WHAT GRADE IS BETSY?
 AFTER the singing the teacher gave
Elizabeth Ann a pile of schoolbooks, some paper, some pencils,
and a pen, and told her to set her desk
in order. There were more initials carved inside, another big
H. P. with a little A. P. under it. What
a lot of children must have sat there, thought the
little girl as she arranged her books and papers. As
she shut down the lid the teacher finished giving some
instructions to three or four little ones and said, "Betsy
and Ralph and Ellen, bring your reading books up here."
Betsy sighed, took out her third-grade reader, and went with
the other two up to the battered old bench near
the teacher's desk. She knew all about reading lessons and
she hated them, although she loved to read. But reading
lessons . . . ! You sat with your book
 some reading that you could do
with your eyes shut, it was so easy, and you
waited and waited and waited while your classmates slowly stumbled
along, reading aloud a sentence or two apiece, until your
turn came to stand up and read your sentence or
two, which by that time sounded just like nonsense because
you'd read it over and over so many times to
yourself before your chance came. And often you didn't even
have a chance to do that, because the teacher didn't
have time to get around to you at all, and
you closed your book and put it back in your
desk without having opened your mouth. Reading was one thing
Elizabeth Ann had learned to do very well indeed, but
she had learned it all by herself at home from
much reading to herself. Aunt Frances had kept her well
supplied with children's books from the nearest public library. She
often read three a week—very different, that, from a sentence
or two once or twice a week.
When she sat
down on the battered old bench she almost laughed aloud,
it seemed so funny
to be in a class of only three. There had been forty in her
grade in the big brick building. She sat in the
middle, the little girl whom the teacher had called Ellen
on one side, and Ralph on the other. Ellen was
very pretty, with fair hair smoothly braided in two little
pig-tails, sweet, blue eyes, and a clean blue-and-white gingham dress.
Ralph had very black eyes, dark hair, a big bruise
on his forehead, a cut on his chin, and a
tear in the knee of his short trousers. He was
much bigger than Ellen, and Elizabeth Ann thought he looked
rather fierce. She decided that she would be afraid of
him, and would not like him at all.
"Page thirty-two," said
the teacher. "Ralph first."
Ralph stood up and began to read.
It sounded very familiar to Elizabeth Ann, for he did
not read at all well. What was not familiar was
that the teacher did not stop him after the first
sentence. He read on and on till he had read
a page, the teacher only helping him with the hardest
"Now Betsy," said the teacher.
Elizabeth Ann stood
up, read the first sentence, and paused, like a caged
lion pausing when he comes to the end of his
"Go on," said the teacher.
Elizabeth Ann read the next sentence
and stopped again, automatically.
"Go on," said the teacher, looking at
The next time the little girl paused the teacher
laughed out good-naturedly. "What is the matter with you, Betsy?"
she said. "Go on till I tell you to stop."
Elizabeth Ann, very much surprised but very much interested, read
on, sentence after sentence, till she forgot they were sentences
and just thought of what they meant. She read a
whole page and then another page, and that was the
end of the selection. She had never read aloud so
much in her life. She was aware that everybody in
the room had stopped working to listen to her. She
felt very proud and less afraid than she had ever thought she
could be in a schoolroom. When she
finished, "You read very well!" said the teacher. "Is this
very easy for you?"
"Oh, yes!" said Elizabeth Ann.
guess, then, that you'd better not stay in this class,"
said the teacher. She took a book out of her
desk. "See if you can read that."
Elizabeth Ann began in
her usual school-reading style, very slow and monotonous, but this
didn't seem like a "reader" at all. It was poetry,
full of hard words that were fun to try to
pronounce, and it was all about an old woman who
would hang out an American flag, even though the town
was full of rebel soldiers. She read faster and faster,
getting more and more excited, till she broke out with
"Halt!" in such a loud, spirited voice that the sound
of it startled her and made her stop, fearing that
she would be laughed at. But nobody laughed. They were
all listening, very eagerly, even the little ones, with their
eyes turned toward her.
"You might as well go on and
let us see how
 it came out," said the teacher, and Betsy finished triumphantly.
"Well," said the teacher, "there's
no sense in your reading along in the third reader.
After this you'll recite out of the seventh reader with
Frank and Harry and Stashie."
Elizabeth Ann could not believe her
ears. To be "jumped" four grades in that casual way!
