Roh Morgan of Musings of a Moonlight Writer is sponsoring a Back to School Daze blogfest. Go check out the others at her site!
The section below is from HOW TO SEE THE ELEPHANT, YA historical fiction, set in 1862.
The stair and hall carpets were trodden gray by schoolgirl slippers. In the art room there was the same bowl of fruit as on the day the name Thefish was coined, along with a plaster statue of a Greek slave and a large etching of the Roman Forum. The same thick pencils and erasers, ten girls sketching and rubbing and blowing on the paper. The same grammar and history lessons, papers screwed up and thrown into the unlit fireplace, and compositions begun again, copied and recopied until they were entirely free of inkblots. No matter what the class the same subject studied all the time: young ladies. Young ladies did not tell lies or raise their voices. (This I already knew.) They did not cross their legs. They did not let their backs touch the back of a sofa or chair. They did not indulge in coffee or tea, which sapped vitality. They avoided the grosser cuts of animal flesh. They did not whistle. They did not drink excessively chilled water. They did not belabor their minds with serious reading; nor did they display a weakness for frivolous novels. They did not say “oh, yummy!” when dinner was announced. They did not yawn before eight o’clock in the evening. They did not jump up and down so they could watch their bosoms bounce. (I was not guilty of this last one.) They did not open bedroom windows and let in the night air. They did not pinch their cheeks to make them look redder. Above all, young ladies did not want things – things they could have or things that could happen. “Want must be your master,” they said to us. Mama had said that, too. I had never really understood what it meant.
This was what I had wanted. This was education. It was music and French verbs and the Great Men of History. So why did I sit there with my eyes on the window, where the rain was now ending, hoping for a fire engine to pass? Why did I close my eyes and imagine what I’d be doing right now on the wagon? The smell of harness and horse, the rhythm of hooves, dogs barking as we came into town. I would be reading the map to Pa, persuading him that a certain route would save us a half-hour on the way to Princeton. Or talking to one of the wholesalers about a new kind of spade...
What was someone who could do all that, who’d been as good as an adult for the past two years, doing here? I looked around the rest of the class. Jenny was rubbing her pen along the edge of her nose, something she did every day to give it (the nose, not the pen) a more distinguished shape. Sarah Stephens was drawing a row of monkeys down the side of her composition on “Ambition.”
“Yes, Miss Matilda?”
“I don’t believe you have recited for us.”
“ ‘I’, Miss Wymore.”
“I? You mean me?”
Miss Matilda sighed, to laughter all around. “Yes, you, Miss Wymore. Please come up and recite. You may choose any selection in the reader.”
I stood up, smoothing my apron, and walked towards the front of the class. The Fourth Reader lay open on Miss Matilda’s lectern to “The Destruction of Sennacherib.” I closed it with a small thump and turned to the class.
“The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,”
“And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea...”
I let my hands wave just a bit to suggest the sea. If you make too many gestures when you recite you start to look ridiculous.
“For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;”
As I spoke I watched the girls. Jenny was no longer rubbing her nose. Polly was sitting with widened eyes, as was Ellen. Sarah had stopped drawing and was looking at me as if I might prove to be not uninteresting.
“…And the widows of Ashur are loud in the wail!”
“And the idols are broken in the temple of Baal!”
I shook my fist.
“ And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,”
I paused and looked around the room, careful to hold their attention. Lord Byron wrote the ending kind of punchy, but I liked to give it slow, letting the line build to a triumphant conclusion:
“Hath melted like snow... in the glance of the Lord!”
Applause? Yes, real applause, not just grudging claps. Ellen turned and smiled as I made my way back to my seat.
“Well,” said Miss Matilda. “Well. Thank you, Miss Wymore. Thank you very much.”
I sat back down, trying not to look triumphant. None of them knew how many times I had slain the fourth reader class in Mansfield with that old chestnut.