A Puritan School-Day by Carolyn Sherwin Balley

Story type: Literature

Peregrine fastened his long black cloak, and Patience smoothed her white apron and tied the strings of her close-fitting bonnet beneath her dimpled chin. The brother and sister crossed the threshold of the log house which was their home in old Plymouth, almost three hundred years ago, and started to walk across the corn fields and through a patch of woodland, lying between their house and the next cabin.

They were two little Puritan children, going to school.

They laughed and pointed happily to the full ears of corn as they crossed the fields. There would be a good harvest, they knew, and that meant plenty of hot corn-meal mush filling the big copper kettle that hung over their fireplace, and corn would fill the huge brick oven. But as Peregrine and Patience crept softly between the great pine trees of the wood, they clasped each other’s hands more tightly, and started to see a red-winged bird dart out of the branches. “Suppose it had been the bright feather head-dress of an Indian,” they whispered. One was very apt to meet Indians on the way to school in those old-time days.

The long distance was travelled in safety, though. Promptly at eight o’clock, the two little Puritans knocked at the door of a second log house and it was opened by their neighbor, Mistress Endicott. There was no school-bell, there were no desks and comfortable chairs and blackboards and picture books. Mistress Endicott had risen from her spinning wheel, that stood by the fireplace, to let in Peregrine and Patience, and a dozen other small boys and girls of Plymouth. There was no real schoolhouse as yet in Plymouth. Mistress Endicott kept house, and tended her garden, and taught all the children of the neighborhood as well.

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There were long settles beside the fireplace and here the children seated themselves, Peregrine on one side, and Patience on the other, to study their lessons. They were given queer little books, called the New England Primer, in wooden covers, and having funny, tiny pictures for each letter of the alphabet, and beside each, a jingle. There were verses to be learned from the Bible, too. Patience held her primer up close to her nose and studied very diligently, but Peregrine’s eyes wandered out of the window and toward the blue sky. He was thinking of a kite he planned to make when school was over.

“Class stand, and recite,” Mistress Endicott said suddenly, stopping the whir of her spinning wheel only a moment to call the children, for industry and learning had to go on at the same time in those old days in the Colonies.

At once the boys and girls rose and stood in front of their teacher, the copper toes of their stout shoes placed exactly on a long crack in the bare floor. Then they read aloud, while Mistress Endicott’s wheel whirred on. It sounded as if a hive of bees were humming in the schoolroom, but the good dame could listen and spin at the same time. She knew very well if a child made a mistake.

Across the room there were some long benches made of logs, split in two, and with other logs to support them. When the class had finished reading, they took their places at these benches, the boys to do sums, and the girls to work on their samplers. Each little Puritan girl had brought her sewing bag to school, and was working her name, the date of her birthday, and a verse of some kind on a square of canvas, which made her sampler. Patience was working a very fine sampler indeed. Her mother had given her some bright crewels that she had brought from England, and Patience was using them to embroider a basket of flowers in cross-stitch in one corner of her sampler. Patience bent low over her sewing, until her long flaxen braids almost touched the floor. At last, though, she looked up.

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Where was Peregrine, she wondered? He was not on the bench with the other boys. At last Patience saw her brother. Oh, dear, how disgraced she felt! Peregrine had not learned his lesson well, because he had looked out of the window. He had not recited well, so Mistress Endicott had put the dunce’s cap on his head and he stood in a corner where all could see him.

But Peregrine’s punishment did not last for long. He was soon forgiven and busy bringing in logs of wood to pile on the fire. Already the days had a touch of frost in them, and Peregrine’s father had sent the school-mistress a load of wood. This was to pay her for teaching Patience and Peregrine. The other children’s parents paid her in corn, and barley, and other good things that they raised on their farms. If the teacher had been a man, the Puritan mothers would have spun and woven some warm cloth to make him a coat, or knitted him a woollen muffler, or a pair of stockings.

Late in the afternoon, after their luncheon of cold hasty pudding and apples and more study and reading, school was over. Peregrine and Patience each made a low bow before Mistress Endicott, went out of the door, and started home. The dusk was already falling, but they ran, and sang as they hurried along to keep up their courage.

There, at last, was the twinkle of the tallow candle which their mother had set in the window to lead them home. She was waiting for them at the door, and the kettle was singing on the hob. The school-day, almost three hundred years ago, was over.

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