It wasn't possible! She at once thought, however, of something
that would prevent it entirely, and while Ellen was reading
her page in a slow, careful little voice, Elizabeth Ann
was feeling miserably that she must explain to the teacher
why she couldn't read with the seventh-grade children. Oh, how
she wished she could! When they stood up to go
back to their seats she hesitated, hung her head, and
looked very unhappy. "Did you want to say something to
me?" asked the teacher, pausing with a bit of chalk
in her hand.
The little girl went up to her desk
and said, what she knew it was her duty to
can't be allowed to read in
the seventh reader. I don't write a bit well, and
I never get the mental number-work right. I couldn't do
anything with seventh-grade arithmetic!"
The teacher looked a little blank and
said: "I didn't say anything about your number-work! I don't
know anything about it! You haven't recited yet." She turned
away and began to write a list of words on
the board. "Betsy, Ralph, and Ellen study their spelling," she
said. "You little ones come up for your reading."
boys and two little girls came forward as Elizabeth Ann
began to con over the words on the board. At
first she found she was listening to the little, chirping
voices, as the children struggled with their reading, instead of
studying "doubt, travel, cheese," and the other words in her
lesson. But she put her hands over her ears, and
her mind on her spelling. She wanted to make a
good impression with that lesson. After a while, when she
was sure she could spell them all correctly, she began
to listen and look around her. She
always "got" her spelling in less time than was allowed
the class, and usually sat idle, looking out of the
window until that study period was over. But now the
moment she stopped staring at the board and moving her
lips as she spelled to herself the teacher said, just
as though she had been watching her every minute instead
of conducting a class, "Betsy, have you learned your spelling?"
ma'am, I think so," said Elizabeth Ann, wondering very much
why she was asked.
"That's fine," said the teacher. "I wish
you'd take little Molly over in that corner and help
her with her reading. She's getting on so much better
than the rest of the class that I hate to
have her lose her time. Just hear her read the
rest of her little story, will you, and don't help
her unless she's really stuck."
Elizabeth Ann was startled by this
request, which was unheard-of in her experience. She was very
uncertain of herself as she sat down on a low
chair in the corner of the schoolroom
 away from the desks, with the little child leaning on her
knee. And yet she was not exactly afraid, either, because
Molly was such a shy little roly-poly thing, with her
crop of yellow curls, and her bright blue eyes very
serious as she looked hard at the book and began:
"Once there was a rat. It was a fat rat."
No, it was impossible to be frightened of such a
funny little girl, who peered so earnestly into the older
child's face to make sure she was doing her lesson
Elizabeth Ann had never had anything to do with children
younger than herself, and she felt very pleased and important
to have anybody look up to her! She put her
arm around Molly's square, warm, fat little body and gave
her a squeeze. Molly snuggled up closer, and the two
children put their heads together over the printed page, Elizabeth
Ann correcting Molly very gently indeed when she made a
mistake, and waiting patiently when she hesitated. She had so
fresh in her mind her own suffering from quick, nervous
she took the greatest pleasure in
speaking quietly and not interrupting the little girl more than
was necessary. It was fun to teach, lots of fun!
She was surprised when the teacher said, "Well, Betsy, how
did Molly do?"
"Oh, is the time up?" said Elizabeth Ann.
"Why, she does beautifully, I think, for such a little
"Do you suppose," said the teacher thoughtfully, just as though
Betsy were a grown-up person, "do you suppose she could
go into the second reader, with Eliza? There's no use
keeping her in the first if she's ready to go
Elizabeth Ann's head whirled with this second light-handed juggling with
the sacred distinction between the grades. In the big brick
schoolhouse nobody ever went into another grade except at the
beginning of a new year, after you'd passed a lot
of examinations. She had not known that anybody could do
anything else. The idea that everybody took a year to
a grade, no matter what! was so fixed in her
 mind that she felt as though the teacher
had said: "How would you like to stop being nine
years old and be twelve instead? And don't you think
Molly would better be eight instead of six?"
However, just then
her class in arithmetic was called, so that she had
no more time to be puzzled. She came forward with
Ralph and Ellen again, very low in her mind. She
hated arithmetic with all her might, and she really didn't
understand a thing about it! By long experience she had
learned to read her teachers' faces very accurately, and she
guessed by their expression whether the answer she gave was
the right one. And that was the only way she
could tell. You never heard of any other child who
did that, did you?
