|Photo by Tom Dempsey, c. Photoseek.com. Used with permission|
Peggy’s Story: When Big Al Came to Town
So, Mr. Tom wanted me to tell you about when Big Al came to Skunk Corners. It was a few years ago, so I was only maybe nine or something, and still stuck in the Second Reader. I might not remember everything, but I saw Al come to town.
It was like this. I guess I was the only kid who hadn’t heard that Jake and Harry had chased off another teacher. They used to make the schoolmasters’ lives miserable, until they’d just up and leave. One time we had a schoolmarm, a real cranky old maid you wouldn’t think had ever had a soft feeling in her life, and she left in tears after just two days. The boys never laid hand on any of them, not like how they treated librarians. They had other ways, being bound and determined not to go to school, or to learn anything when their folks walloped them into going.
I guess the last laugh was on them, come to think of it, but you know all about how they ended up coming back to Big Al to learn to read.
Anyhow, I’d come into town that morning for school. Even then I kind of liked it, though I wasn’t making much progress, what with never having a teacher for more than a few weeks at a time.
So I was standing in the street by the empty schoolhouse at sunrise when someone walked into town off the trail from Endoline. I could tell it was a kid, dressed in his Pa’s clothes and hat, which were just a little too big. You could see he was pretty uncertain. He looked around a bit, then his eye lit on Two-Timin’ Tess’s Tavern, and I saw him nod. Of course, there was no one up at the Tavern at that hour, so the kid just walked on up to have a seat under the tree. That was where I was, but I guessed he didn’t see me, not until he was already sitting down and I spoke up.
Then the kid jumped a mile, before getting a grip and looking at me. Then he said, “Hey yourself,” and the voice sounded like a boy who’s just starting to change, so I guessed he was maybe 14 or 15, but big.
“I’m Peggy. What’s your name?” I asked.
“Al. Some call me Big Al, I guess cause I’m big for my age.”
“What’re you doing here, Big Al?”
“Looking for work. What’re you doing? Dodging chores?”
“Naw. I came for school. But looks like the boys chased the Master off again.”
“You like school?” Seemed like the kid wanted to talk. I think talking was better than thinking, but then I was just kind of flattered that a big kid would pass the time of day with a squirt like me, and I was curious.
“Well, I like learning,” I hedged. “School isn’t so great.” That got a bit of a smile out of the stranger.
“Me too. Guess that’s all done for me now, though.” He turned away and didn’t say anything more.
After a bit I said, “I suppose if there’s no school, Pa’ll expect me to come home and do chores.” I didn’t get up. “What’re you doing?”
“Waiting. My Pa,” I saw him swallow hard, “Pa talked of Miss Tess and this here Tavern, so I thought I’d ask.” Suddenly sounding angry, the stranger said, “You’d better shove off then.”
I’m no dummy. I figured there wasn’t any Pa any more, and maybe the kid needed to cry, so I took off.
That night my Pa started talking about the school, and how the townsfolk thought maybe it would be a good idea just to leave it closed, seeing as it cost money and no one was getting much good out of it anyhow. Pa glanced my way when he said that, being as he knew I liked school. I felt pretty low.
But next day I went into town, and Mr. Burton, who calls himself the Mayor, was saying that they had to get a new teacher, because the School Inspector was coming and we’d be in big trouble if our youngsters weren’t in school. So they were pretty desperate for a teacher. Mr. Burton was asking around for who could read, but of course all the grown folk who had any learning were either long gone from Skunk Corners, or they had work already, and no time to teach a pack of mostly unwilling youngsters.
Now, don’t you tell Al, or I’ll end up in the creek, but I up and told the Mayor that this Big Al fellow, seemed to have maybe been to school some. I was making a wide guess, but I wanted my school, and maybe I felt bad for him, because he hadn’t found any work yet, and was sleeping in Tess’s woodshed with the mice and spiders.
Al dodged a bit at first, but five dollars a month and a room to sleep in must’ve been a powerful temptation, because pretty soon we had us a school again. That’s when the fun started.
Everyone always came to school the first day with a new teacher, to see the fun. That meant Jake and Harry, too, and they set right in with their usual tricks. They figured that Al being younger’n them, he’d be easy pickings.
It took about a half a day before our new teacher had had enough. The boys were making comments about Al being some kind of sissy, or even a girl, on account of his voice not being really changed.
Instead of bursting into tears or anything, Big Al walked down the aisle past the rear desks, where the big kids—Jake and Harry and a couple of girls—sat, and opened the door. Of course, we all thought our new teacher was going to walk out. But instead, Al came back, grabbed one of those boys in each hand—and now we saw that even though Big Al wasn’t any taller than them, he had a lot of muscle. Next thing Jake and Harry knew, they were out the door, and Al stood on the top step saying, “You are done with school. I don’t want to see your faces here again, unless and until you actually want to learn, which I don’t reckon will happen in this world. Idiots.” Then Al closed the door and walked back to the front of the room.
“Anyone else? If anyone doesn’t want to at least pretend they want to learn, you can join those boys in the street. Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean you can get away with anything here.”
Well! You could have knocked us over with a duster full of feathers! There Al stood, looking just as much like a boy as ever, saying she was a girl as though we’d known all along. We were too stunned to move. After that, I think most stayed out of curiosity about this girl who dressed and acted like a boy, and could throw bullies out without breaking a sweat. I’m not saying many of us did much learning. But I’ll tell you, no one ever tried to make Al leave.
So that’s how Big Al came to Skunk Corners and how she became our Teacher. I guess maybe Tom would like to know more about why she came and all that, but she’s never said, except that bit the first day. Al’s private, and I guess Mr. Tom’s the only one could ask her about it and not end up in the creek, unless maybe Tess could. I’m not asking. I’ve no hankering for a swim this early in the spring.