Not many days ago I saw at breakfast the notablest of all your notabilities, Daniel Webster. He is a magnificent specimen. You might say to all the world, “This is our Yankee-Englishman; such links we make in Yankeeland!” As a logic fencer, advocate or Parliamentary Hercules, one would incline to back him at first sight against all the extant world. The tanned complexion; the amorphous, craglike face; the dull black eyes under the precipice of brows, like dull anthracite furnaces needing only to be blown; the mastiff mouth accurately closed; I have not traced so much of silent Berserker rage that I remember of in any other man. “I guess I should not like to be your nigger!”
—Carlyle to Emerson
Those were splendid days, tinged with no trace of blue, when I attended the district school, wearing trousers buttoned to a calico waist. I had ambitions then–I was sure that some day I could spell down the school, propound a problem in fractions that would puzzle the teacher, and play checkers in a way that would cause my name to be known throughout the entire township.
In the midst of these pleasant emotions, a cloud appeared upon the horizon of my happiness. What was it? A Friday Afternoon, that’s all.
A new teacher had been engaged–a woman, actually a young woman. It was prophesied that she could not keep order a single day, for the term before, the big boys had once arisen and put out of the building the man who taught them. Then there was a boy who occasionally brought a dog to school; and when the bell rang, the dog followed the boy into the room and lay under the desk pounding his tail on the floor; and everybody tittered and giggled until the boy had been coaxed into taking the dog home, for if merely left in the entry he howled and whined in a way that made study impossible. But one day the boy was not to be coaxed, and the teacher grabbed the dog by the scruff of the neck, and flung him through a window so forcibly that he never came back. And now a woman was to teach the school: she was only a little woman and yet the boys obeyed her, and I had come to think that a woman could teach school nearly as well as a man, when the awful announcement was made that thereafter every week we were to have a Friday Afternoon. There were to be no lessons; everybody was to speak a piece, and then there was to be a spelling-match–and that was all. But heavens! it was enough.
Monday began very blue and gloomy, and the density increased as the week passed. My mother had drilled me well in my lines, and my big sister was lavish in her praise, but the awful ordeal of standing up before the whole school was yet to come.
Thursday night I slept but little, and all Friday morning I was in a burning fever. At noon I could not eat my lunch, but I tried to, manfully, and as I munched on the tasteless morsels, salt tears rained on the johnnycake I held in my hand. And even when the girls brought in big bunches of wild flowers and cornstalks, and began to decorate the platform, things appeared no brighter.
Finally, the teacher went to the door and rang the bell: nobody seemed to play, and as the scholars took their seats, some, very pale, tried to smile, and others whispered, “Have you got your piece?” Still others kept their lips working, repeating lines that struggled hard to flee.
Names were called, but I did not see who went up, neither did I hear what was said. At last, my name was called: it came like a clap of thunder–as a great surprise, a shock. I clutched the desk, struggled to my feet, passed down the aisle, the sound of my shoes echoing through the silence like the strokes of a maul. The blood seemed ready to burst from my eyes, ears and nose.