Ramsey Milholland by Booth Tarkington
Ramsey Milholland sat miserably in school, his conscious being consisting principally of a dull hate. Torpor was a little dispersed during a fifteen-minute interval of "Music," when he and all the other pupils in the large room of the "Five B. Grade" sang repeated fractions of what they enunciated as "The Star Span-guh-hulled Banner"; but afterward he relapsed into the low spirits and animosity natural to anybody during enforced confinement under instruction. No alleviation was accomplished by an invader's temporary usurpation of the teacher's platform, a brisk and unsympathetically cheerful young woman mounting thereon to "teach German."
For a long time mathematics and German had been about equally repulsive to Ramsey, who found himself daily in the compulsory presence of both; but he was gradually coming to regard German with the greater horror, because, after months of patient mental resistance, he at last began to comprehend that the German language has sixteen special and particular ways of using the German article corresponding to that flexible bit of a word so easily managed English--the. What in the world was the use of having sixteen ways of doing a thing that could just as well be done in one? If the Germans had contented themselves with insisting upon sixteen useless variations for infrequent words, such as hippopotamus, for instance, Ramsey might have thought the affair unreasonable but not necessarily vicious--it would be easy enough to avoid talking about a hippopotamus if he ever had to go to Germany. But the fact that the Germans picked out a and the and many other little words in use all the time, and gave every one of them sixteen forms, and expected Ramsey Milholland to learn this dizzying uselessness down to the last crotchety detail, with "When to employ Which" as a nausea to prepare for the final convulsion when one didn't use Which, because it was an "Exception"--there was a fashion of making easy matters hard that was merely hellish.
The teacher was strict but enthusiastic; she told the children, over and over, that German was a beautiful language, and her face always had a glow when she said this. At such times the children looked patient; they supposed it must be so, because she was an adult and their teacher; and they believed her with the same manner of believing which those of them who went to Sunday-school used there when the Sunday-school teachers were pushed into explanations of various matters set forth in the Old Testament, or gave reckless descriptions of heaven. That is to say, the children did not challenge or deny; already they had been driven into habits of resignation and were passing out of the age when childhood is able to reject adult nonsense.
Thus, to Ramsey Milholland, the German language seemed to be a collection of perverse inventions for undeserved torment; it was full of revolting surprises in the way of genders; vocally it often necessitated the employment of noises suggestive of an incompletely mastered knowledge of etiquette; and far inside him there was something faintly but constantly antagonistic to it--yet, when the teacher declared that German was incomparably the most beautiful language in the world, one of the many facets of his mind submissively absorbed the statement as light to be passed inward; it was part of the lesson to be learned. He did not know whether the English language was beautiful or not; he never thought about that, and no one ever said anything to him about it. Moreover, though his deeper inward hated "German," he liked his German teacher, and it was pleasant to look at her when that glow came upon her face.
Sometimes, too, there were moments of relaxation in her class, when she would stop the lesson and tell the children about Germany: what a beautiful, good country it was, so trim and orderly, with such pleasant customs, and all the people sensible and energetic and healthy. There was "Music" again in the German class, which was another alleviation; though it was the same old "Star Spangled Banner" over again. Ramsey was tired of the song and tired of "My Country 'Tis of Thee"; they were bores, but it was amusing to sing them in German. In German they sounded "sort o' funny," so he didn't mind this bit of the day's work.
Half an hour later there arrived his supreme trial of this particular morning. Arithmetic then being the order of business before the house, he was sent alone to the blackboard, supposedly to make lucid the proper reply to a fatal conundrum in decimals, and under the glare and focus of the whole room he breathed heavily and itched everywhere; his brain at once became sheer hash. He consumed as much time as possible in getting the terms of the problem stated in chalk; then, affecting to be critical of his own handiwork, erased what he had done and carefully wrote it again. After that, he erased half of it, slowly retraced the figures, and stepped back as if to see whether perspective improved their appearance. Again he lifted the eraser.
"Put down that eraser!"
"Yes'm. I just thought--"
Sharply bidden to get forward with his task, he explained in a feeble voice that he had first to tie a shoe string and stooped to do so, but was not permitted. Miss Ridgely tried to stimulate him with hints and suggestion; found him, so far as decimals went, mere protoplasm, and, wondering how so helpless a thing could live, summoned to the board little Dora Yocum, the star of the class, whereupon Ramsey moved toward his seat.
"Stand still, Ramsey! You stay right where you are and try to learn something from the way Dora does it."
The class giggled, and Ramsey stood, but learned nothing. His conspicuousness was unendurable, because all of his schoolmates naturally found more entertainment in watching him than in following the performance of the capable Dora. He put his hands in and out of his pockets; was bidden to hold them still, also not to shuffle his feet; and when in a false assumption of ease he would have scratched his head Miss Ridgely's severity increased, so that he was compelled to give over the attempt.
Instructed to watch every figure chalked up by the mathematical wonder, his eyes, grown sodden, were unable to remove themselves from the part in her hair at the back of her head, where two little braids began their separate careers to end in a couple of blue-and-red checked bits of ribbon, one upon each of her thin shoulder blades. He was conscious that the part in Dora's shining brown hair was odious, but he was unconscious of anything arithmetical. His sensations clogged his intellect; he suffered from unsought notoriety, and hated Dora Yocum; most of all he hated her busy little shoulder blades.
He had to be "kept in" after school; and when he was allowed to go home he averted his eyes as he went by the house where Dora lived. She was out in the yard, eating a doughnut, and he knew it; but he had passed the age when it is just as permissible to throw a rock at a girl as at a boy; and stifling his normal inclinations, he walked sturdily on, though he indulged himself so far as to engage in a murmured conversation with one of the familiar spirits dwelling somewhere within him. "Pfa!" said Ramsey to himself--or himself to Ramsey, since it is difficult to say which was which. "Pfa! Thinks she's smart, don't she?"... "Well, I guess she does, but she ain't!" ... "I hate her, don't you?"... "You bet your life I hate her!"... "Teacher's Pet, that's what I call her!"... "Well, that's what I call her, too, don't I?" "Well, I do; that's all she is, anyway --dirty ole Teacher's Pet!"