Amanda — a Daughter of the Mennonites/14
The annual visit of the County Superintendent of Schools always carries with it some degree of anxiety for the teacher. Sometimes the visit comes unexpectedly, but generally the news is sent round in some manner, and last minute polish and coachings are given for the hour of trial. The teacher, naturally eager to make a creditable showing, never knows what vagaries of stupidity will seize her brightest pupils and cause them to stand helpless and stranded as she questions them in the presence of the distinguished visitor and critic.
The Superintendent came to the Crow Hill school on a blustery March day of the sort that blows off hats and tries the tempers of the sweetest natured people. Amanda thought she never before lived through hours so long as those in which she waited for the visitors. But at length came the children’s subdued, excited announcement, “Here they come!” as the grind of wheels sounded outside the windows. A few minutes later the hour was come--the County Superintendent and the directors, Mr. Mertzheimer in the lead, stepped into the little room, shook hands with the teacher, then seated themselves and waited for Amanda to go on with her regular lessons and prove her efficiency.
Amanda, stirred by the underhand workings of Mr. Mertzheimer, was on her mettle. She’d just show that man she could teach! Two years’ experience in handling rural school classes came to her support. With precision, yet unhurried, she conducted classes in geography, grammar, reading, arithmetic, some in beginners’ grades and others in the advanced classes.
She saved her trump card for the last, her nature class, in which the children told from the colored pictures that formed a frieze above the blackboard, the names of fifty native birds and gave a short sketch of their habits, song or peculiarities.
After that the pupils sang for the visitors. During that time the eyes of the Superintendent traveled about the room, from the pressed and mounted leaves and flowers on the walls to the corn-husk and grass baskets on a table in the rear of the room.
When the children’s part was ended came the time they loved best, that portion of the visit looked forward to each year, the address of the County Superintendent. He was a tall man, keen-eyed and kindly, and as he stood before the little school the eyes of every child were upon him--he’d be sure to say something funny before he sat down--he always did!
“Well, boys and girls, here we are again! And, as the old Pennsylvania Dutch preacher said, ’I’m glad that I can say that I’m glad that I’m here.’ “He rattled off the words in rapid Pennsylvania Dutch, at which the children laughed and some whispered, “Why, he can talk the Dutch, too!” Then they listened in rapt attention as the speaker went on:
“Last year my hour in this schoolroom was one of the high-lights of my visits to the rural schools of the county. So I expected big things from you this year, and it gives me great pleasure to tell you that I am not disappointed. I might go farther and tell you the truth--I am more than pleased with the showing of this school. I listened attentively while all the classes were in session, and your answers showed intelligent thinking and reasoning. You had a surprise for me in that bird class. I like that! It’s a great idea to learn from colored pictures the names of our birds, for by so doing you will be able to identify them readily when you meet them in the fields and woods. No lover of birds need fear that one of you will rob a bird’s nest or use a sling-shot on a feathered neighbor. You show by your stories about the birds that a proper regard and appreciation for them has been fostered in you by your teacher. You all know that it has long been acknowledged that ‘An honest confession is good for the soul,’ so I’m going to be frank and tell you that as Miss Reist pointed to the birds there were thirty out of the fifty that I did not know. I have learned something of great value with you here to-day, and I promise you that I’m going to buy a book and study about them so that when I come to see you next year I’ll know every one of your pictures. You make me feel ashamed of my meagre knowledge of our feathered neighbors on whom, indirectly, our very existence depends.
“I made mention last year about your fine work in basketry, and am glad to do so again. I like your teacher’s idea of utilizing native material, corn husk, dried grasses and reeds, all from our own Garden Spot, and a few colored strands of raffia from Madagascar, and forming them into baskets. This faculty of using apparently useless material and fashioning from it a useful and beautiful article is one of our Pennsylvania Dutch heritages and one we should cherish and develop.
