Summary: A young Joe is having trouble at school.
Rated: K+ (4,240 words)
A Lesson for Miss Sprigg
Ben Cartwright watched from the porch as his youngest son, ten-year-old Joe rode in from school. The boy was obviously still dejected, riding slowly and dismounting carefully instead of jumping from the horse the way he usually did. It was worrying Ben, this behavior. Joe was usually so full of life, carefree and talkative, but for almost a week now the child had been unnaturally quiet and withdrawn. When asked, he maintained firmly that nothing was wrong, though his whole family could see that this was plainly not the case.
“How was school?” Ben asked the boy as he came into the house a little later, after seeing to his horse.
Ben sighed at the one word answer, which seemed to be all he heard from the boy lately, “And you’re feeling all right?”
“Fine,” Joe said again, and dodged away as his father put out a hand to feel his forehead. “I’m not ill,” he protested.
“Well something’s wrong,” Ben said with concern. He looked down at the boy; Joe was small for his age, with the fine boned features of his mother, Ben’s third wife Marie. A handsome little boy with a face that clearly showed his emotions and anyone could see that the child was unhappy over something. “I wish you’d tell me what it is Joe. Perhaps I could help.”
For a long moment Joe stared up at his father, then abruptly turned away. “There’s nothing wrong. I’m fine Pa, honest.”
“Go along upstairs then and get started on your homework,” Ben said in frustration. Joe had been close to telling him something then, he was sure of it. Sighing, he watched his son as he wandered slowly towards the stairs. He would have another try at finding out later.
“Joe, are you playing this game or not?” Hoss asked irritably. “It’s your move.”
Ben looked up from the book he was reading. His two youngest sons were supposed to be playing checkers together but this was the second time that Hoss had needed to prompt his little brother to make a move.
“All right. I know,” Joe said tetchily. He reached out his hand towards one of the pieces but somehow managed to brush his sleeve across the board, moving the checkers off their places.
“Be careful, won’t you!” Hoss complained in annoyance.
With a swift move, that surprised both his father and brother, Joe grasped the board and tipped it up, scattering checkers everywhere.
“What did you do that for?” Hoss asked in astonishment.
“I don’t want to play, all right?” Joe yelled, getting to his feet and heading for the stairs
“Joseph,” his father’s angry voice stopped the boy in his tracks. “Pick up those checkers right now, and then apologise to your brother. And after you’ve done that perhaps you’d like to tell me what prompted that little outburst.”
Sulkily Joe returned to the table and began to pick up the scattered pieces, returning them to their place on the board.
“Well?” Ben prompted, as Joe put the last checker down on the table.
“Sorry Hoss,” the boy muttered, turning to his brother. “I didn’t mean to lose my temper.”
“That’s all right Joe,” Hoss grinned at him. Ben suppressed a smile, his two youngest sons were very close and Hoss was always ready to forgive his little brother anything.
“Can I go to bed now Pa?” Joe asked quietly, not looking at his father.
“I’d like an explanation first,” Ben told him sternly. Joe remained silent, standing beside the table, eyes fixed on the floor. “Well?” his father demanded eventually, breaking the silence.
“I just lost my temper, I’m sorry all right?”
And that was as much as Ben could get out of his son, who just kept insisting that everything was fine. At last, in exasperation, he gave up and sent the boy up to bed.
“Morning Pa, Adam,” Hoss greeted his father and older brother as he took his place at the table the following morning
“Morning son,” Ben looked up from his breakfast. “Any sign of your little brother yet?”
“No sound from his room,” Hoss told him, intent on piling his plate with food. “Guess he’s still asleep.”
Ben got to his feet, “Then I’d better go and wake him,” he said with an exasperated sigh, “Or he’ll be late for school.”
Climbing the stairs he knocked loudly at Joe’s bedroom door, pushing it open as he did so. “Joseph. Time to get up, son.”
“I’m awake,” Joe mumbled as his father entered the room. “But I don’t feel so good, Pa.”
“What’s the problem?” Ben’s tone was anxious as he crossed to the bed and placed a gentle hand on the boy’s brow, checking for fever.
