Between Silence and Silence
by Sharon Ferguson-Hood
The one room schoolhouse is painted red and white; there are windows at the back of the classroom and on the east side. They are the kind divided into small squares, maybe a hundred or more. A round black stove takes up one corner of the room. It is as tall as the ceiling and the boys shovel coal into it at recess. The cloak room is shut off from the main classroom; it has an old crock water cooler and the water freezes in winter. Here next to the cooler I must hang my coat. The bathroom for boys and girls is outside, a long way away. This place on the prairie has remained with me the most.
I sit in an old steel desk with a wooden top. The noise in the room is like a train rumbling across a railroad crossing. A boy who is in grade nine gets it the worst, because he hardly ever knows any correct answers and there is only right and wrong. He is a big, fat boy; his face turns purple and mottled from crying. The teacher, a short, dark man with thick glasses, grabs him, shakes him, pushes him around in his desk. He goes back and forth like he will never stop. The movement is horrendous but I can't stop watching. He beats him with a wide grey strap and things don't seem to move so fast. We are all at risk, my turn will come.
Arithmetic is after lunch, my eyes turn to the windows, and I wonder if I can count fast enough or will I get to stand in the right spot? My hands hurt but no one at home notices and I never tell. School in some ways is better than being at home.
The next year in grade three I go to school in town. There are separate rooms there for all the grades and bathrooms in the basement. I get on the bus at 8 am and return home at 5 pm. My brother starts school that year. Every morning my father carried him into the bus while he screamed and cried. Another brother started school the next year and two years later the youngest began school.
We live in a four room house with only an oil burner for heat, there is no running water and no electricity.
I remember December, maybe it was 1956 and there was no snow yet I sit staring out the bus window, the sky dismal and grey, black earth frozen in long narrow furrows. Why doesn't it snow? If we could be snowbound for Christmas my father could not get to the beer parlour to celebrate and I would not have to try and make mother laugh on Christmas eve.
I failed grade five but I remember one time that year when I felt good. I had read a story in English carefully and when the teacher asked a question I raised my hand and he asked me to answer. He said, "Very good Sharon, thank-you." Maybe it is the little things that sustain us. Arithmetic is always the biggest problem and my father decides he will teach me. He stands over me at the kitchen table and shouts, "How can anyone be so stupid? I've told you and I've told you how to do this, can't you remember anything!" My mother stands silently at the cupboard doing the supper dishes. My father slams out of the house, he returns from the barn sullen and angry. My mother does not ever allow alcohol in the house.