At fifteen years old, and fresh out of eighth grade, Juliet Whitlock left her home in Iowa, and all that was comfortable there, to head west into the unknown, to a teaching job in Nowhere, Montana. She arrives in the fall of 1872, only to find that it isn't so much a school as it is a town that needs a school.
Unprepared for either the demands of life in the west or the demands of teaching first through eight grades, she takes on both with determination and tenacity. Although her initial plan is to teach no longer than when she is twenty-- by which time all respectable and desirable young women are married and starting families-- she quickly learns that teaching is not something that she does, but is the essence of what she is. She teaches for twenty seven years.
Every teacher can tell endless stories about both the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the memorable and not so memorable things that make this profession like no other. On the last day of school for each year, Juliet writes a summary of the year. It becomes a story not just of a person, but of the dozens upon dozens of individual students, of the life and slow demise of the town itself amidst the turmoils of the area in the late nineteenth century. It is about someone we knew, another person who led us into the worlds of knowledge, who poked us and prodded us to ask questions, to formulate answers, to read and write and manipulate numbers. It is about those people who gave to us far more than they took, who poured themselves into us, who asked for nothing more than that we use what we learned to become active and responsible citizens.
The Nowhere School
“I have no patience with those who climb the tree of knowledge
and then pull the ladder up after them.”
—B ooker T. Washington
"God seems to have made woman peculiarly suited to guide
and develop the infant mind, so it seems...very poor policy
to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the AB Cs,
when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price."
-- L ittleton School Committee, L ittleton, Massachusetts, 1849
Twenty seven years as a teacher, a lifetime by many standards, ended a few moments ago, when my last student left the building for the summer. The emotions, which of course I did not show to my students, are now coming over me, welling up into my eyes and heart and mind. Twenty seven years. It seems both like forever and mere seconds, the mixing of the good and the bad, of the disappointing and the rewarding, of the old and new.
When I am done with all the final things of spring, I too will walk out the door for the last time. It is the same door through which I walked to begin my career in the fall of 1872.
I am aware, perhaps too aware, that everything I do today will be for the last time. Close and lock the windows. Put all books and papers into the mouse proof containers. Empty the inkwell. Sweep the floor. Empty the desks of all the sticks, rocks, doll parts, and other pieces of a child’s life that make their way into the sanctuary of the personal desk.
And my favorite: read all of the new carvings in the desks. Marking desks is of course prohibited, but in my experience is also unpreventable. It is a rite that is similar to a gravestone, I believe. It says, I was here. Young boys who vehemently denied marking desks return years later with their own children, only to show them the bottom of this desk or the seat of that one in the corner, their initials, crudely carved, a hurried scrawl of “G.M.” or “P.A.” I was here, the carvings say to me for the last time.
For me, the remembrances are but a delay in seeking a satisfactory answer to the only question that matters: Did I make a difference? I am sure that all of us at some point in our lives look backward instead of forward, and ask the question. We want to know that we mattered in someone’s life, that we said something or did something which forever changed them into something better than they might otherwise have been. Someone. Anyone.
It would not be enough if all that I passed on to students was the subject matter itself. It is not enough that they can read or write or cipher numbers. Many people could have taught them those things. I would like to be able to know— privately, of course, as it is a source of satisfaction and not pride— if my students now make better decisions, use better words, have better temperaments in adversity, because in some little way or another, I reached them to their souls, opened new worlds of wonder and excitement for them, challenged them to do more, and to do it better. I wonder if any of them, in the silence of their hearts, say a prayer of thankfulness for me. I wonder, but do not fret, as it is all now beyond my control. I must be content with knowing that I gave it my all every day of every year.
I open my private locker, slowly pack up some of the cherished items I have kept, most of which are drawings which depict me in poses and colors which to the eye are unflattering, but to the heart are precious beyond words. I have many favorites, among them one where I have horns and am carrying a pitchfork. It is labeled “What my mother thinks you are.” In another, I am a face on a pumpkin, and on another, I am a stick figure with breasts that look more like large eyes attached to both sides of the line, all surrounded by hearts and “I love Miss Whatlick” printed with each letter a different color. Then, of course, there is the pencil drawing that Maddie Morgan drew of me when I was much, much younger.
I also have twenty seven notebooks. They began as diaries, “Monday, October 7, 1872, reported for my first day of work. First arranged all of the desks into very straight columns and rows,” but evolved more into things that I wished not to forget rather than mundane things which I did.
I have not written daily, as that also became forced and uninteresting. For the last twenty or so years, they contain as many memories as facts. So many times I said to myself or out loud that “I will never forget the time…,” and then promptly forgot it or its perceived significance to me. Oh, how many times I have lamented, “What was it that I was not going to forget?” At this point in my life, and henceforward, I care so little about straightening desks and whether it snowed or not on a particular day, that I am glad I do not have the drudgery of reading through the drivel to find the gems.
At the end of my first year, in the spring of 1873, I read my journal for the year and decided that taken with all the detail, it was still too cumbersome ever to read again, so I then wrote a synopsis of that year. I did this on the last day of the school year, after the last student had left, but before I did. I attempted to tell the events as a story rather than as a reporter, taking as few liberties with the actual events as possible. I did this each year.
I made the promise to myself that once I wrote a page, I would not re-read a single word I had written until I was finished teaching. For the most part, I did that. Occasionally, when I was writing and got distracted, I would re-read a paragraph or two just to remember where I was. I now look upon the twenty seven journals with both a trepidation and a childish anticipation. I want again to see the faces, hear the laughs, watch the determination with which some students attacked every lesson. I want to compare my memory now to my memory twenty years ago.
