It is possible that what stirred inside her head at that moment was her brain, waking up. She was nine years old, and she was in the third-A grade at school, but that was the first time she had ever had a thought of her very own. At home, Aunt Frances had always known exactly what she was doing, and had helped her over the hard places before she even knew they were there; and at school her teachers had been carefully trained to think faster than the scholars. Somebody had always been explaining things to Elizabeth Ann so carefully that she had never found out a single thing for herself before. This was a very small discovery, but it was her own. Elizabeth Ann was as excited about it as a mother bird over the first egg that hatches.
“Well,” said the teacher, “there’s no sense in your reading along in the third reader. After this you’ll recite out of the seventh reader with Frank and Harry and Stashie.”
Elizabeth Ann could not believe her ears. To be “jumped” four grades in that casual way! It wasn’t possible. She at once thought, however, of something that would prevent it entirely, and while Ellen was reading her page in a slow, careful little voice, Elizabeth Ann was feeling miserably that she must explain to the teacher why she couldn’t read with the seventh-grade children. Oh, how she wished she could! When they stood up to go back to their seats she hesitated, hung her head, and looked very unhappy. “Did you want to say something to me?” asked the teacher, pausing with a bit of chalk in her hand.
The little girl went up to her desk and said, what she knew it was her duty to confess: “I can’t be allowed to read in the seventh reader. I don’t write a bit well, and I never get the mental number-work right. I couldn’t do anything with seventh-grade arithmetic!”
The teacher looked blank and said: “I didn’t say anything about your number-work! I don’t know anything about it! You haven’t recited yet.”
Elizabeth Ann’s head whirled with this second light-handed juggling with the sacred distinction between the grades. In the big brick schoolhouse nobody ever went into another grade except at the beginning of a new year, after you’d passed a lot of examinations. She had not known that anybody could do anything else. The idea that everybody took a year to a grade, no matter what! was so fixed in her mind that she felt as though the teacher had said: “How would you like to stop being nine years old and be twelve instead?”
Elizabeth Ann fell back on the bench with her mouth open. She felt really dizzy. What crazy things the teacher said! She felt as though she was being pulled limb from limb.
“What’s the matter?” asked the teacher, seeing her bewildered face.
“Why–why,” said Elizabeth Ann, “I don’t know what I am at all. If I’m second-grade arithmetic and seventh-grade reading and third-grade spelling, what grade am I?”
The teacher laughed. “You aren’t any grade at all, no matter where you are in school. You’re just yourself, aren’t you? What difference does it make what grade you’re in? And what’s the use of your reading little baby things too easy for you just because you don’t know your multiplication table?”
“Well, for goodness’ sakes!” ejaculated Elizabeth Ann, feeling very much as though somebody had stood her suddenly on her head.
“What’s the matter?” asked the teacher again.
This time Elizabeth Ann didn’t answer, because she herself didn’t know what the matter was. But I do, and I’ll tell you. The matter was that never before had she known what she was doing in school. She had always thought she was there to pass from one grade to another, and she was ever so startled to get a glimpse of the fact that she was there to learn how to read and write and cipher and generally use her mind, so she could take care of herself when she came to be grown up.
As the little girl sat down by her, munching fast on this provender, she asked: “What desk did you get?”
Elizabeth Ann thought for a moment, cuddling Eleanor up to her face. “I think it is the third from the front in the second row.” She wondered why Aunt Abigail cared.
“Oh, I guess that’s your Uncle Henry’s desk. It’s the one his father had, too. Are there a couple of H.P’s carved on it?”
“His father carved the H.P. on the lid, so Henry had to put his inside. I remember the winter he put it there. It was the first season Mother let me wear real hoop skirts. I sat in the first seat on the third row.”
Betsy ate her apple more and more slowly, trying to take in what Aunt Abigail had said. Uncle Henry and his father–why Moses or Alexander the Great didn’t seem any further back in the mists of time to Elizabeth Ann than did Uncle Henry’s father! And to think he had been a little boy, right there at that desk! She stopped chewing altogether for a moment and stared into space. Although she was only nine years old, she was feeling a little of the same rapt wonder that people in the past were really people, which makes a first visit to the Roman Forum a thrilling event for grownups. That very desk!
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