“My stomach hurts and I feel nauseous. Perhaps I should stay home today, Pa?”
“Perhaps,” Ben said slowly. Joe didn’t look ill and he couldn’t help but feel that this might be a way to avoid going to school. On the other hand Joe rarely complained of feeling unwell, in fact he usually had to be really sick before he’d admit to any illness.
“Stay in bed,” he told the boy, deciding to give him the benefit of the doubt. “And I’ll get Hop Sing to bring you up something to settle your stomach.”
“Yes Pa,” Joe snuggled back down under the sheets. Watching him closely Ben couldn’t help but see the look of relief that crossed his son’s expressive face when he realised he was getting to stay at home.
With the distinct feeling that he’d been had, Ben asked Hop Sing to take up something for Joe’s ‘stomach pains’ and, if he could, to make it as evil tasting as possible.
Sitting back down at the table, Ben looked at his two elder sons. “Either of you have any idea what’s bothering your little brother?” he asked them. “Because he’s certainly not telling me anything.”
“He’s hardly likely to confide in me,” Adam said, a slightly bitter edge to his voice. A few years ago, before Adam went away to college, he would often be his small brother’s confidante but since his return the two didn’t get on as well as they had.
“He ain’t said nothing to me Pa,” Hoss looked concerned. “But I reckon it might be something to do with Miss Sprigg taking over his class at school.”
“Miss Pig!” Adam exclaimed. “Surely she’s not back again? I thought she was as old as Methuselah when she taught me.”
Hoss laughed. “She’s just standing in for the regular teacher for a while,” he said. “And I hear tell the kids still call her by that name, Adam.”
“Hardly respectful,” Ben said, though he couldn’t hide a small smile. He had met Miss Sprigg on various occasions when she had been teaching Adam and, with her small piercing eyes and high-pitched voice, it was easy to see why the children christened her Miss Pig.
“So what makes you think that it’s Miss Sprigg that’s upsetting our baby brother?” Adam asked.
Hoss pushed his empty plate aside and considered the question. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s really just a feeling I get. Since she took over he never wants to talk about school anymore, just changes the subject. She never taught me, but I hear she’s real strict,” Adam nodded his agreement with that. “Of course it could be something else,” Hoss continued. “Perhaps he’s just missing Mitch.” Joe’s best friend, Mitch had been very ill, the boy was recovering, but it would be some weeks yet before he would be fit enough to return to school.
“There’s some problem at school all right,” Ben sighed. “But I guess we’re just going to have to wait till Joe’s ready to tell us what it is. You know your brother, it’s no good pushing him.”
Both Adam and Hoss nodded at their father’s statement, Joe was a very stubborn child and no amount of probing would get him to discuss his problems until he was ready.
“He’ll be back at school tomorrow though,” Ben continued. “I won’t have him telling me he’s ill if he isn’t.”
Alone in his room Joe lay in bed thinking. He was sure his father would make him go back to school tomorrow, however much he tried to get out of it. The thought of school and Miss Sprigg made Joe’s stomach churn. He hadn’t been lying to his father, he did feel nauseous, but he knew what was causing it.
Last night he had come close to telling his Pa what Miss Sprigg had been doing, what she said about him. But fear had stopped him, the fear that just perhaps his father would agree with Miss Sprigg; confirm that he was as stupid and clumsy as she said he was.
“Hey there little brother, how are you feeling now?” Joe looked up as Adam opened his door, it was late afternoon and his eldest brother had just come in from work.
“A bit better,” he said, glad of someone to talk to, even Adam. It had been a long day for the boy, and he was bored with his own company.
“Well enough for school tomorrow?”
Adam frowned when he saw his little brother’s expression as he mentioned school. The boy had looked almost frightened for a moment.
“How is school anyway?” he queried, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “Hoss tells me you’ve got a new teacher for a while, Miss Sprigg. She was my teacher too for a time, did you know that?”
“I knew,” Joe looked at his brother. “She talks about you, says you were the cleverest boy she ever taught.”
Adam could hardly have missed the resentment in Joe’s tone. “Does she?” he grimaced. “I didn’t think much of her. Miss Pig we called her, you still call her that?”
