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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 7
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The Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 7 Post by :empower Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :February 2011 Read :3378

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The Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 7

Part I Chapter VII

As they proceeded, more briskly now, she talked of her life in the Chicago schools. She had taken the work when nothing else offered in the day of her calamity. She described the struggle for appointment. If it had not been for her father's old friend, a dentist, she would never have succeeded in entering the system. A woman, she explained, must be a Roman Catholic, or have some influence with the Board, to get an appointment. Qualifications? She had had a better education in the Rockminster school than was required, but if a good-natured schoolteacher hadn't coached her on special points in pedagogy, school management, nature-study, etc., she would never have passed the necessary examinations.

In an impersonal way she described the life of a teacher in a great American school system: its routine, its spying supervision, its injustices, its mechanical ideals, its one preeminent ambition to teach as many years as it was necessary to obtain a pension. There were the superintendents, the supervisors, the special teachers, the principals--petty officers of a petty tyranny in which too often seethed gossip, scandal, intrigue. There were the "soft places"; the deceitful, the easy, the harsh principals; the teachers' institutes to which the poor teacher was forced to pay her scanty dollars. There were bulletins, rules, counter-rules. As she talked, Sommers caught the atmosphere of the great engine to which she had given herself. A mere isolated atom, she was set in some obscure corner of this intricate machine, and she was compelled to revolve with the rest, as the rest, in the fear of disgrace and of hunger. The terms "special teachers," "grades of pay," "constructive work," "discipline," etc., had no special significance to him, typifying merely the exactions of the mill, the limitations set about the human atom.

Her manner of telling it all was unpremeditated, incoherent, and discursive, and yet strangely effective. She described the contortions of her kaleidoscope as they came to mind haphazard, with an indifference, a precise objectivity that made the picture all the more real and universal, not the special story of the special case.

"The first weeks I was nearly lost; the drawing teacher didn't like me, and reported my room for disorder; the 'cat'--that is what they call the principal--kept running in and watching, and the pupils--there were seventy-five--I could barely keep them quiet. There was no teaching. How could one teach all those? Most of our time, even in 'good' rooms, is taken up in keeping order. I was afraid each day would be my last, when Miss M'Gann, who was the most friendly one of the teachers, told me what to do. 'Give the drawing teacher something nice from your lunch, and ask her in to eat with you. She is an ignorant old fool, but her brother is high up in a German ward. And give the cat taffy. Ask him how he works out the arithmetic lessons, and about his sassing the assistant superintendent, and make yourself agreeable.'

"I did as I was told," she ended with a smile, "and things went better for a time. But there was always the married teachers' scare. Every month or so some one starts the rumor that the Board is going to remove all married teachers; there are complaints that the married women crowd out the girls--those who have to support themselves."

They both laughed at the irony of the argument, and their laugh did much to do away with the constraint, the tension of their mood. More gayly she mentioned certain farcical incidents.

"Once I saw a principal hurl a book at a sleepy teacher, who was nodding in his lecture at the Institute. Poor woman! she is so nearly deaf that she can hear nothing, and they say she can never remember where the lessons are: the pupils conduct the recitations. But she has taught in that school for twenty-three years, and she is a political influence in the ward. Imagine it!"

They laughed again, and the world seemed lighter. Sommers looked at his companion more closely and appreciatively. Her tone of irony, of amused and impartial spectatorship, entertained him. Would he, caught like this, wedged into an iron system, take it so lightly, accept it so humanly? It was the best the world held out for her: to be permitted to remain in the system, to serve out her twenty or thirty years, drying up in the thin, hot air of the schoolroom; then, ultimately, when released, to have the means to subsist in some third-rate boarding-house until the end. Or marry again? But the dark lines under the eyes, the curve of experience at the mouth, did not warrant that supposition. She had had her trial of that alternative.