“I understand there has been some adverse criticism among a few of the less liberal patrons of the community in regard to the basket work and nature study Miss Reist is teaching. Oh, I suppose we must expect that! Progress is always hampered by sluggish stupidity and contrariness. We who can see into the future and read the demands of the times must surely note that the children must be taught more than the knowledge contained between the covers of our school books. The teacher who can instil into the hearts of her pupils a feeling of kinship with the wild creatures of the fields and woods, who can waken in the children an appreciation of the beauty and symmetry of the flowers, even the weeds, and at the same time not fail in her duty as a teacher of arithmetic, history, and so forth, is a real teacher who has the proper conception of her high calling and is conscientiously striving to carry that conception into action.
“Directors, let me make this public statement to you, that in Miss Reist you have a teacher well worthy of your heartiest cooperation. The danger with us who have been out of school these thirty years or more is that we expect to see the antiquated methods of our own school days in operation to-day. We would have the schools stand still while the whole world moves.
“I feel it is only just to commend a teacher’s work when it deserves commendation, as I consider it my duty to point out the flaws and name any causes for regret I may discover in her teaching. In this school I have found one big cause for regret---”
The hard eyes of Mr. Mertzheimer flashed. All through the glowing praise of the County Superintendent the schemer had sat with head cast down and face flushed in mortification and anger. Now his head was erect. Good! That praise was just a bluff! That red-head would get a good hard knock now! Good enough for her! Now she’d wish she had not turned down the son of the leading director of Crow Hill school! Perhaps now she’d be glad to accept the attentions of Lyman. Marriage would be a welcome solution to her troubles when she lost her position in the school so near home. The Superintendent was not unmindful of that “flea in his ear,” after all.
“I have found one cause for regret,” the speaker repeated slowly, “one big cause.”
His deep, feeling voice stopped and he faced the school while the hearts of pupils and teacher beat with apprehension.
“And that regret is,” he said very slowly so that not one word of his could be lost, “that I have not a dozen teachers just like Miss Reist to scatter around the county!”
Amanda’s lips trembled. The relief and happiness occasioned by the words of the speaker almost brought her to tears. The children, appreciating the compliment to their teacher, clapped hands until the little room resounded with deafening noise.
“That’s good,” said the distinguished visitor, smiling, as the applause died down. “You stick to your teacher like that and follow her lead and I am sure you will develop into men and women of whom Lancaster County will be proud.”
After a few more remarks, a joke or two, he went back to his seat with the directors. Mr. Mertzheimer avoided meeting his eyes. The father of Lyman Mertzheimer, who had been so loud in his denunciation of the tomfoolery baskets and dried weeds, suddenly developed an intense interest in a tray of butterflies and milkweed.
In a few minutes it was time for dismissal. One of the older girls played a simple march on the little organ and the scholars marched from the room. With happy faces they said good-bye, eager to run home and tell all about the visit of the County Superintendent and the things he said.
As the visitors rose to go the County Superintendent stepped away from the others and went to Amanda.
“You have been very kind,” she told him, joy showing in her animated face.
“Honor to whom honor is due, Miss Reist,” he said, with that winning smile of approval so many teachers worked to win. “I have here a little thing I want you to read after we leave. It is a copy of a letter you might like to keep, though I feel certain the writer of it would feel embarrassed if told of your perusal of it. I want to add that I should have felt the same and made similar remarks to-day if I had not read that letter, but probably I should not have expressed my opinion quite so forcibly. Keep the letter. I intend to keep the original. It renews faith in human nature in general. It makes me feel anew how good a thing it is to have a friend. Good-bye, Miss Reist. I have enjoyed my visit to Crow Hill school, I assure you.”
Amanda looked at him, wondering. What under the sun could he mean? Why should she read a letter written to him? She smiled, shook the hand he offered, but was still at a loss to understand his words. The directors came up to say good-bye. Mr. Mertzheimer bowed very politely but refrained from meeting her eyes as he said, “Good-afternoon.” The other men did not bow but they added to their good-bye, “I’m going to vote for you. We don’t want to lose you.”
Amanda’s heart sang as the two carriages rolled away and she was left alone in the schoolroom. She had seen the device of the wicked come to naught, she gloried in the fact that the mean and unfair was once more overbalanced by the just and kind. After the tribute from the County Superintendent and the promises from all the directors but Mr. Mertzheimer she felt assured that she would not be ignominiously put out of the school she loved. Then she thought of the letter and opened it hastily, her eyes traveling fast over the long sheet.
