Of school holidays and holidays at school

Being born a proper Bostonian, I started school in a city system. But when I was going on 10, my father moved one May to the small town of Freeport, in Maine, where I entered the fourth grade in September to learn the culture of Down East. The teachers seemed kind and caring, lavishing their spinster love on their pupils and being adored by all in return. But mine was Biddy Royal, who was wed, bred, and fed; stern, strict, and stately. She knew how to crack knuckles with her ruler so it smarted but didn't kill.

It would be long years later that I would truly appreciate Biddy Royal and realize she could out-teach any five of the others.

Lacking radio and TV in 1918, we knew nothing about Armistice Day until we youngsters arrived at school and found our teachers on the front steps of the building wondering how they should handle the matter. The news had broken too late for the Boston papers to get a special edition on the morning paper train to Maine, but the Portland Press Herald had managed to replate and send the banner headline, "Germany Surrenders." So the news came to Freeport between leaving home and school time, and there was no official decision by the school superintendent about a holiday.

Back in Boston's suburban Medford there was a no-school signal on the fire station bell, but in Freeport no signal was needed. In my time, Freeport never called off school because of snow. So we were all at school that morning. Then the principal decided the end of the war merited celebration. We did not disperse and go home. The spontaneous result was a parade.

Teachers and all went to The Corner. By now people had heard the news and were assembling by the post office. All morning we, the town, marched back and forth from Kendall's Corner to Mallet's Curve; no band, no flags, just everybody in gratitude. Jack Randal, who had the only family automobile in town, cranked it and became the head of the parade, back and forth, until noontime. Nov. 11, 1918.

A few days after that, Biddy Royal ran through opening exercises and said, "Today we'll have a sort of holiday, and we're going to watch a storm develop. If you were up early you saw a beautiful red sunrise, and who can tell me what that means?" Being a proper-born Bostonian I had no answer, but most of my new classmates stuck up their hands.

"Yes," said Biddy Royal, "It means that sailors must beware. Now there's a storm on the make, and this afternoon when we go home it will be snowing hard." We all looked out the windows, and the sun was shining.

I remember word for word much that Biddy Royal said as she taught us many things, but nothing is clearer in my recollection than her explanation of a gathering storm. I was fascinated, and I suppose I sat there goggle-eyed and mouth agape. She mixed in her other lessons of the day as the clock ticked, but came back to her subject. We never forgot we were watching, as she promised, the gathering of a storm. She told us how ship masters watched every minute for signs that told them what to expect from wind and sky and that a red sunrise told them a day was a "breeder."

Everything was cleared away and was starting over. We'd notice, she said, that the sky would fill in, the sun would dim and then disappear. The sky would turn dark and blue-gray, and the thermometer would drop. Then it would breeze up, and the wind would freshen from southerly and then back in to the northeast. She said, "Freddie, you can see the weather vane from your seat. Why don't you keep an eye on it?" She told us the temperature makes air rise and fall, and this sets up situations that make rain and snow, and also sunny days.

The red sky is just the sun's rays in a situation that tell us what to expect. "A red sky in the morning; sailor take warning." Biddy Royal said, "Irving, your father clams. What time does the tide serve today?" Irving Blake said, "I think it's high about 2, but I'm not sure." Biddy Royal said, "Close enough! High water comes today at 2:16, Portland Harbor; I looked it up before school."

Then she talked about the tide, and the terrific force that drags it up and down twice a day, and how it affects the whole world even if nobody notices. She told us to watch when we were away from the ocean, and see how the leaves rustle at the turn of the tide, miles from salt water!

We did some arithmetic or spelling, and then Biddy Royal said, "A storm like this one always makes up and gets ready and then starts to snow or rain on the high or low tide. Who's going to spy the first snowflake at quarter past two?"

It was a single flake when it came, and we all saw it at once. At school-out it was snowing hard. The wind was bitter and driving, and it snowed and blew all night. It was still snowing at daybreak. We didn't have school buses then, so we walked and made it on time. Biddy Royal said It would stop snowing about 10 o'clock. She said a northeast storm always makes up in the southwest and works into the northeast, and then clears off the same way. She said, "It's already stopped snowing in New York City." I never doubted a thing she said. She made so many good days in school seem like holidays.

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