Charlie Wainwright gazed drowsily out the schoolroom window. He hardly noticed the buckboard that sloshed by in the muddy street until one of the horses stumbled and jingled the trace chains. He knew that if Mr. Spence noticed his “inattention” it would cost him dearly but he couldn’t seem to focus on the morning lesson.
On the first day of school Mr. Spence had written a long list of offences and their punishments on the chalk board; “inattention – 10 blows, disrespect – 25 blows, inappropriate laughter 5 blows” and so on. The list reached from the top to the bottom of the board. Charlie had once received 5 blows for inappropriate laughter and he had nearly passed out. The teacher was not a large man but he was tough and wiry.
Tough enough to best the biggest boy in the school. Ted Thackery – bigger than most men and not much younger than Mr. Spence himself – didn’t see the need to respect the teacher. When Mr. Spence had called him to the front of the classroom to receive 25 blows, Ted had laughed out loud and suggested that Mr. Spence deliver the blows with his fists -“if yer any kind’a man” he added.
To Ted’s surprise, Mr. Spence had obliged and the two of them stepped out into the yard while the schoolhouse emptied behind them. It was early in the term and the ground was covered with fresh snow. Before Mr. Spence’s boxing demonstration was done, much of the snow was crimson with Ted Thackery’s blood.
Mr. Spence had no trouble with disrespect in the classroom after that.
But Charlie was a small boy, frail and thin for his nine years. As the only son in his family, most of the chores fell to him and they often kept him up late into the night. Especially now, during calving season. And so, warmed by the stove near his seat and lulled by the rain on the roof, Charlie drifted into sleep.
“Mr. Wainwright!” Mr. Spence’s voice snapped Charlie to wakefulness. “My I ask why you are not studying this morning’s lesson?”
Charlie’s mouth hung open and he looked at Mr. Spence in stupid silence.
“Inattention, 10 blows Mr. Wainwright.” Mr. Spence stood and reached for the heavy rod. “Please come forward.”
Charlie staggered as he left his seat, but no one made a sound. He made his way to the front and stood shivering as Mr. Spence lightly tapped the rod against his palm. After several moments Mr. Spence spoke.
“Mr. Thackery, ” the teacher’s eyes were on Charlie, “please come to the front of the room.”
Charlie heard the heavy scuffing of boots as the big boy strode forward.
“Mr. Thackery, young Mr. Wainwright has earned himself 10 blows for inattention.” The teacher continued to look at Charlie. “I want you, Mr. Thackery, to administer those blows…”
Charlie felt sick,
The silence in the room was absolute and the strange huffing noise which came from Ted’s throat as he reached for the rod sounded like the grunt of a bear. Charlie’s trembling became almost uncontrollable as he watched Mr. Spence bend and grab his ankles. His eyes began to brim with tears as he saw Ted’s broad shoulders bulge with the effort of the blows. The first blow had nearly toppled Mr. Spence and he braced himself with one hand against his desk as Ted swung the rod with every ounce of his strength again and again. Finally the 10 blows were finished and Ted leaned the rod in the corner. He was breathing hard as he stepped back to his desk.
Mr. Spence slowly straightened and turned to face Charlie. Sweat stood out on his forehead and his voice was husky when he spoke.
“Mr. Wainwright, return to your seat.” The teacher watched as Charlie stumbled to his place. “Now, remain standing if you please, and read for the class the passage for this morning’s lesson which you had neglected earlier.”
Charlie’s hands shook as he reached for the Bible which lay open on his desk. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and the tears rolled down his cheeks.
“John chapter 15, verse 13…”
He struggled to keep the tremor from his voice as he read the passage with understanding for the first time in his life,
“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends…”