(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Rural Illinois, September 1906
[Janie McAlan is now a grown woman, at the age of 17, and prepares for her first day of teaching.]
Janie McAlan stepped from her bedroom into the hallway and descended the steep, well-worn stairs to the main floor of her aunt and uncle’s house — her home in Logan County, Illinois for six years now. To live there felt warm and comfortable, like wearing an old glove. After her mother died when she was five, Janie moved in with her grandparents. When her Aunt Sarah married eight years later, Janie fulfilled her promise to her dying mother and went to live with her aunt and uncle. She could have found the kitchen blindfolded, but the smell of bacon and eggs was enough to guide her in the right direction if she had been lost.
Janie pushed through the swinging door and brightly smiled. “Good morning, Aunt Sarah!” It had been easy to love Aunt Sarah as her own mother. Every time she looked at her aunt, she saw her mother, as the sisters were nearly identical in height, weight, and coloring.
“Good morning, Janie. Well, this is it. Are you ready for your first day? Are you excited?” Sarah grinned at her niece, whom she loved as much as her own children.
Janie took a seat at the breakfast table. She hesitated before answering, mainly because it was in her nature to think clearly before speaking. “Yes, I’m ready.“ Her voice lacked conviction. "I took a full range of academic subjects: from spelling and reading to grammar and arithmetic. I even took several advanced courses in my second year." Janie paused and added, this time with slightly more conviction, “So, yes, I think I’m ready. It will be a memorable day.”
“Do I hear a hint of doubt in my niece’s voice?”
“No,” Janie hesitated. “Not really.”
“Janie, what is it?” Sarah stopped stirring eggs and looked directly at her niece.
“I’m a little worried about those big boys — the older ones, you know.”
Sarah shrugged her shoulders. “Well, they taught you at Dixon how to control them. Set limits. Make sure they’re busy. Give them plenty to do. Right?”
“Yes, I did learn that. Still, Aunt Sarah, some of those boys are very tall. I’m only 5’2”, you know.”
“That’s tall enough, Janie. Remember what your grandmother used to say.”
“I know: ‘When you get as tall as me, that’ll be tall enough.’ I think, actually, I passed her when I was about twelve.”
Both women laughed. Sarah’s mother, and Janie’s grandmother was no taller than 4’10”, but she had a way about her that would make anyone think twice before causing trouble. “You’ll do just fine, Janie. Just remember that you’re the boss. And, by the way, you look beautiful.”
“Oh, thank you. I think we chose well, don’t you?”
“We certainly did.” Janie and her aunt had carefully planned and made her outfit, even her chemise, pataloons and petticoat. Janie had made a blue linen blouse with a shirred and pointed front waistband with three-quarter-length sleeves, edged with Irish crochet at the wrists, and matching the same lace at the neck. The matching pleated skirt flared slightly at the back. Janie had pinned a small locket, a graduation present from her aunt and uncle, to her blouse. She had pulled her long dark hair back, away from her face, and tied it with a blue bow at the neck.
“Thank you for giving me the pin and for the undergarments, Aunt Sarah.”
“You’re welcome, child. I was delighted to help. How are you feeling this morning? This is a very big day.” Sarah placed a plate of eggs and bacon and toast in front of Janie.
“Thank you, Aunt Sarah.” Janie nodded her head, and for a brief moment she felt a tear forming behind her eyes, the memory of her mother’s death never far from her mind. She picked up her fork, but did not eat. “I’m fine. I wish my mother could have been here — or even Grandmother — but I know they’re here with me in spirit.”
“Of course they are, dear. Even your uncle, who‘s out doing his chores, told me to wish you luck.“ A short silence fell between them as they ate their breakfast. “You go on and eat that food now. You’ll have to be leaving soon.”
Janie ate in silence, but with not much enthusiasm, while her aunt prepared food for herself and her husband, as well as for her younger children who would be down for breakfast soon. In truth, Janie had little appetite; she had butterflies in her stomach.
“Aunt Sarah, do you think I was wrong to write to my father and tell him that I had become a teacher?”
“No, Janie, of course not. But your father has a way of breaking your heart, so you have to be prepared for that. Has he responded to your letter?”
Janie shook her head, put down her fork, and looked down at her lap. “No, not yet.”
Sarah sighed and patted Janie’s shoulder. “Oh, Janie, I’m so sorry. I worry that he’ll always say or do something to hurt you, and it looks as though he’s done it again.”
“No, he won’t. I won’t let him.” She brought her hand down on the table, a little harder than necessary.
