Death in the School-Room
By Walt Whitman
TING-A-LING-LING-LING! went the little bell on the teacher’s desk of a village-school one morning, when the studies of the earlier part of the day were about half completed. It was well understood that this was a command for silence and attention; and when these had been obtain’d, the master spoke. He was a low thick-set man, and his name was Lugare.
“Boys,” said he, “I have had a complaint enter’d, that last night some of you were stealing fruit from Mr. Nichols’s garden. I rather think I know the thief. Tim Barker, step up here, sir.”
The one to whom he spoke came forward. He was a slight, fair-looking boy of about thirteen; and his face had a laughing, good-humor’d expression, which even the charge now preferr’d against him, and the stern tone and threatening look of the teacher, had not entirely dissipated. The countenance of the boy, however, was too unearthly fair for health; it had, notwithstanding its fleshy, cheerful look, a singular cast as if some inward disease, and that a fearful one, were seated within. As the stripling stood before that place of judgment — that place so often made the scene of heartless and coarse brutality, of timid innocence confused, helpless childhood outraged, and gentle feelings crush’d — Lugare looked on him with a frown which plainly told that he felt in no very pleasant mood. (Happily a worthier and more philosophical system is proving to men that schools can be better govern’d than by lashes and tears and sighs. We are waxing toward that consummation when one of the old-fashion’d school-masters, with his cowhide, his heavy birch-rod, and his many ingenious methods of child-torture, will be gazed upon as a scorn’d memento of an ignorant, cruel, and exploded doctrine. May propitious gales speed that day!)
“Were you by Mr. Nichols’s garden-fence last night?” said Lugare.
“Yes, sir,” answer’d the boy, “I was.”
“Well, sir, I’m glad to find you so ready with your confession. And so you thought you could do a little robbing, and enjoy yourself in a manner you ought to be ashamed to own, without being punish’d, did you?”
“I have not been robbing,” replied the boy quickly. His face was suffused, whether with resentment or fright, it was difficult to tell. “And I didn’t do anything last night, that I am ashamed to own.”
“No impudence!” exclaim’d the teacher, passionately, as he grasp’d a long and heavy ratan:”give me none of your sharp speeches, or I’ll thrash you till you beg like a dog.”
The youngster’s face paled a little; his lip quiver’d, but he did not speak.
“And pray, sir,” continued Lugare, as the outward signs of wrath disappear’d from his features; “what were you about the garden for? Perhaps you only receiv’d the plunder, and had an accomplice to do the more dangerous part of the job?”
“I went that way because it is on my road home. I was there again afterwards to meet an acquaintance; and — and — But I did not go into the garden, nor take anything away from it. I would not steal, — hardly to save myself from starving.”
“You had better have stuck to that last evening. You were seen, Tim Barker, to come from under Mr. Nichols’s garden-fence, a little after nine o’clock, with a bag full of something or other over your shoulders. The bag had every appearance of being filled with fruit, and this morning the melon-beds are found to have been completely clear’d. Now, sir, what was there in that bag?”
Like fire itself glow’d the face of the detected lad. He spoke not a word. All the school had their eyes directed at him. The perspiration ran down his white forehead like rain-drops.
“Speak, sir!” exclaimed Lugare, with a loud strike of his ratan on the desk.
The boy look’d as though he would faint. But the unmerciful teacher, confident of having brought to light a criminal, and exulting in the idea of the severe chastisement he should now be justified in inflicting, kept working himself up to a still greater and greater degree of passion. In the meantime, the child seem’d hardly to know what to do with himself. His tongue cleav’d to the roof of his mouth. Either he was very much frighten’d, or he was actually unwell.
“Speak, I say!” again thunder’d Lugare; and his hand, grasping his ratan, tower’d above his head in a very significant manner.
“I hardly can, sir,” said the poor fellow faintly. His voice was husky and thick. “I will tell you some — some other time. Please let me go to my seat — I a’n’t well.”
“Oh yes; that’s very likely;” and Mr. Lugare bulged out his nose and cheeks with contempt. “Do you think to make me believe your lies? I’ve found you out, sir, plainly enough; and I am satisfied that you are as precious a little villain as there is in the State. But I will postpone settling with you for an hour yet. I shall then call you up again; and if you don’t tell the whole truth then, I will give you something that’ll make you remember Mr. Nichols’s melons for many a month to come: — go to your seat.”
Glad enough of the ungracious permission, and answering not a sound, the child crept tremblingly to his bench. He felt very strangely, dizzily — more as if he was in a dream than in real life; and laying his arms on his desk, bow’d down his face between them. The pupils turn’d to their accustom’d studies, for during the reign of Lugare in the village-school, they had been so used to scenes of violence and severe chastisement, that such things made but little interruption in the tenor of their way.
Now, while the intervening hour is passing, we will clear up the mystery of the bag, and of young Barker being under the garden fence on the preceding night. The boy’s mother was a widow, and they both had to live in the very narrowest limits. His father had died when he was six years old, and little Tim was left a sickly emaciated infant whom no one expected to live many months. To the surprise of all, however, the poor child kept alive, and seem’d to recover his health, as he certainly did his size and good looks. This was owing to the kind offices of an eminent physician who had a country-seat in the neighborhood, and who had been interested in the widow’s little family. Tim, the physician said, might possibly outgrow his disease; but everything was uncertain. It was a mysterious and baffling malady; and it would not be wonderful if he should in some moment of apparent health be suddenly taken away. The poor widow was at first in a continual state of uneasiness; but several years had now pass’d, and none of the impending evils had fallen upon the boy’s head. His mother seem’d to feel confident that he would live, and be a help and an honor to her old age; and the two struggled on together, mutually happy in each other, and enduring much of poverty and discomfort without repining, each for the other’s sake.
