. “Why, if the wives and sisters of the marauders weren’t free to go and come there, buyin’ supplies as much as they can carry off, and payin’ for it all with money their menfolk stole, we could clear these here woods out in no time.”

  “Why doesn’t the general ban the store’s proprietor from such trade?” I asked.

  The pale youth laughed so hard a spray of corn liquor came out of his mouth. The others joined him. “Chaplain, you sure is an innocent man!”

  “The general’s best and oldest friend bought hisself a big interest in that there store,” said another scout. “The general ain’t going to upset his friend, is he? Specially when the store must be taking in something like a thousand dollars a day.”

  “It ain’t just that, and it ain’t just here, neither,” said a jowly, hound-faced man, much older than the others, pushing back his forage cap to reveal a shock of grizzled hair. “Same thing up and down the river. The reb leader makes it plain to the garrison commander that his post won’t be menaced too bad so long as the store stays open to the womenfolk. Southern chivalry, is how they dress it up. But the result is, the amount of supplies that gets into the rebs’ hands is more than they need to keep harassing and bothering our pickets, as well as the kind of nigger business such as you got here.”

  If what the men said was true-and I had no particular reason to doubt it-what an inducement to the guerrillas to keep within our vicinity. I was so engrossed in digesting this bothersome news that I didn’t notice what was going on by the cook fire until I heard the cry—a ragged thing, like a crow calling. A gaggle of scrawny children-infants, really-who must have been hiding in the brush, crouched wide-eyed around one who was clutching at his hand and howling. I ran down and gathered him up in my arms. His palm and fingertips were burned, the blisters already forming on the tender flesh. I turned to the scout who, with total disregard for the crying boy, was scattering and stamping on the cooking coals.

  “What happened?” I demanded.

  “I was just after having a bit of fun with the baby sambos. They was standin’ round droolin’ like starvin’ cur dogs so I tol’ them, go ahead, clean the pot,” he said with a shrug. With a callousness I cannot fathom, he had not warned the ravenous children to beware the heat of the iron kettle, which had been sitting some hours on the coals. The burned child’s sobs were pitiful, as the scalding molasses clung to his tender palm.

  “Give me your canteen,” I snapped, and when he did not immediately hand it over I snatched it from him and poured cold water on the child’s hand. “Could you not have given him a spoon to use?”

  The man grimaced. “You think I’d let a nigger brat eat off of my spoon?”
  I strode away, furious, carrying the boy in my arms. Behind me, I heard the man’s indignant voice, and then the other men’s mocking laughter.

  At the house, I searched in vain for salves and cursed our many wants and the distance between us and the friends I hoped were even now trying to supply them. In the end, all I found was some cool water in a stone crock, and a scrap of linen, and so I bathed and bound up the little hand. The child’s wrist was so thin that my awkward effort resembled a ball of yarn with a knitting needle protruding from it. I took him out to the loggia in search of a cool breeze, sat him on my knee, and asked him what his name was.

  “Jimse,” he said in a squeaky little voice.

  I fed him the watery greens, boiled gray, and the congealed hominy the cook had prepared for my dinner, and Jimse ate as if the grim fare were delicious. I held him, still, singing to him songs such as my little girls had liked, until the pain subsided enough to let him fall to sleep in my arms. He weighed next to nothing. I rested my cheek on his soft head. His hair had been allowed to grow out long, in tight, heavy little ringlets, so that he looked, asleep, like a dark cherub. I played with one of the springy curls, thinking about my family and how very much I missed them.

  I must have drowsed in my chair, for it was full dark when the child moved in his sleep and wakened me with a start. There was a half-moon, which sent its pale yellow gleam through the slats of the green shutters and made patterns against the plaited brick. The thought had just entered my head that the child’s parents must be missing him, and anxious, when I saw her.

  She was standing in the garden, still as a tree, staring at me. Her skin was very dark, so that I couldn’t make out her features. I have no idea how long she had stood like that, nor how long she might have gone on standing so. I rose, with the child in my arms weighing little more than a puppy, and walked down the steps toward her. She was a tall girl, very young; I would have said too young to be the boy’s mother if I had not known by then that the carnal life of these people sometimes began long before their childhood ended. She reached out her thin arms and took her son, bending over him a head of cropped curls in a gesture like a bird nestling. She turned then and loped away across the grass, her long bare feet leaving tracks through the dew. When I woke the next morning, there was a handwoven, broad-brimmed palmetto hat hanging from the doorknob of the storage shed. It was, I guessed, her way of saying thank you.

  When I saw her again I was wearing the hat. I tipped it to her, and she smiled the swiftest hint of a smile I believe a human face can make-like a tic, almost-before her countenance returned to its accustomed wary gravity. She was crouched on the swept floor of my classroom, the soles of her bare feet pressed flat to the ground, her elbows on her bent knees. It looked an uncomfortable posture to me, but she and the others seemed to have no difficulty squatting so. Her smooth brow puckered with the effort of shaping the letter M with a stick in the soft earthen floor. I had determined to start the teaching of literacy by having all my pupils learn to write their own names. First, though, I thought to teach them to write mine.

  The girl’s name, I had learned, although not from her-reticence or fear rendering her absolutely mute in my presence-was Zannah. Her little boy, Jimse, sat as close beside her as he could, as if the two of them were joined at the ribs. The room was very full, and a kind of rich, musky scent wafted up from the close-packed bodies. The first days of lessons proved very trying. My scholars had no idea of sitting still, of giving prolonged attention, of ceasing to chatter and laugh together as the mood took them. Mr. Canning looked in briefly on the second day of classes, and quickly withdrew without pausing long enough to observe that something was being accomplished behind the apparent chaos. I expressed my disappointment about the brevity of his visit over supper that evening.