“We can’t always control our heart, Janie. Your father is your father and, with his new wife and child, he’s made another life for himself. Maybe your presence reminds him of your mother. Maybe his new wife doesn’t like you to be there.”
Janie shook her head. “No, I don’t believe that. He tried to take me with him once when I was much younger.”
Sarah nodded her head. “Yes, he did, but your grandmother and I did not feel he could take care of a little girl. He lived alone and he travelled a lot.“
Janie had heard the reasons before, and they didn’t make her feel any better today than they ever had. “I wish I could have known my father better.” It didn’t begin to express her hurt, but it felt better to say that much.
“I know he‘s hurt you, Janie. But you‘ve been lucky to have your grandmother, your uncle, and me. Have we not given you all the love you needed?”
Janie could not possibly say anything else: “Of course.”
As Janie mumbled her final comment, Sarah’s three daughters — Gladys, 7; Jean, 5; and LaVern, 4 — came in. Gladys, the oldest, had already assisted her younger sisters to get dressed. All three yawned and stretched. LaVern still held on to her blanket, which she carried everywhere. “Good morning, girls,” their mother said, “come and get your breakfast.” Each child found their place without comment.
“Janie, you must watch the time. You should be off soon.”
Janie agreed with a nod of her head. “I can’t finish this food, Aunt Sarah, but thank you for fixing it for me.” She stood up and carried her plate and cup to the sink.
“Don’t worry about me, dear. You go get ready for your first day of teaching.” Sarah turned around and grabbed a small basket. “Here,” she said, “I made you a little lunch.”
“Oh, Aunt Sarah, thank you so much.” Her three cousins — who seemed more like siblings to her — all looked at her as she turned from the kitchen sink. “Good-bye, girls. Gladys and Jean, I’ll see you at school. Can you remember to call me Miss McAlan?”
“Yes, Janie.” Gladys finished drinking her milk.
“Yes, Miss McAlan.” Jean smirked at her cleverness.
Janie gave each of them a hug and she kissed her aunt on the cheek and left the kitchen. At the door, she re-checked the contents of her satchel: a brand new copy of Peter Pan by J. Barrie; local newspapers which she would use to teach current events, including articles about the ongoing war between Russia and Japan and Norway’s recent separation from Sweden; and name tags for the children’s desks. Now she also had the small lunch basket from her aunt.
“I’m going now, Aunt Sarah,” she called out to her aunt in the kitchen. She grabbed a light cape and stepped out onto the porch and took a deep breath of the cool air. The sun was up now, casting a long shadow over the front yard, and the morning air smelled clear and crisp. She smelled the ripening of corn in the breeze, a sure sign of fall. She turned to look back at her aunt, who now stood in the doorway, and once again said good-bye. She had only a three-mile walk. On both sides of the road, tall cornfields towered over her, and the blue sky revealed only a few high, puffy clouds. She walked down the road with a purpose, a walk she had taken many times before.
Janie had started her education at Dobson School just a mile east of where her grandparents lived. When she was eleven, she was the first and the youngest in the county to take and to pass the seventh grade exam. Her move to her aunt and uncle’s home had taken her eight miles away to live in Elkhart — midway between Lincoln and Springfield. There, she finished the 8th grade — at Madison School, the same school where she was now returning to teach. Her grandparents had supported her decision to go on to high school and then to Dixon Normal School, finishing a two-year teacher-training course in one year. She loved Illinois and Logan County. She knew the names of every native flower, often sat in the shade of a tree and watched the squirrels and hawks, and she could usually predict the day’s weather by smelling the morning wind.
Madison School sat amongst a small grove of trees surrounded by corn fields, waiting for the arrival of the children from the nearby community and surrounding farms. As Janie approached, she remembered her former teacher, Miss Hazel Wallace, who once stood at the same door and greeted Janie when she was younger. I know you’re here, Miss Wallace, Janie thought, and I’ll thank you kindly for any help you can give me today.
Janie had already spent three days working at the school with help from some of the local families. The men — boys and their fathers — had righted the outhouses which had been knocked over by pranksters during the summer; raked and cleaned the schoolyard; stacked wood; carried coal to the storage bin at the side of the school; and painted the outside walls of the building.
The women — girls and their mothers — cleaned away the thick layer of dust on everything inside the classroom. The school supplied a mop and a broom, but many, including Janie, had brought pails, soap, and cleaning rags. They wiped down the chalkboards, windows, and desk tops; mopped the floors; and organized desks. Several families delivered their children’s desks; extra ones had to be carried up from the storage room in the basement. Janie organized them into rows just like Grandmother’s flowers, by size and shape, and grade levels.