She did not question him, and evinced no curiosity about his world. She had touched it on the extreme edge, and she was content with that, satisfied probably that this unexpected renewal of their connection was most casual--too fortunate to happen again. So she took him into a perfectly easy intimacy; it was the nearness that comes between two people when there is slight probability of a common future.

At last she turned into one of the streets that crossed the avenue at long intervals. This one was more developed than those they had passed: a row of gigantic telephone poles stretched along its side; two car tracks in use indicated that it was a thoroughfare. At the corner there was an advertising sign of The Hub Clothing House; and beneath, on one spoke of a tiny hub, _This is Ninety-first Street_; and at right angles on another spoke, _This is Washington Avenue_. He remembered vaguely having seen a Washington Avenue miles to the north. The thing had been drawn on the map by a ruler, without regard to habitations; on the map it probably went on into Indiana, to the Ohio River,--to the Gulf for all he knew.

Yet the cross-road was more promising than anything they had met: a truck farm bordered one side; a line of tall willows suggested faintly the country. Just beyond the tracks of a railroad the ground rose almost imperceptibly, and a grove of stunted oaks covered the miniature hill. The bronzed leaves still hanging from the trees made something like shade beside the road.

"That is better," Sommers exclaimed, relieved to find a little oasis in the desert of sand and weeds.

The woman smiled. "It is almost a forest; it runs south for a block. And beyond there is the loveliest meadow, all tender green now. Over there you can see the Everglade School, where I spend my days. The people are Swedes, mostly,--operatives in the factories at Grand Crossing and on the railroads. Many of the children can scarcely understand a word of English,--and their habits! But they are better than the Poles, in the Halsted Street district, or the Russians in another West Side district. And we have a brick building, not rooms rented in a wooden house. And the principal is an old woman, too fat to climb all the stairs to my room. So I am left alone to reign among my young barbarians."

When they reached the grove, Mrs. Preston crossed the car tracks and entered a little grassy lane that skirted the stunted oaks. A few hundred feet from the street stood a cottage built of yellow "Milwaukee" brick. It was quite hidden from the street by the oak grove. The lane ended just beyond in a tangle of weeds and undergrowth. On the west side there was an open, marshy lot which separated the cottage in the trees from Stoney Island Avenue,--the artery that connects Pullman and the surrounding villages with Chicago.

An old German had lived in it, Mrs. Preston explained, until his death a year or two ago. He had a little chicken farm. As no one else wanted to live in such a desolate place, so far from the scattered hamlets, she had got it for a small rent. The house was a tiny imitation of a castle, with crenelated parapet and tower. Crumbling now and weather-stained, it had a quaint, human, wistful air. Its face was turned away from the road toward a bit of garden, which was fenced off from the lane by arbors of grape-vines.

Sommers tied his horse to the gate post. Mrs. Preston did not speak after they reached the house. Her face had lost its animation. They stood still for some time, gazing into the peaceful garden plot and the bronzed oaks beyond, as if loath to break the intimacy of the last half hour. In the solitude, the dead silence of the place, there seemed to lurk misfortune and pain. Suddenly from a distance sounded the whirr of an electric car, passing on the avenue behind them. The noise came softened across the open lot--a distant murmur from the big city that was otherwise so remote.

The spring twilight had descended, softening all brutal details. The broad horizon above the lake was piled deep with clouds. Beyond the oak trees, in the southern sky, great tongues of flame shot up into the dark heavens out of the blast furnaces of the steel works. Deep-toned, full-throated frogs had begun their monotonous chant.

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Part I Chapter VIII "Shall we go in?" the doctor asked at last. Mrs. Preston started, and her hand closed instinctively upon the gate, as if to bar further entrance to her privacy. Then without reply she opened the gate, led the way across the tiny lawn, and unlocked the cottage door. They entered a large room, from which some narrow stairs led to the chambers above. Floor and walls were bare, and the only furniture consisted of two wooden chairs, a small coal-stove, and a pine table of considerable size. This was covered with books, school exercises, and a few
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