They had mental arithmetic, of course (Elizabeth
Ann thought it just her luck!), and of course it
was those hateful eights and sevens, and of course right
away poor Betsy got the one she hated most, 7 x 8.
She never knew that one! She said dispiritedly
that it was 54, remembering
it was somewhere in the fifties. Ralph burst out scornfully,
"56!" and the teacher, as if she wanted to take
him down for showing off, pounced on him with 9 x 8.
He answered, without drawing breath, 72. Elizabeth shuddered
at his accuracy. Ellen, too, rose to the occasion when
she got 6 x 7, which Elizabeth Ann could sometimes
remember and sometimes not. And then, oh horrors! It was
her turn again! Her turn had never before come more
than twice during a mental arithmetic lesson. She was so
startled by the swiftness with which the question went around
that she balked on 6 x 6, which she knew
perfectly. And before she could recover Ralph had answered and
had rattled out a 108 in answer to 9 x 12;
and then Ellen slapped down an 84 on top
of 7 x 12. Good gracious! Who could have guessed,
from the way they read, they could do their tables
like this! She herself missed on 7 x 7 and
was ready to cry . After this the teacher didn't
call on her at all, but showered questions down on
the other two,
who sent the answers back
with sickening speed.
After the lesson the teacher said, smiling, "Well,
Betsy, you were right about your arithmetic. I guess you'd
better recite with Eliza for a while. She's doing second-grade
work. I shouldn't be surprised if, after a good review
with her, you'd be able to go on with the
Elizabeth Ann fell back on the bench with her
mouth open. She felt really dizzy. What crazy things the
teacher said! She felt as though she was being pulled
limb from limb.
"What's the matter?" asked the teacher, seeing her
"Why—why," said Elizabeth Ann, "I don't know what I
am at all. If I'm second-grade arithmetic and seventh-grade reading
and third grade spelling, what grade am I?"
The teacher laughed
at the turn of her phrase. "You aren't any grade
at all, no matter where you are in school. You're
just yourself, aren't you? What difference does it
make what grade you're in? And what's the use of
your reading little baby things too easy for you just
because you don't know your multiplication table?"
"Well for goodness' sakes!"
ejaculated Elizabeth Ann, feeling very much as though somebody
had stood her suddenly on her head.
"Why, what's the matter?"
asked the teacher again.
This time Elizabeth Ann didn't answer, because
she herself didn't know what the matter was. But I
do, and I'll tell you. The matter was that never
before had she known what she was doing in school.
She had always thought she was there to pass from
one grade to another, and she was ever so startled
to get a little glimpse of the fact that she
was there to learn how to read and write and
cipher and generally use her mind, so she could take
care of herself when she came to be grown up.
Of course, she didn't really know that till she did
come to be grown up, but she
had her first dim notion of it in that moment, and it made her
feel the way you do when you're
learning to skate and somebody pulls away the chair you've
been leaning on and says, "Now, go it alone!"
waited a minute, and then, when Elizabeth Ann didn't say
anything more, she rang a little bell. "Recess time," she
said, and as the children marched out and began putting
on their wraps she followed them into the cloak-room, pulled
on a warm, red cap and a red sweater, and
ran outdoors herself. "Who's on my side!" she called, and
the children came darting out after her. Elizabeth Ann had
dreaded the first recess time with the strange children, but
she had no time to feel shy, for in a
twinkling she was on one end of a long rope with
a lot of her schoolmates, pulling with all her might
against the teacher and two of the big boys. Nobody
had looked at her curiously, nobody had said anything to
her beyond a loud, "Come on, Betsy!" from Ralph, who
was at the head on their side.
They pulled and they
pulled, digging their
feet into the ground and
bracing themselves against the rocks which stuck up out of
the playground. Sometimes the teacher's side yanked them along by
quick jerks, and then they'd all set their feet hard
when Ralph shouted out, "Now, all together!" and they'd slowly
drag the other side back. And all the time everybody
was shouting and yelling together with the excitement. Betsy was
screaming too, and when a wagon passing by stopped and
a big, broad-shouldered farmer jumped down laughing, put the end
of the rope over his shoulder, and just walked off
with the whole lot of them till he had pulled
them clear off their feet, Elizabeth Ann found herself rolling
over and over with a breathless, squirming mass of children,
her shrill laughter rising even above the shouts of merriment of
the others. She laughed so she could hardly get up
on her feet again, it was such an unexpected ending
to the contest.