The families returned to their farms, and on the third day, Janie had worked alone. She had counted and stacked what few textbooks she had, planned lessons, cleaned each student’s slate, and looked over the class list given to her by the County Board. Most of the names were familiar to her; besides her two young cousins, some of the children were younger brothers and sisters of her friends from her own school days.
The school building, basically just a rectangular box, had a peaked roof and one chimney. Windows, three on each side, provided light — but also distraction for students. At the front of the building a small addition seemed odd and out of place. It appeared as though the workmen had finished the building and then someone had said, “Hey, we’d better have an entrance and a place for the youngsters to leave their coats and boots.” Indeed, that is what the small room was used for: the children’s coats and boots.
Once through the boot room, Janie stood on the threshold of the schoolroom itself. The odd mix of desks — those that were homemade and others provided by the Department of Education — made the room look disorganized, even though Janie had painstakingly created a floor plan. The Davis family‘s long bench and table would be much too large for their smallest child and much too small for their largest child. The Department of Education desks, while coordinated in style and colour, did not accommodate different sizes of students either. Worse still, when one unit was separated from the others, they looked strange indeed. The desk portion was attached to a seat in front of the desk rather than behind it, and this was then connected to another unit. That meant there was always one chair without a desk. Most teachers, Janie had learned, found the extra seats left at the front of the room quite suitable for recalcitrant students.
Janie’s desk, made of oak and containing several drawers, stood on the the raised platform at the front of the room. I’m going to need that height, Janie thought. A large brass bell with a black handle, provided to every teacher by the Department of Education, rested on the corner of the desk and Janie’s plans for the day lay where she had left them the day before. She picked up the bell and rang it. The sound echoed in the room, and Janie looked over her shoulder, wondering if anyone might have come in while she had been lost in her thoughts.
“It’s time to get to work,” she said to herself. She put her satchel down, hung up her cape, and walked around the room, placing small name tags on each of the desks. She had made these the night before, carefully printing each child’s name; she hoped that the children would be delighted to see their names in a special place. Even little children who could not yet read might recognize their own name, but an older child could point it out to them and they could go home that day thrilled that they had learned something. Beside each name tag, she also placed a slate, some chalk and an ink blotter; hopefully, each student would bring their own pen and a scribbler. The older children would know this and would have told the younger ones.
From the corner of the room, she lifted up the bag of ink powder and placed it on her desk. She returned to the back of the room, picked up a pail from the far corner, and walked outside to the well. Janie had already learned that if she pumped hard, the water would quickly come bursting out. Within seconds, she filled the pail up to a line which had been etched by a nail on the inside. Returning to her desk, she measured out three tin cups of the powdered ink and poured it into the pail. This was a tricky task: Too little water, and the ink would stick in the pens and make huge globs of marks on the students’ work. Too much water, and the ink would be so thin it would be impossible to read. Eventually many of her morning chores — including mixing the ink — would be done by the students, but that would not begin until she could organize groups. Today, it was Janie’s job, so she completed her task by lining up the ink wells on her desk, pouring in the ink, and then carrying the wells to each student’s desk pocket.
Within moments of finishing this task, Janie looked up to see at the door two young girls, about the ages of five and seven, staring at her but not moving.
“Good morning,” Janie encouraged them with her friendliest smile. “Are you here for your first day of school? My name is Miss McAlan. What’s yours?”
“This here is Mary, my little sister. She’s only five years old and never been to school. I’m older. I’m 6. I can take care of myself. My name‘s Elizabeth.”
“Come in and join me, Mary and Elizabeth. The other children will be here soon. Can you find your names on a desk?” Both girls’ faces lit up at the thought of a treasure hunt for their name. Elizabeth took her sister’s hand and together they walked down the first aisle between the desks.
Janie watched them and waited. “I found it!” Elizabeth yelled and pointed proudly to her name on one of the front desks.
“Wonderful,” said Janie. “Now see if you can find your sister’s.”
Seventeen-year-old Janie McAlan’s first day of teaching had begun. She felt certain that her mother’s spirit was with her. This day would be a memorable one, and one — among many — which she wished she could have shared with her mother. Unbeknowst to Janie, however, it would be three years before she would meet Simon Cullen, arguably a more important day in her life.
- Continue to Chapter 6.
- Refer to Family Tree to keep relationship of characters in mind.
- Return to Family Legacies Table of Contents.
Disclaimer: While it is true that my characters were inspired by my own genealogical study, I could not and did not know my ancestors with the same intimacy that I have created in my characters. Therefore, let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.