  He murmured something about having had cotton baling to see to, and then wrinkled his face. “It is so close in there, I wonder you can stand it.”

  “It is a large group for such a confined space,” I conceded. Even though I ran my school in two sessions, to accommodate the rhythm of the field chores, there were seldom fewer than fifty persons in the room. “Indeed, I am surprised how many come to me, given that they have to toil outdoors for many hours in addition to the work of learning. They try so hard, even the most backward of them. Truly, I find them, as the poet said, ‘God’s images cut in ebony.’”

  Canning laughed. “I pray God has not so rank an odor! I find them ripe enough out of doors. I wouldn’t last an hour packed in amongst them like you.”

  How to explain to him? And to what end, with such a man as he? I loved their eagerness and their high spirits, even if it would take some time to effect the kind of order I desired for learning. This was the school I had yearned for as a young wanderer. At last I would be able to test my theories on teaching. My objective was to awaken their hearts to the ideas dormant there, rather than to implant facts into their memory. Because of their circumstances, the minds of the adults were as suited to this approach as those of the children; equally malleable and just as likely to be informed by the passions of the heart rather than constrained by the prejudices of the head. The first hour of our work was dedicated to copying letters and learning their sounds. This we accomplished by scratching in the dirt with sticks, or on scraps of board with slivers of charcoal. Even though we had no paper, nor any real prospect of gaining any, I set them about making their own quills and steeping bark for ink against the day when they might need such skills.

  Next, we spent some time discussing words and their true meanings. In this I tried to provoke them to a freer expression and a deeper mode of thought than they had heretofore been used. I would ask them the meaning of meek and then follow by asking them to think of any meek person they knew, and what were his qualities. When we had considered meekness in full, I would provoke them by asking for a definition of brute and examples of the behavior that went with the word. By such meandering paths I led them to reflect on their situation, and gave them a proper voice with which to speak of it. It was demanding work for them, and so afterward, we took a short break for recreation, to let the children run freely out of doors, and the adults ease the stress of concentration. Canning, when he came upon one of our recesses, as I called them, was all frowns, maintaining that I was wasting time. He threatened to shorten the hours he allowed liberty from field labor. I was obliged to remind him that education of contraband was sanctioned by the army as part of the mission of the free labor experiment, and that in how I chose to conduct this mission he was my subordinate.

  When we gathered after recess to resume lessons, I moved my pupils away from the abstract realms. Geography we approached by making maps of the slave quarters; arithmetic, by counting corn cobs-how many already shelled, how many awaiting husking-and calculating the difference. Some, it seemed, would never grasp even the rudiments of cyphering; one woman, a leathery, snaggle-toothed crone whom I judged to be in her sixties, told me proudly that she had mastered counting to ten, then proceeded to demonstrate her skill: “One, two, three, five, eight, ten.” I congratulated her on placing the numbers in the right order, then gently pointed out that if she noted the number of her fingers, she would see that her tally was still somewhat off from the full count. At this, she looked most downcast and did not come again to the classroom. When I sought her out and urged her to persevere, she shook her grizzled head sadly. “It’s gone too late for me, marse. I believe I’ll give up my space for the young uns.” She would not be persuaded otherwise.

  Others, such as Jesse, a powerfully built young man whom Mr. Canning used as one of the drivers, showed an aptitude which disclosed a high degree of native intelligence and a surprising degree of self-education, given the intellectually barren conditions in which he had been forced to live. Jesse’s facility with mathematics was remarkable. With him I was able to embark on projects such as calculating the percentage increase in the value of cotton in its life cycle from seed to bale to finished garment
. I had only to introduce him to a concept to find that with but little practice, he could arrive at the correct answer to a problem more quickly than I.

  I found that my pupils knew little of their country and had been encouraged to think less. They loved geography, as this subject had been entirely taboo, linked as it was with runaways and routes northward. But history was a blank page to them, and at first my attempts to interest them bore no fruit. I tried to make them understand that they were, from now on, to consider themselves as part of the American story, and therefore must take pride in their nation’s past. It wasn’t until I mentioned that I came from Concord that I got anywhere at all. I learned that my pupils would respond most readily to what .could be made personal, so that when I told them of my town and the great events that had occurred there in the bringing forth of our nation, I was able to win their interest. Eventually, I think they came to like this “story time,” as they called it, best of all, so I would save it for lesson’s end. They were a rapt audience, and reluctant to have any story brought to a close. Cilla always thrust her small hand in the air, pleading, “Tell us what happened next, marse ...” and it was with difficulty that I sent them off to their chores, wearing long faces.

  To do justice to so many it would be necessary to have more teachers. Frequently, I yearned for assistance. And when I did, I thought of Marmee, but more often, I must confess, of Grace. How it would inflame my pupils’ ambitions, I thought, to see one of their own so accomplished. But Grace was beyond my reach, shackled by her own high principles to a wretched old man who had begotten but in no way fathered her. So instead, I introduced my students to the autobiography of Frederick Douglass and the poems of Phillis Wheatley, of which I had a number by heart. I took delight in seeing their eyes open with amazement at the attainments of these two, the one a runaway slave, the other a barbarian-born African, kidnapped into bondage.

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