Joe nodded, a slight smile on his face as he thought of Adam, of all people, being cheeky to a teacher.
“She was very strict,” Adam recalled. “Is she still?”
Joe nodded again, dropping his gaze to the bedclothes, unable to meet his brother’s eyes.
“She’s all right,” he mumbled.
“So everything’s okay at school then?” Adam asked gently, “No problems?”
After Adam had gone, Joe buried his head in the pillow, depression creeping over him. It wasn’t so bad he consoled himself. He just had to get through the next two days, and then it was the Easter vacation.
Ben was surprised and pleased at the change that came over Joe during the first part of the Easter vacation, the boy was back to his normal self, full of energy, life and laughter.
But as the days wore on and the return to school grew nearer it was as if a dark cloud settled over the child. He grew irritable and morose. Realising that school was definitely proving a problem for his youngest son, Ben resolved to go and talk to the boy’s teacher, see if he could get to the root of it.
“Mr. Cartwright, it’s a pleasure to see you again,” Miss Sprigg rose from her desk as Ben entered the schoolroom. Unbeknown to Joe, Ben had ridden into Virginia City to call on the teacher, hoping that he would be able to find out the cause of his son’s recent behavior.
“How is Adam?” The teacher continued as Ben sat down in the chair she indicated. “You must be so proud of him, doing so well at college.”
“He’s fine. Keeping busy on the Ponderosa.”
“I must say it came as a surprise to me that Adam returned here after college,” Miss Sprigg said, reaching into the drawer of her desk. “I thought he would have made greater use of his education. But I digress,” she pulled out a thick blue book and opened it. “You wanted to see me about young Joseph?”
“Yes,” Ben was a little irritated at the woman’s assumption that Adam was wasting his education on the Ponderosa, but kept to the matter in hand. “I wondered if there’s any problem at school?” he asked. “The last few weeks Joe’s not been himself. He’s usually a happy, mischievous little boy but lately he’s quiet and withdrawn.”
Miss Sprigg looked down at the book in front of her, studying the pages in silence for a while before she spoke.
“I can’t pretend that I haven’t had a few troubles with Joseph,” she began, her small eyes regarding Ben solemnly. “The boy is very high spirited and can be insolent.”
“Insolent!” Ben exclaimed in surprise. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“He’s often disruptive in class and I’m afraid to say that his work over the time I’ve been teaching him is of very poor quality,” The teacher concluded, closing her book with a flourish.
“I really don’t know what to say. I had no idea Joe was causing trouble in class. You say his work is poor?” Ben was shocked, his youngest had always been an able, if not exactly willing, student. And though other teachers had described the boy as high spirited, none had ever accused him of insolence.
In reply, Miss Sprigg got up from her desk and walked over to open one of the cupboards set against the wall. She withdrew a few sheets of paper and brought them across to Ben. “This is Joseph’s last essay.”
Taking the pages from the woman’s outstretched hand Ben scanned them in dismay. The handwriting was barely legible, smeared and blotched with ink. “This isn’t like Joe’s usual work at all,” he told Miss Sprigg. “I just don’t understand it.”
The teacher took her seat again, and took the essay back from Ben. “I suggest that you advise Joseph to try a lot harder, Mr. Cartwright. He could certainly do with taking a leaf out of Adam’s book, such a joy that boy was.”
As things stood between his youngest and eldest, Ben thought, that wasn’t something he’d be telling Joe.
“I do try Pa, really I do,” Joe looked up at his father. “I just can’t do it the way Miss Sprigg wants me to.”
“And why’s that?” Ben asked gently. “You never used to have any problem with your schoolwork Joe, what’s changed?”
Joe’s gaze dropped away from his father, “I just can’t do it!” His voice was angry now. “Perhaps you’d be happier if I was more like Adam, seeing as he was so good at school, but I’m not and I can’t do it!”
Ben put an arm round the boy’s shoulders. “I don’t want you to be like Adam,” he told him softly. “I like you just the way you are, Joe. But I do know you can do better than the work I saw today and I’d like to know what the problem is.”
“There’s no problem,” Joe shrugged away from his father’s embrace. “I guess I’ll just have to try harder is all.”
