Title: Death in the School-Room. A Fact.
Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as W. W.]
Date: August 1841
Whitman Archive ID: per.00317
Source: The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 9 (August 1841): 177–181. Transcribed from digital images of an original issue held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Contributors to digital file: Stephanie Blalock and Nicole Gray
DEATH IN THE SCHOOL-ROOM.1
TING-A-LING-LING-LING!—went the little bell on the teacher's desk of a village-school one morning, when the studies of the earlier part of the day were about half completed.2 It was well understood that this was a command for silence and attention; and when these had been obtained, the master spoke. He was a low thick-set man, and his name was Lugare.
"Boys," said he, "I have had a complaint entered, that last night some of you were stealing fruit from Mr. Nichols's garden. I rather think I know the thief. Tim Barker, step up here, sir."
The one to whom he spoke came forward. He was a slight, fair-looking boy of about fourteen;3 and his face had a laughing, good-humored expression, which even the charge now preferred against him, and the stern tone and threatening look of the teacher, had not entirely dissipated. The countenance of the boy, however, was too unearthly fair for health; it had, notwithstanding its fleshy, cheerful look, a singular cast as if some inward disease, and that a fearful one, were seated within. As the stripling stood before that place of judgment, that place, so often made the scene of heartless and coarse brutality, of timid innocence confused, helpless childhood outraged, and gentle feelings crushed—Lugare looked on him with a frown which plainly told that he felt in no very pleasant mood. Happily a worthier and more philosophical system is proving to men that schools can be better governed, than by lashes and tears and sighs. We are waxing toward that consummation when one of the old-fashioned schoolmasters, with his cowhide, his heavy birch-rod, and his many ingenious methods of child-torture, will be gazed upon as a scorned memento of an ignorant, cruel, and exploded doctrine. May propitious gales speed that day!4
"Were you by Mr. Nichols's garden-fence last night?" said Lugare.
"Yes, sir," answered the boy: "I was."
"Well, sir, I'm glad to find you so ready with your confession. And so you thought you could do a little robbing, and enjoy yourself in a manner you ought to be ashamed to own, without being punished, did you?"
"I have not been robbing," replied the boy quickly. His face was suffused, whether with resentment or fright, it was difficult to tell. "And I didn't do anything last night, that I'm ashamed to own."
"No impudence!" exclaimed the teacher, passionately, as he grasped a long and heavy ratan: "give me none of your sharp speeches, or I'll thrash you till you beg like a dog."5
The youngster's face paled a little; his lip quivered, but he did not speak.
"And pray, sir," continued Lugare, as the outward signs of wrath disappeared from his features; "what were you about the garden for? Perhaps you only received the plunder, and had an accomplice to do the more dangerous part of the job?"
"I went that way because it is on my road home. I was there again afterward to meet an acquaintance; and—and— But I did not go into the garden, nor take anything away from it. I would not steal,—hardly to save myself from starving."
"You had better have stuck to that last evening. You were seen, Tim Barker, to come from under Mr. Nichols's garden-fence, a little after nine o'clock, with a bag full of something or other, over your shoulders. The bag had every appearance of being filled with fruit, and this morning the melon-beds are found to have been completely cleared. Now, sir, what was there in that bag?"
Like fire itself glowed the face of the detected lad. He spoke not a word. All the school had their eyes directed at him. The perspiration ran down his white forehead like rain-drops.
"Speak, sir!" exclaimed Lugare, with a loud strike of his ratan on the desk.
The boy looked as though he would faint. But the unmerciful teacher, confident of having brought to light a criminal, and exulting in the idea of the severe chastisement he should now be justified in inflicting, kept working himself up to a still greater and greater degree of passion. In the meantime, the child seemed hardly to know what to do with himself. His tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth. Either he was very much frightened, or he was actually unwell.
"Speak, I say!" again thundered Lugare; and his hand, grasping his ratan, towered above his head in a very significant manner.
"I hardly can, sir," said the poor fellow faintly. His voice was husky and thick. "I will tell you some—some other time. Please to let me go to my seat—I a'n't well."
"Oh yes; that's very likely;" and Mr. Lugare bulged out his nose and cheeks with contempt. "Do you think to make me believe your lies? I've found you out, sir, plainly enough; and I
am satisfied that you are as precious a little villain as there is in the State. But I will postpone settling with you for an hour yet. I shall then call you up again; and if you don't tell the whole truth
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then, I will give you something that'll make you remember Mr. Nichols's melons for many a month to come:—go to your seat."