The big farmer was laughing too. "You ain't
so smart as you think you are, are you!"
he jeered at them good-naturedly. Then he started, yelling
"WHOA there!" to his horses, which had begun to walk
on. He had to run after them with all his
might, and just climbed into the back of the wagon
and grabbed the reins the very moment they broke into
a trot. The children laughed, and Ralph shouted after him,
"Hi there, Uncle Nate! Who's not so smart as he
thinks he is, now!" He turned to the little
girls near him. "They 'most got away from him that
time!" he said. "He's awful foolish about leaving them standing
while he's funning or something. He thinks he's awful funny,
anyhow. Some day they'll run away on him and then
where'll he be?"
Elizabeth Ann was thinking to herself that this
was one of the queerest things that had happened to
her even in this queer place. Never, why never once,
had any grown-up, passing the playground of the big brick
building, dreamed of such a thing as stopping for a
minute to play. They never even looked at the children,
any more than if they were in another
world. In fact she had felt the school was in
"Ralph, it's your turn to get the water," said
the teacher, handing him a pail. "Want to go along?"
said Ralph gruffly to Ellen and Betsy. He led the
way and the little girls walked after him. Now that
she was out of a crowd Elizabeth Ann felt all
her shyness come down on her like a black cloud,
drying up her mouth and turning her hands and feet
cold as ice. Into one of these cold hands she
felt small, warm fingers slide. She looked down and there
was little Molly trotting by her side, turning her blue
eyes up trustfully. "Teacher says I can go with you
if you'll take care of me," she said. "She never
lets us first-graders go without somebody bigger to help us
over the log."
As she spoke they came to a small,
clear, swift brook, crossed by a big white-birch log. Elizabeth
Ann was horribly afraid to set foot on it, but
with little Molly's hand holding tightly to hers she was
ashamed to say she was
 afraid. Ralph skipped
across, swinging the pail to show how easy it was
for him. Ellen followed more slowly, and then—oh, don't you
wish Aunt Frances could have been there!—Betsy shut her teeth
together hard, put Molly ahead of her, took her hand,
and started across. As a matter of fact Molly went
along as sure-footed as a little goat, having done it
a hundred times, and it was she who steadied Elizabeth
Ann. But nobody knew this, Molly least of all.
a drink out of a tin cup standing on a
stump near by, dipped the pail into a deep, clear
pool, and started back to the school. Ellen took a
drink and offered the cup to Betsy, very shyly, without
looking up. After they had all three had a drink
they stood there for a moment, much embarrassed. Then Ellen
said, in a very small voice, "Do you like dolls
with yellow hair the best?"
Now it happened that Elizabeth Ann
had very positive convictions on this point which she had
never spoken of, because Aunt Frances
didn't really care about dolls. She only pretended to, to be
company for her little niece.
"No, I don't!" answered the
little girl emphatically. "I get just sick and tired of
always seeing them with that old, bright-yellow hair! I like
them to have brown hair, just the way most little
girls really do!"
Ellen lifted her eyes and smiled radiantly. "Oh,
so do I!" she said. "And that lovely old doll
your folks have has got brown hair. Will you let
me play with her some time?"
"My folks?" said Elizabeth Ann
"Why yes, your Aunt Abigail and your Uncle Henry."
got a doll?" said Betsy, thinking this was the
very climax of Putney queerness.
"Oh, my, yes!" said Molly eagerly.
"She's the one Mrs. Putney had when she was a
little girl. And she's got the loveliest clothes! She's in
the hair-trunk under the eaves in the attic. They
let me take her down once when I was
there with Mother. And Mother said she
guessed, now a little girl had come there to live,
they'd let her have her down all the time. I'll
bring mine over next Saturday, if you want me to.
Mine's got yellow hair, but she's real pretty anyhow. If
Father's going to mill that day, he can leave me
there for the morning."
Elizabeth Ann had not understood more than
one word in five of this, but just then the
school-bell rang and they went back, little Molly helping Elizabeth
Ann over the log and thinking she was being helped,
They ran along to the little building, and there
I'm going to leave them, because I think I've told
enough about their school for one while. It was only
a poor, rough, little district school anyway, that no Superintendent
of Schools would have looked at for a minute, except