Creeping quietly down the stairs late that night, Joe headed for the kitchen. Unable to sleep, he had thought over the situation and come to a decision. Deciding that he could no longer face the daily humiliation Miss Sprigg was inflicting on him, and not wanting to tell his father why his work was so bad lately, he had decided that running away was the best solution. He would only need to be gone for a few weeks, his regular teacher was returning in June. His father would be angry, he knew, but the thought of facing his father’s wrath wasn’t quite as bad as the thought of Miss Sprigg’s treatment.
Finding a bag, Joe grabbed bread and cheese, then added some cookies from the jar on the side. He had a few dollars he had saved and could use that to buy more food. He hadn’t figured out quite where he was going, he just knew that he had to get away.
Back in the great room, the boy grabbed his jacket and hat and headed for the door. Just as he reached out to open it, the door swung inward revealing Adam, returning late from Virginia City.
For a moment neither brother spoke, each shocked to see the other.
“Joe?” Adam broke the silence. “Where in heavens name do you think you’re going at this time of night?” Seeing the bag that the child was carrying, realisation dawned. “Not thinking of leaving were you?”
Closing the door behind him, Adam grasped his little brother’s arm firmly and led him over to the settee. “Sit down,”
As Joe obeyed reluctantly, his brother lit the lamp, then sat down himself.
“So where were you thinking of going?
“I don’t know. Just away from here.”
“And didn’t you think how much that would worry Pa?”
“I don’t want to worry him,” Joe said quietly. “But I don’t want to go to go to school anymore,” he looked at Adam defiantly. “You might have stopped me leaving but I’m not going to go to school again. If Pa makes me I’ll just run away.”
Adam sighed. “I think you’d better tell me what all this is about Joe. I know Miss Sprigg’s a bit of an old dragon, but I didn’t think she was that frightening.”
“I’m not frightened of her!” Anger flared in Joe’s eyes at Adam’s words. “I just don’t like her is all. It was all right for you,” he said bitterly. “She’s always talking about you, what a wonderful kid you were,” he imitated the teacher’s high-pitched voice. “‘Adam always wrote so beautifully. Such penmanship’. But I can’t do it like you,” the anger had faded from Joe’s voice now as misery overtook him. “I try, but I can’t.”
A faint memory stirred in Adam’s mind as he listened to the boy’s words, in particular the way he had said ‘I can’t do it like you’. Awareness dawned, if he was right it explained so much, the messy work, the reluctance to go to school. “Joe?” he kept his voice calm and steady. “Are you saying Miss Sprigg wants you to write differently from the way you usually do? With your right hand?”
Startled, Joe stared up at him, then figuring there was no point in denial now Adam had worked it out, he nodded slowly.
“She did what?” Ben thundered, incensed at what he was hearing from Adam.
“She tied his arm to his side to make him write ‘correctly’ as she put it,” Adam was almost as angry as his father, he had listened with mounting fury the night before as Joe told him all about Miss Sprigg. “That’s why he didn’t want to go to school. He felt embarrassed, shown up in front of the other children.”
“Why on earth didn’t he tell me that? I asked him over and over what the problem was.”
Adam sat down at the table, not looking at his father. “Miss Sprigg told him that he wasn’t normal because he’s left handed,” he said softly. “And when he couldn’t use his right hand she accused him of being clumsy and stupid. He’s only ten Pa, she almost had him believing it.”
“What made you realise what was going on?” his father asked. “I never thought of his left handedness at all.”
“I remembered a boy in my class years ago,” Adam told him. “She insisted he write with his right hand. I think he must have managed to do so because I don’t recall anything else being said about it, it certainly never went as far as this. He was planning on running away last night.”
Ben paled at the thought of his youngest son being driven to such measures. “I think a visit to Miss Sprigg is called for,” he said. “And a meeting of the school board.”
Joe woke to find the bedroom flooded with sunlight. Puzzled he lay quietly for a while, wondering why no-one had come to wake him for school. Despite his brave words to Adam, he had been sure his father would make him go to school, even if he had to take him there. It was strange, Joe thought, how easy it had been to tell Adam about his problems last night. His elder brother had not interrupted or asked questions, just sat quietly listening. Afterwards he had escorted Joe back to bed and told him not to worry, he’d take care of it, and something in the tone of his voice had reassured the boy that Adam meant what he said, it would be taken care of.
