My name is Mary. I am the youngest. I have four brothers, and we live in a smallholding, a very small holding, on the edge of the woods high up in the hills. My Dadhas a good job as a stonemason, and Mum is very proud of this. Other people in the village are in service and have jobs like being a blacksmith or woodcutter, things like that, but a stonemason, – that’s serious: it means we have a bit more money than some other people. Mum says it is good to have the money, but we must be careful not to make the others jealous. My favourite brother is John.
This is why. You see every morning in the winter we all walk together to the next village to meet our friends, and then we walk on with them to school. Sometimes there is a lot of snow, and John knows I find it hard not to slip or stumble. That’s why he carries my log for me, and I carry his lunch for him. This is much easier for me, – John told me he remembers how hard it was to carry his log and his lunch when he was small, and I am the youngest.
You may wonder why we had to take a log to school? It is because in those days we had no central heating in our school room. Can you imagine how cold it would be in a great big school room with a high ceiling with no wood to heat the stove? That’s why every child has to bring a log in the winter. Sometimes the bigger boys bring two logs: one for the school room, and one for the teacher. Everyone knows the teachers have little pay, so our parents help them when they can: some logs in the winter, eggs when the chickens lay, and a cheese… When Mumpreserves vegetables for the winter, she always makes an extra jar for our teacher. I am very proud when I give it to him, for it is not every family that can help our teacher as much as we do. Mumsays it is good to give, but you must be sure to keep enough for yourself.
What I am trying to tell you is that when we get to school, all the logs go in one corner, and our teacher tells one of the big boys to keep the stove going and put the logs in.
I don’t have to do that, but on the day I am telling you about, it was my turn to put the lunch tins on the stove to warm up a half hour before dinner time. Every lunch tin was the same with two parts: in the bottom, there was some meat, and in the top there were vegetables. No-one had sandwiches, and nobody had any crisps or bananas or anything like that! I had never seen a banana! But the food was good, and we all enjoyed talking to our friends at dinner while our teacher was upstairs having his dinner. Then the great bell rang and it was time to start lessons again.
Some of us found it hard to learn to read and do sums, but not me. I was not so very clever, but John had taught me my letters and how they went together before I went to school, because he said, “You will feel stupid if you can’t do it.” I had a head start. It wasn’t long before our teacher saw I could do the work, so he said “Mary, you can read already so you must help me with the others. You can stay to have some tea with me after school and I will show you what to do.” This made me very happy. Perhaps I could be a teacher myself when I grew up. “Yes, Sir,” I said, “but can John stay with me? I can’t walk home in the dark alone.” Sir looked at John and nodded. “Yes,” he said, “and your brothers can tell your Mum why you’ve stayed behind.”
After classes were over, our teacher took John and me upstairs to his rooms. They were snug, and there were photos of Sir’s family up on the walls. We had some hot milk, and biscuits, – this was a treat – and then Sir told me who I should help and what they should read. “Tomorrow, you must help Anne, Sarah and Lucine,” he said. “They have been here two years now, but still they read badly. We have so many children to teach here, all different ages, and I have to teach them everything!” I had never thought of this before. I could see teaching was not so easy. “Just listen to them and correct them when they make a mistake,” he said. “When they have finished, tell them they have done well, it will make them try tomorrow. It is very important to encourage children.”
“You are encouraging me,” I said. “I am glad I am going to help you.” Sir smiled at me. “You are a good girl, Mary. and a clever girl. You remind of my sister. That’s her photo on the wall.” Sadness passed across his face. “She died when she was eight. The doctor could do nothing, and we couldn’t afford it anyway.”
John said “We had a sister who died too.” I said “I think they are both in Heaven.”
“Yes,” said Sir, “but Heaven is a long way off.” We were all quiet – then we left to walk home under a starry sky.
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