Maybe it ain’t polite to write to you when you don’t know me but I got a favor to ask you and I don’t know no other way to do it. Amanda Reist is teacher of the Crow Hill school and she is a good one, everybody says so but a few old cranks that don’t know nothing. There’s one of the directors on the school board has got a son that ain’t worth a hollow bean and he wants Amanda should take him for her beau. She’s got too much sense for that, our Amanda can get a better man than Lyman Mertzheimer I guess. But now since she won’t have nothing to do with him he’s got his pop to get her out her school. The old man has asked another girl to ask for the job and he’s talked a lot about Amanda till some of the other directors side with him. He’s rich and a big boss and things got to go his way. Most everybody says Amanda’s a good teacher, the children run to meet her and they learn good with her. I heard her say you was coming to visit the school soon and that the directors mostly come with you and I just found out where you live and am writing this to tell you how it is. Perhaps if you like her school and would do it to tell them directors so it would help her. It sometimes helps a lot when a big person takes the side of the person being tramped on. Amanda is too high strung to ask any of the directors to stick to her. She says they can see what kind of work she does and if they want to let one man run the school board and run her out she’ll go out. But she likes that school and it’s near her home and we’d all feel bad if she got put out and went off somewheres far to teach. I’m just the hired girl at her house but I think a lot of her. I will say thanks very much for what you can do.
And oblige, AMELIA Hess.
P. S. I forgot to say Amanda don’t know I have wrote this. I guess she wouldn’t leave me send it if she did.”
Tears of happiness rolled down the girl’s face as she ended the reading of the letter. “The dear thing! The loyal old body she is! So that was why she borrowed my dictionary and shut herself up in her room one whole evening! Just a hired girl she says--could any blood relative do a kinder deed? Oh, I don’t wonder he said it renews faith in human nature! I guess for every Mertzheimer there’s a Millie. I’ll surely keep this letter but I won’t let her know I have any idea about what she did. I’m so glad he gave it to me. It takes the bitter taste from my mouth and makes life pleasant again. Now I’ll run home with the news of the Superintendent’s visit and the nice things he said.”
She did run, indeed, especially when she reached the yard of her home. By the time the gate clicked she was near the kitchen door. Millie was rolling out pies, Mrs. Reist was paring apples.
“Mother,” the girl twined an arm about the neck of the white-capped woman and kissed her fervently on the cheek, “I’m so excited! Oh, Millie,” she treated the astonished woman to the same expression of love.
“What now?” said Millie. “Now you got that flour all over your nice dress. What ails you, anyhow?”
“Oh, just joy. The Superintendent was here and he puffed me way up to the skies and the directors, all but Mr. Mertzheimer, promised to vote for me. I didn’t ask them too, either.”
“I’m so glad,” said Mrs. Reist.
“Ach, now ain’t that nice! I’m glad,” said Millie, her face bright with joy. “So he puffed you up in front of them men? That was powerful nice for him to do, but just what you earned, I guess. I bet that settled the Mertzheimer hash once! That County man knows his business. He ain’t goin’ through the world blind. What all did he say?”
“Oh, he was lovely. He liked the baskets and the classes and the singing and--everything! And Mr Mertzheimer looked madder than a setting hen when you take her off the nest. He hung his head like a whipped dog.”
“Na-ha!” exulted Millie. “That’s one time that he didn’t have his own way once! I bet he gets out of the school board if he can’t run it.”
Her prediction came true. Mr. Mertzheimer’s dignity would not tolerate such trampling under foot. If that red-headed teacher was going to keep the school he’d get out and let the whole thing go to smash! He got out, but to his surprise, nothing went to smash. An intelligent farmer, more amenable to good judgment, was elected to succeed him and the Crow Hill school affairs went smoothly. In due time Amanda Reist was elected by unanimous vote to teach for the ensuing year and the Mertzheimers, thwarted, nursed their wrath, and sat down to think of other avenues of attack.