As he heard footsteps on the landing, Joe sat up.
“Hey there shortshanks,” Flinging the door wide, Hoss grinned at his brother. “Any chance of you getting up today? It’s almost noon.”
Pushing back the covers Joe crawled out of bed. “I didn’t sleep too well last night,” he explained, heading for the washstand. “I didn’t know it was so late. Bet Pa’s real mad at me.”
“Pa ain’t here,” Hoss told him. “Him and Adam rode into town early this morning. Told me to let you sleep as late as you wanted. Wouldn’t have got you up now, ‘cept I figured you’d want some lunch.”
“Where did they go?” Joe asked, wondering if last night had something to do with it.
“I don’t know where they went,” Hoss told him. “But I do know Pa was powerful mad over something. He said you weren’t to go to school today. Now hurry up will you,” he continued impatiently. “Hop Sing’s almost ready to dish it up.”
“Mr. Cartwright, Adam what a pleasure,” Miss Sprigg came hurrying from the schoolroom to where Ben and his son waited to see her. “How was college Adam? How did you find life in the East? A great deal more civilised than here I’ll wager?”
“I’m not here to discuss my education,” Adam told her coolly. “This is about my little brother.”
“Joseph?” Miss Sprigg looked from Adam to Ben. “I realise he isn’t in school today, I trust he’s not unwell?”
“No,” Ben said, his voice dangerously quiet as he held his anger in check. “He’s not ill. He won’t be returning to school however, for as long as you hold a teaching post here,” He looked down at Miss Sprigg’s astonished face. “I intend to see to it that you are removed as soon as possible.”
“But why?” The woman blustered. “What has Joseph been telling you about me that has made you so angry?”
“He eventually told me what’s been bothering him ever since you started teaching him,” Adam told her. “You’ve been victimising the child because he’s left-handed. Tying him up, telling him he’s not normal. Tell me,” Adam’s voice was icy now, contempt in his eyes. “Do you really think that’s any way to treat a boy of ten?”
“Yes I do,” Miss Sprigg angrily justified herself. “I try to do my best for these children. You must realise that it isn’t normal to use the left hand. I’m just attempting to bring Joseph into line with the rest of his classmates. In the long run he will be grateful to me for insisting upon the change.”
“You really believe that?” Ben was incredulous. “My son was a perfectly normal, happy little boy until you came along. In just a few short weeks you have made him unhappy and withdrawn, prepared to run away from home rather than face any more of your schooling. I have asked the school board to call an emergency meeting this afternoon and I shall be recommending your immediate dismissal from the school.”
And leaving Miss Sprigg staring after them in dismay, Ben and Adam left the schoolhouse.
“She’s really not coming back?” Joe said happily, looking from his father to his eldest brother. “Ever?”
“She won’t be back.” Adam assured him. “The school board members were shocked to hear what she’d been doing. They agreed with Pa’s request to have her dismissed, so no more Miss Pig.”
“And, Joe, next time you have a problem please tell me about it,” Ben told him, tousling his son’s hair fondly. ” That’s what I’m here for son, to help you. If you’d told me about Miss Sprigg before it could have all been sorted out weeks ago.”
“I thought she might be right,” Joe said softly, his eyes fixed on his father’s face watching for his reaction. “All the rest of my friends do write with their right hands, so do you and Adam and Hoss. Perhaps I’m not normal, Pa.”
Putting his hands on the boy’s shoulders Ben looked down at his youngest son. “Joseph,” he told him firmly. “You are perfectly normal. So you use your left hand instead of your right, that just makes you different, and everybody has something different and unique about them. No two people are exactly the same. You being left handed is part of what you are, part of what makes you special, understand that?” he smiled as Joe nodded, happy at his father’s words. “Now get off to bed with you,” he continued with mock sternness. “School in the morning.”
And he watched happily as Joe ran lightly up the stairs to bed.
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