Glad enough of the ungracious permission, and answering not a sound, the child crept tremblingly to his bench. He felt very strangely, dizzily—more as if he was in a dream than in real life; and laying his arms on his desk, bowed down his face between them. The pupils turned to their accustomed studies, for during the reign of Lugare in the village-school, they had been so used to scenes of violence and severe chastisement, that such things made but little interruption in the tenor of their way.
Now, while the intervening hour is passing, we will clear up the mystery of the bag, and of young Barker being under the garden-fence on the preceding night. The boy's mother was a widow, and they both had to live in the very narrowest limits. His father had died when he was six years old, and little Tim was left a sickly emaciated infant whom no one expected to live many months. To the surprise of all, however, the poor child kept alive, and seemed to recover his health, as he certainly did his size and good looks. This was owing to the kind offices of an eminent physician who had a country-seat in the neighborhood, and who had been interested in the widow's little family.6 Tim, the physician said, might possibly outgrow his disease; but everything was uncertain. It was a mysterious and baffling malady; and it would not be wonderful if he should in some moment of apparent health be suddenly taken away. The poor widow was at first in a continual state of uneasiness; but several years had now passed, and none of the impending evils had fallen upon the boy's head. His mother seemed to feel confident that he would live, and be a help and an honor to her old age; and the two struggled on together, mutually happy in each other, and enduring much of poverty and discomfort without repining, each for the other's sake.
Tim's pleasant disposition had made him many friends in the village, and among the rest a young farmer named Jones, who with his elder brother, worked a large farm in the neighborhood on shares. Jones very frequently
made Tim a present of a bag of potatoes or corn, or some garden vegetables, which he took from his own stock; but as his partner was a parsimonious, high-tempered man, and had often said that Tim was an idle fellow, and
ought not to be helped because he did not work, Jones generally made his gifts in such a manner that no one knew anything about them, except himself and the grateful objects of his kindness. It might be, too, that the widow was
loath to have it understood by the neighbors that she received food from any one; for there is often an excusable pride in people of her condition which
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makes them shrink from being considered as objects of "charity" as they would from the severest pains. On the night in question, Tim had been told that Jones would send them a bag of potatoes, and the place at which they were to be waiting for him was fixed at Mr. Nichols's garden-fence. It was this bag that Tim had been seen staggering under, and which caused the unlucky boy to be accused and convicted by his teacher as a thief. That teacher was one little fitted for his important and responsible office. Hasty to decide, and inflexibly severe, he was the terror of the little world he ruled so despotically. Punishment he seemed to delight in. Knowing little of those sweet fountains which in children's breasts ever open quickly at the call of gentleness and kind words, he was feared by all for his sternness, and loved by none. I would that he were an isolated instance in his profession.
The hour of grace had drawn to its close, and the time approached at which it was usual for Lugare to give his school a joyfully-received dismission. Now and then one of the scholars would direct a furtive glance at Tim, sometimes in pity, sometimes in indifference or inquiry. They knew that he would have no mercy shown him, and though most of them loved him, whipping was too common there to exact much sympathy. Every inquiring glance, however, remained unsatisfied, for at the end of the hour, Tim remained with his face completely hidden, and his head bowed in his arms, precisely as he had leaned himself when he first went to his seat. Lugare looked at the boy occasionally with a scowl which seemed to bode vengeance for his sullenness. At length the last class had been heard, and the last lesson recited, and Lugare seated himself behind his desk on the platform, with his longest and stoutest ratan before him.
"Now, Barker," he said, "we'll settle that little business of yours. Just step up here."
Tim did not move. The school-room was as still as the grave. Not a sound was to be heard, except occasionally a long-drawn breath.
"Mind me, sir, or it will be the worse for you. Step up here, and take off your jacket!"
The boy did not stir any more than if he had been of wood. Lugare shook with passion. He sat still a minute, as if considering the best way to wreak his vengeance. That minute, passed in death-like silence, was a fearful one to some of the children, for their faces whitened with fright. It seemed, as it slowly dropped away, like the minute which precedes the climax of an exquisitely-performed tragedy, when some mighty master of the histrionic art is treading the stage, and you and the multitude around you are waiting, with stretched nerves and suspended breath, in expectation of the terrible catastrophe.
"Tim is asleep, sir," at length said one of the boys who sat near him.
Lugare, at this intelligence, allowed his features to relax from their expression of savage anger into a smile, but that smile looked more malignant, if possible, than his former scowls. It might be that he felt amused at the horror depicted on the faces of those about him; or it might be that he was gloating in pleasure on the way in which he intended to wake the poor little slumberer.
"Asleep! are you, my young gentleman!" said he; "let us see if we can't find something to tickle your eyes open. There's nothing like making the best of a bad case, boys. Tim, here, is determined not to be worried in his mind about a little flogging, for the thought of it can't even keep the little scoundrel awake."