If I could, I would line up all of the children as I remember them, perhaps each year’s class together so that I could see them progress from their first day through their last. I would tell them what they all meant to me, what an honor it has been to be entrusted with the beginnings of their lives, how much I have learned from each of them. I would vow not to cry, but of course I would, as would the girls I had as students, while the boys would fiddle and complain that the speech was too long and the food is getting cold.
Perhaps I shall travel. In the summer of 1885, I took a wondrous trip to Yellowstone Park, which could be a book of unbelievable things on its own. Other than those trips, I believe I can count on my hands the number of times I have been more than thirty miles from the building in which I now sit. I took a train to Seattle one summer, after having heard so much about its beauty and uniqueness. I found it both of those, but also far too congested and crowded for me. The noises and smells overwhelmed my senses. Still, it was an adventure which I shall cherish, both in what it was and how much it made me appreciate the simplicity of my own life here in Nowhere.
I have thought also that I might like to go back east, to Iowa, to see if Miss Chastity Robinette is still alive and well. It is with the greatest respect and gratefulness that I think of her, my own teacher in school. She challenged a very lazy six year old girl to try harder, to learn all that she could learn. More than anything, Miss Robinette made me want to learn. Reading was not just looking at pages. It was immersing oneself into the information, the story, the poem. It was, she would always say, “magic of the highest order.” She taught me that someone somewhere at some time had a thought— a fantasy, an epiphany, a new way of explaining something, a reporting of events— and they made random marks on blank sheets of paper, which I could look at and see and feel and know what that person was thinking. Pure magic.
Arithmetic was not drudgery of addition and subtraction tables, but an intricate scheme of useful functionality, an always-present challenge to manipulate the numbers in my head, coming up with my own secret ways of gaining answers quickly. It was fun to be able to calculate interest or cost of a wagon full of grain in my head more quickly than my (mostly male) counterparts could do on paper.
And history. History was never dry. She taught me that it was an immersion into someone else’s life, that for every historical event there were happening more than the facts that we read. There were people out in the fields digging the dirt for subsistence, there was weather, there were clothes and social mores and disease. “Become part of the story, explore the zeitgeist,” she always said to me. “Be there. Be part of the story. Feel it. Taste it. Hear it. Read history as you would read Pride and Prejudice or Last of the Mohicans.”
Lastly, she taught me to learn with passion. Want to learn. “Do not leave a single second of your life wasted. If you have no chores to do, then learn something. Learn, learn, learn. Want it like you want water and air. If you are going to work, learn something more about your task. If you are going to play, learn about the grass and the trees and the clouds. Learn, learn, learn.”
It is those qualities which I have tried to instill into each and every one of my students, with some obvious successes and many apparent failures. I remember both clearly, one with unbounded joy, the other with unbounded sadness.
Miss Robinette also made me want to teach. She told me to give myself to it, not just to teach, but to be a teacher, “with every fiber of your soul, every day of your life.” It is she who arranged for me to be hired for this position, to make my way west and make my own life. Through a previous acquaintance of hers, she had been contacted herself about the position. Being “already middle aged” at thirty, she declined, but recommended me as I was just finishing my eighth and last year of schooling. For reasons which I still cannot fathom, other than the grace and plan of God, they hired me and paid my way here.
How do you thank someone for that, for guiding you into the life for which you were created? I must see her again. I must.
After that, I would like to see Chicago and New York, and then continue on for a visit to Paris. The pictures and drawings I have seen in books and magazines are wondrous. If I have enough funds once I reach Europe, I should like to continue to Egypt to see the pyramids. Who could resist looking upon such structures of antiquity without imagining that they were Nefertiri or some other goddess? Who can choose among the world’s fascinating places those which are worthy of the time and money it takes to view them?
I look up, see Emmy Mason standing at the door. She has a handful of wildflowers in her hands, her head bowed.
“Hello, Emmy. What can I do for you?” I ask.
She stands there, wipes her nose and eyes with her sleeve, tries to talk but can’t. I remove myself from behind the desk, and walk across the room to her. I kneel down, lift her chin slightly so I can see her face. Her eyes are red, her cheeks showing the path her tears have taken as they made their way to the ground.
“What is it, Emmy?”
She puts her arms around me, hugs me tightly, more firmly than I would have thought possible from so small a child. She buries her face against my neck, sobs. I let her hold me, do not rush the moment, either for her or for myself.
“I’m sorry,” she finally says.
I pull her away from me just far enough so I can look at her face again. “Sorry for what?” I ask.
“Sorry that I made you leave.”
“Whatever are you talking about, Emmy?”
“Tommy Barnett told me that you were leaving because you didn’t like me because I was poor. He said that if it wasn’t for me, you would keep being the teacher. He said this was all my fault. I’m sorry.”
I pull her back close to me, begin to cry myself. I didn’t teach Tommy Barnett anything. “That’s not true, Emmy. That’s just not true. There are many reasons why I am not going to teach any more, but you are certainly are not one of them. Truth be told, you are my favorite student ever.”
Her eyes perk up, her face becomes a large question mark. “Really?” she asks. “Really?”
“Yes, Emmy. That’s the truth.”
“Tommy Barnett is mean. I don’t like him.”
Truth be told, I don’t blame you.
She gives me the flowers, tells me again that she is sorry, and that she loves me. She gives me one last, quick hug, turns and bounds out the door into the afternoon sun.