Tim’s pleasant disposition had made him many friends in the village, and among the rest a young farmer named Jones, who, with his elder brother, work’d a large farm in the neighborhood on shares. Jones very frequently made Tim a present of a bag of potatoes or corn, or some garden vegetables, which he took from his own stock; but as his partner was a parsimonious, high-tempered man, and had often said that Tim was an idle fellow, and ought not to be help’d because he did not work, Jones generally made his gifts in such a manner that no one knew anything about them, except himself and the grateful objects of his kindness. It might be, too, that the widow was loth to have it understood by the neighbors that she received food from anyone; for there is often an excusable pride in people of her condition which makes them shrink from being consider’d as objects of “charity” as they would from the severest pains. On the night in question, Tim had been told that Jones would send them a bag of potatoes, and the place at which they were to be waiting for him was fixed at Mr. Nichols’s garden-fence. It was this bag that Tim had been seen staggering under, and which caused the unlucky boy to be accused and convicted by his teacher as a thief. That teacher was one little fitted for his important and responsible office. Hasty to decide, and inflexibly severe, he was the terror of the little world he ruled so despotically. Punishment he seemed to delight in. Knowing little of those sweet fountains which in children’s breasts ever open quickly at the call of gentleness and kind words, he was fear’d by all for his sternness, and loved by none. I would that he were an isolated instance in his profession.
The hour of grace had drawn to its close, and the time approach’d at which it was usual for Lugare to give his school a joyfully-receiv’d dismission. Now and then one of the scholars would direct a furtive glance at Tim, sometimes in pity, sometimes in indifference or inquiry. They knew that he would have no mercy shown him, and though most of them loved him, whipping was too common there to exact much sympathy. Every inquiring glance, however, remain’d unsatisfied, for at the end of the hour, Tim remain’d with his face completely hidden, and his head bow’d in his arms, precisely as he had lean’d himself when he first went to his seat. Lugare look’d at the boy occasionally with a scowl which seem’d to bode vengeance for his sullenness. At length the last class had been heard, and the last lesson recited, and Lugare seated himself behind his desk on the platform, with his longest and stoutest ratan before him.
“Now, Barker,” he said, “we’ll settle that little business of yours. Just step up here.”
Tim did not move. The school-room was as still as the grave. Not a sound was to be heard, except occasionally a long-drawn breath.
“Mind me, sir, or it will be the worse for you. Step up here, and take off your jacket!”
The boy did not stir any more than if he had been of wood. Lugare shook with passion. He sat still a minute, as if considering the best way to wreak his vengeance. That minute, passed in death-like silence, was a fearful one to some of the children, for their faces whiten’d with fright. It seem’d, as it slowly dropp’d away, like the minute which precedes the climax of an exquisitely-performed tragedy, when some mighty master of the histrionic art is treading the stage, and you and the multitude around you are waiting, with stretch’d nerves and suspended breath, in expectation of the terrible catastrophe.
“Tim is asleep, sir,” at length said one of the boys who sat near him.
Lugare, at this intelligence, allow’d his features to relax from their expression of savage anger into a smile, but that smile look’d more malignant if possible, than his former scowls. It might be that he felt amused at the horror depicted on the faces of those about him; or it might be that he was gloating in pleasure on the way in which he intended to wake the slumberer.
“Asleep! are you, my young gentleman!” said he; “let us see if we can’t find something to tickle your eyes open. There’s nothing like making the best of a bad case, boys. Tim, here, is determin’d not to be worried in his mind about a little flogging, for the thought of it can’t even keep the little scoundrel awake.”
Lugare smiled again as he made the last observation. He grasp’d his ratan firmly, and descended from his seat. With light and stealthy steps he cross’d the room, and stood by the unlucky sleeper. The boy was still as unconscious of his impending punishment as ever. He might be dreaming some golden dream of youth and pleasure; perhaps he was far away in the world of fancy, seeing scenes, and feeling delights, which cold reality never can bestow. Lugare lifted his ratan high over his head, and with the true and expert aim which he had acquired by long practice, brought it down on Tim’s back with a force and whacking sound which seem’d sufficient to awake a freezing man in his last lethargy. Quick and fast, blow follow’d blow. Without waiting to see the effect of the first cut, the brutal wretch plied his instrument of torture first on one side of the boy’s back, and then on the other, and only stopped at the end of two or three minutes from very weariness. But still Tim show’d no signs of motion; and as Lugare, provoked at his torpidity, jerk’d away one of the child’s arms, on which he had been leaning over the desk, his head dropp’d down on the board with a dull sound, and his face lay turn’d up and exposed to view. When Lugare saw it, he stood like one transfix’d by a basilisk. His countenance turn’d to a leaden whiteness; the ratan dropp’d from his grasp; and his eyes, stretch’d wide open, glared as at some monstrous spectacle of horror and death. The sweat started in great globules seemingly from every pore in his face; his skinny lips contracted, and show’d his teeth; and when he at length stretch’d forth his arm, and with the end of one of his fingers touch’d the child’s cheek, each limb quiver’d like the tongue of a snake; and his strength seemed as though it would momentarily fail him. The boy was dead. He had probably been so for some time, for his eyes were turn’d up, and his body was quite cold. Death was in the school-room, and Lugare had been flogging A CORPSE.
First published in The Democratic Review, 1841