Southern Life in Southern Literature/Richard Malcolm Johnston

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[Richard Malcolm Johnston was born in Hancock County, Georgia, in 1822. After graduating from Mercer University, he entered upon the practice of law, but in 1857 became professor of English literature at the University of Georgia. After the war he established a boarding school for boys at Sparta, Georgia, and afterward near Baltimore, Maryland. It was in Baltimore that he died, in 1898. His racy character studies, entitled "Dukesborough Tales," which had appeared in the Southern Magazine, were first collected into book form in 1871, but did not attract general attention until published again nine years later. This initial volume was followed by several volumes of fiction,—novels and collections of tales, as well as of literary and social papers.]


It was the custom of the pupils in the Goosepond, as in most of the other country schools of those times, to study aloud. Whether the teachers thought that the mind could not act unless the tongue was going, or that the tongue going was the only evidence that the mind was acting, it never did appear. Such had been the custom, and Mr. Meadows did not aspire to be an innovator. It was his rule, however, that there should be perfect silence on his arrival, in order to give him an opportunity of saying or doing anything he might wish. This morning there did not seem to be anything heavy on his mind which required to be lifted off. He, however, looked at Brinkly Glisson with an expression of some disappointment. He had beaten him the morning before for not having gotten there in time, though the boy's excuse was that he had gone a mile out of his way on an errand for his mother. He looked at him as if he had expected to have had some business with him, which now unexpectedly had to be postponed. He then looked around over the school, and said: "Go to studyin'."

He had been in the habit of speaking but to command, and of commanding but to be obeyed. Instantaneously was heard, then and there, that unintelligible tumult, the almost invariable incident of the country schools of that generation. There were spellers and readers, geographers, and arithmeticians, all engaged in their several pursuits, in the most inexplicable confusion. Sometimes the spellers would have the heels of the others, and sometimes the readers. The geographers were always third, and the arithmeticians always behind. It was very plain to be seen that these last never would catch the others. The faster they added or subtracted, the oftener they had to rub out and commence anew. It was always but a short time before they found this to be the case, and so they generally concluded to adopt the maxim of the philosopher, of being slow in making haste. The geographers were a little faster and a little louder. But the spellers and readers had it, I tell you. Each speller and each reader went through the whole gamut of sounds, from low up to high, and from high down to low again; sometimes by regular ascension and descension, one note at a time, sounding what musicians call the diatonic intervals; at other times, going up and coming down upon the perfect fifths only. It was refreshing to see the passionate eagerness which these urchins manifested for the acquisition of knowledge! To have heard them for the first time, one might possibly have been reminded of the Apostles preaching at Pentecost, when were spoken the languages of the Parthians and Medes, Elamites and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judea and Cappadocia; in Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia; in Egypt and in the parts of Syria about Gyrene; and Strangers of Rome, Jews and Proselytes, Cretes and Arabians. Sometimes these jarring tongues sub sided a little, when half a dozen or so would stop to blow; but in the next moment the chorus would swell again in a new and livelier accrescendo. When this process had gone on for half an hour, Mr. Meadows lifted his voice and shouted, "Silence!" and all was still.

Now were to commence the recitations, during which stillness like that of death was required. For as great a help to study as this jargon was, Mr. Meadows found that it did not contribute any aid to the doing of his work.

He now performed an interesting feat. He put his hand behind the lapel of his coat collar, and then, after withdrawing it, and holding it up, his thumb and forefinger joined together, he said: "There is too much fuss here. I’m going to drop this pin, and I shall whip every single one of you little boys that don’t hear it when it falls. Thar!"

"I heerd it, Mr. Meadows! I heerd it, Mr. Meadows!" exclaimed, simultaneously, five or six little fellows.

"Come up here, you little rascals. You are a liar!" said he to each one. "I never drapped it; I never had nary one to drap. It just shows what liars you are. Set down and wait awhile; I’ll show you how to tell me lies."

The little liars slunk to their seats, and the recitations commenced. Memory was the only faculty of mind that got development at this school. Whoever could say exactly what the book said was adjudged to know his lesson. About half of the pupils on this morning were successful. The other half were found to be delinquent. Among these was Asa Boatright. That calculating young gentleman knew his words and felt safe. The class had spelled around three or four times when lo! the contingency which Allen Thigpen had suggested did come to pass. Betsy Wiggins missed her word; Heneritter Bangs (in the language of Allen) hern; and Mandy Grizzle hern; and thus responsibilities were suddenly cast upon Asa which he was wholly unprepared to meet and which, from the look of mighty reproach that he gave each of these young ladies as she handed over her word, he evidently thought it the height of injustice that he should have been called upon to meet. Mr. Meadows, closing his book, tossed it to Asa, who, catching it as it was falling at his feet, turned and, his eyes swimming with tears, went back to his seat. As he passed Allen Thigpen, the latter whispered: "What did I tell you? You heerd the pin drap, too!"

Now Allen was in no plight to have given this taunt to Asa. He had not given five minutes study to his arithmetic during the whole morning. But Mr. Meadows made a rule (this one for himself, though all the pupils knew it better than any rule he had) never to allow Allen to miss a lesson; and as he had kindly taken this responsibility upon himself, Allen was wont to give himself no trouble about the matter.

Brinkly Glisson was the last to recite. Brinkly was no great hand at pronunciation. He had been reading but a short time when Mr. Meadows advanced him into geography, with the purpose, as Brinkly afterward came to believe, of getting the half-dollar extra tuition. This morning he thought he knew his lesson; and he did, as he understood it. When called to recite, he went up with a countenance expressive of mild happiness, handed the book to Mr. Meadows, and, putting his hands in his pockets, awaited the questions. And now it was an interesting sight to see Mr. Meadows smile as Brinkly talked of is-lands and promonitaries, thismuses and hemispheries. The lad misunderstood that smile, and his heart was glad for the unexpected reception of a little complacency from the master. But he was not long in error.

"Is-lands, eh? Thismuses, eh? Take this book and see if you can find any is-lands and promonitaries, and then bring them to me. I want to see them things, I do. Find 'em, if you please."

Brinkly took the book, and it would have melted the heart of any other man to see the deep despair of his heart as he looked on it and was spelling over to himself the words as he came to them.

"Mr. Meadows," he said in pleading tones, "I thought it was is-land. Here it is, I-s-is-l-a-n-d-land, Is-land"; and he looked into his face beseechingly.

"Is-land, eh? Is-land! Now, thismuses and promonitaries and hemispheries—"

"Mr. Meadows, I did not know how to pronounce them words. I asked you how to pronounce 'em and you would n't tell me; and I asked Allen, and he told me the way I said them."

"I believe that to be a lie." Brinkly's face reddened, and his breathing was fast and hard. He looked at the master as but once or twice before during the term, but made no answer.

At that moment Allen leaned carelessly on his desk, his elbows resting on it, and chin on his hands, and said dryly, "Yess, I did tell him so."

The man reddened a little. After a moment's pause, however, he said: "How often have I got to tell you not to ask anybody but me how to pronounce words? That'll do, sir; sit down, sir."