Lugare smiled again as he made the last observation. He grasped his ratan firmly, and descended from his seat. With light and stealthy steps he crossed the room, and stood by the unlucky sleeper. The boy was still as unconscious of his impending punishment as ever. He might be dreaming some golden dream of youth and pleasure; perhaps he was far away in the world of fancy, seeing scenes, and feeling delights, which cold reality never can bestow. Lugare lifted his ratan high over his head, and with the true and expert aim which he had acquired by long practice, brought it down on Tim's back with a force and whacking sound which seemed sufficient to awake a freezing man in his last lethargy. Quick and fast, blow followed blow. Without waiting to see the effect of the first cut, the brutal wretch plied his instrument of torture first on one side of the boy's back, and then on the other, and only stopped at the end of two or three minutes from very weariness. But still Tim showed no signs of motion; and as Lugare, provoked at his torpidity, jerked away one of the child's arms, on which he had been leaning over the desk, his head dropped down on the board with a dull sound, and his face lay turned up and exposed to view. When Lugare saw it, he stood like one transfixed by a basilisk.7 His countenance turned to a leaden whiteness; the ratan dropped from his grasp; and his eyes, stretched wide open, glared as at some monstrous spectacle of horror and death. The sweat started in great globules seemingly from every pore in his face; his skinny lips contracted, and showed his teeth; and when he at length stretched forth his arm, and with the end of one of his fingers touched the child's cheek, each limb quivered like the tongue of a snake; and his strength seemed as though it would momentarily fail him. The boy was dead. He had probably been so for some time, for his eyes were turned up, and his body was quite cold.8 The widow was now childless too.9 Death was in the school-room, and Lugare had been flogging A CORPSE.10
1. This tale is Whitman's earliest known short story and the first of nine stories by Whitman that were published for the first time in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, often referred to simply as The Democratic Review. When Whitman reprinted this story in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1847, while he was editor of that paper, he shortened the title to "Death in the school room." Whitman included a poem just before the story titled "Christmas Hymn." He later reprinted the tale as "Death in the School-Room. (A Fact.)" in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days and Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 340–344. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "Death in the School-Room. (A Fact.)" For a complete list of revisions to the language of the story made or authorized by Whitman for publication in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Specimen Days & Collect, see Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 55–60. For the publication history and reception of "Death in the School-Room," see "About 'Death in the School-Room.'" [back]
2. From 1836 to 1841—the year Walt Whitman began writing fiction—he taught in village-schools in approximately ten Long Island towns. Whitman's own teaching experiences likely informed the setting and the plot of "Death in the School-Room." While he was a teacher, Whitman boarded at the homes of his students and taught students from age five to fifteen for some nine hours each day and received little pay for his efforts. For a detailed account of Whitman's teaching experiences, see the "Schoolteaching Years" section of Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price's biography, "Walt Whitman." [back]
3. In Collect (1882), Whitman decreased Tim's age from fourteen to thirteen. [back]
4. Whitman may be referring to his own progressive views of the free public school system and school reform. Unlike Lugare, Whitman engaged his students in educational games and did not advocate corporal punishment. For more information on Whitman's theories about teaching and the school system, see Bernard Hirschhorn, "Views on Education," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 198–199. Resistance to corporal punishment was a tenet of the general education reform movement spearheaded by Horace Mann (1796–1859). For more information about the controversy over corporal punishment in the antebellum era, see Myra Glenn, Campaigns Against Corporal Punishment: Prisoners, Sailors, Women, and Children in Antebellum America (Albany: SUNY Press, 1984). [back]
5. A ratan (or rattan) is a switch or a stick used in corporal punishment. [back]
6. A country-seat is a house or estate. In this case, the physician has a residence in the same neighborhood as Tim and his mother. [back]
7. A basilisk is a mythical serpent with a deadly gaze and/or lethal breath. [back]
8. In the Eagle (1847), Whitman removed the following two sentences, thereby ending the story here. [back]
9. In Collect, Whitman returned, at least in part, to the original ending by adding the final sentence back to the story. However, he again omitted this one. [back]
10. In a footnote that accompanies "Wild Frank's Return," which was first published in the November 1841 issue of The Democratic Review, Whitman reports that both "Wild Frank's Return" and "Death in the School-Room" are based on true events that occurred in his native Long Island. Further research is necessary to determine whether the stories record or are inspired by historical events or even by actual occurrences in Whitman's life. This footnote was not included with the original printing of "Death in the School-Room" or with any known reprinting. [back]