Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 1500
“Matt, you may own me during the day and yes, to survive, I have permitted my son to work for Avery Beam in the mines. God knows, I don’t want him to work at all and especially at the dreadful task of charge setting but well, like I said, we have to eat. What I’m saying, Matt,” the normally diminutive, quiet woman raised herself up tall, all five feet, two inches of her, to face her half brother. “What I am saying is, Heath will get an education and he will get it at the Strawberry School with the rest of the children in this God-forsaken, broken down town. You will not deny my boy his education. Is that clear?”
Six-year-old Heath Thomson ran as fast as his little legs could carry him. He knew he was late for his first day at school but it just couldn’t be helped. Mr. Beam had kept him busy all morning in the mine, setting charges so that the miners could enter new tunnels to hew out more ore. All in the hopes of striking into a rich vein of silver, so that the mine owners’ pockets could be filled once more.
Heath was almost down a rather tricky slope, when he caught his worn boot on a root sticking out from the ground. The tumble was swift, slamming the little blond boy into the dirt. His new slate that his mama had managed to buy for him flew out of his hand and scraped along some pebbles, coming to rest up against a boulder. The warm potato that his mama had prepared for his lunch, wrapped in paper that he carried in his other hand, rolled into a bush. Heath picked himself up somewhat gingerly. Just a few scrapes, but nothing broken. Dusting himself off, he limped over to retrieve the potato, no worse for wear, and the slate that was now dusty and dirty, with a rather nasty looking gash at the top left corner of the writing surface. Heath looked down with dismay at the hole in the new patch of his jeans. He looked at the deep scratch in his brand new slate and frowned. What would his mama say? What would the teacher say when Heath came into the schoolhouse room with ripped britches and a dirty face. Well, it can’t be helped, he shrugged. The excitement of the first day of school, however, evaporated in the boy as he trudged on, hoping the burning from his scraped knees and hands would let up soon.
At last, the schoolhouse loomed into view just over the next rise. The Teacher was writing something on the blackboard when Heath entered the room. Fifteen sets of eyes turned to stare at the dirty disheveled, ragamuffin boy who stepped inside the classroom. The children started to giggle as they watched Heath stare wide-eyed at the back of the teacher. Maybe, Heath thought frantically for a moment, maybe he could just turn around and forget about school. Who needed school anyways to work in the mines and tend horses at the Livery? But then he thought of his mama. Sending him to school was important to her. Important enough that his usually quiet and shy mother had stood up to his loud and forceful Uncle Matt. If his uncle had his way, Heath would work his fingers to the bone every hour of the day at the Strawberry Hotel. His uncle made it clear in so many ways that a child like Heath wouldn’t amount to much, so why waste a good education on the boy? Heath wasn’t sure what his uncle meant when he said “a child like Heath” when referring to him, but he figured out early that it must not be something good. His uncle sometimes used other words when speaking of Heath, ugly words that made his mama cry. Why did his uncle, and his aunt for that matter, hate him so? His young mind remained perplexed at this mystery and as a result, Heath tried to stay out of his Aunt Martha and Uncle Matt’s way as much as possible.
The giggling children got the attention of their teacher. She turned from the blackboard, ready to reprimand a troublemaker when she saw a sad little boy, dirty with torn clothes staring at her from the entrance of the classroom. Miss Abrams knew who this little waif was. Everyone in the mining camp of Strawberry knew who Heath Thomson was. Most of the souls in that dusty, dying town were hardened and unforgiving. It was an unforgivable sin for a boy to be born out of wedlock. Both Leah, Heath mother, along with Rachel and Hannah, good friends who were like a family to Leah, were lumped together as blemished women meant to be avoided, except for the labor that could be extracted from them. That was especially Matt Simmons’ thinking as he used the unsavory situation of his half sister to his full advantage.
Heath stood frozen at the door. He knew he was about to get a tongue thrashing or worse. He held his breath, frightened as he figured what was in store for him. Instead his ears almost couldn’t believe the kind gentle words coming from the young teacher’s lips.
“I’m glad you could make it today Heath. Your place will be right here.” The teacher walked over to an empty wooden desk in the second row. She beckoned gently to the young boy to come to his seat. “The younger children sit in the first two rows,” she explained. “The middle grades in the middle rows and so on. Please sit, dear, and I will introduce you to the class.” Miss Abrams perceptively thought that it would be unkind to make Heath stand with his dirt streaked face and torn jeans in front of the whole class. “Class, this is Heath Thomson and he will begin in the first grade with us.” She went on hoping to convey a message of tolerance. “In this school, we are all students equal for all opportunities. That means opportunities in friendship and teamwork. I hope you will all welcome Heath as you have welcomed one another. And now class, if you will draw your attention to the blackboard.”
That day, young Heath discovered that not all the folks in Strawberry viewed him as next to nothing. He found kindness and gentleness in his teacher, Miss Abrams, and he found a friend in her as well. In every classroom, there are ones who bully and ones who are bullied. While, through the influence of their parents, there were some who treated Heath with contempt and downright meanness that year, most of that class of sixteen pupils, under the guidance of their teacher, learned many lessons in humanity and loving kindness. They learned that while some children are not born of privileged circumstances, they are still deserving of friends and acceptance. They learned that even if you were late to class because you were a six-year-old working in the mines to put bread on the table, you were still an important part of the class, deserving recognition. Heath too learned valuable lessons that year. He learned that even if he had to be with men who scorned him in the early hours, before coming to school, he had a haven to come to in Miss Abrams’ classroom. He learned that to be liked, he had to be likeable. He tried to be kind to all he met and learned quickly to avoid the troublemakers, though that was often easier said than done, for Heath on more than one occasion came home from school sporting a black eye or a bloodied nose.
Leah had had a chance to speak with Miss Abrams and instantly liked the schoolteacher. She knew that this fine woman would be good for her boy. And while Leah put in long hours at the Strawberry Hotel for very little pay, she always found time to be with her son in the evenings to help him in reading a lesson or solving a math problem. She was proud of her Heath and reared him well to be strong and yet kind, firm but not rigid. “Always be willing to give people a second chance,” she counseled. “Always look for the good.”
As the young man grew, his would be a life of much adversity, but he always remembered the lessons that his mama taught him and the kindness of his teacher in that little one room schoolhouse in that dusty mining camp up the Stanislaus.