In this rough draft excerpt from The Good Community, Maggie begins sorting out who will be her allies and her enemies when it comes to starting a new school in the Blaineton area.
Will Miss Benny, the town’s “common school” teacher, join their teaching staff eventually? Will Josiah Norton find a way to block the project?
I don’t know! At least, not yet.
All I know is Norton is a whopping sexist. But, then again, it is 1864.
Maggie said, “I regret to say this, but I shall be withdrawing my son from the town’s school today. I think you are a fine teacher, but inasmuch as we shall be starting a school at Greybeal House, it might be wisest to move him there.” She offered up an apologetic smile. “I don’t want Bob to be teased by the other children. He has already struggled with that because we live with colored people.”
Miss Benny’s eyes revealed a mix of understanding and sadness. “I shall miss Bobby. He’s a dear boy, and very bright. But I take your meaning. He has been teased off and on, though, I must say he is quite firm and says there is nothing wrong with having colored people as friends and neighbors. And…” Here she smiled. “…it is best that he absorbs as much of your family’s values as possible. After all, if we are to change minds and hearts, we must start somewhere.”
“Thank you.” Maggie extended her hand.
Miss Benny took it and two shook hands warmly. “Mrs. Smith, that I do not care for the turn our town is taking. It seems as if we are growing overly-concerned with status and color. If and when it is possible, I would be happy to join you at Greybeal House.”
“And we would be happy to have you as a teacher. But you may have to wait for a year or so before that is possible.”
“Then I will wait.”
“Fine. In a few weeks, if you have the opportunity, please come over and visit with us.”
Miss Benny smiled broadly. “I shall. Thank you, Mrs. Smith.”
Feeling pleased, Maggie stepped into the late afternoon sun. The sky was clear of clouds and a brilliant blue. A light breeze caressed the leaves on the trees in the square. It was a perfect day.
Bob ran up to her and gave her another hug.
Maggie sighed happily as she cuddled him.
And then, when she glanced up, she saw him.
And he was walking toward her.
Maggie restrained from rolling her eyes and turned to Emily. “Will you take Bob home, please? I’ve a feeling I’m going to have a conversation.”
Emily gazed across the square and took in Josiah’s advancing figure. Her eyes narrowed. “Mm, hm. I see. Maggie, I don’t envy you. Not at all.” She held her hand out. “Come on, Bobby. Let’s walk home. Your Mama will catch up with us later.”
Once Emily and Bob walked away, Maggie turned to Josiah who now was nearly upon her. “Good afternoon, Mr. Norton.”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Smith.” He bowed.
Maggie reciprocated with a courtesy. “What brings you to the school?”
“My weekly meeting with Miss Benny. As chairman of the school board, I require that she give me a detailed report on the children’s progress.” He paused. “So… have you come to terms with our policy, Mrs. Smith? When we last spoke, you were against it.”
Maggie took a breath. “I am still against it, Mr. Norton. If a school is open to the public, then all children should be able to attend.”
“There is a perfectly good school for colored children in Trenton.”
“Do be sensible, sir. It is in Trenton. Why send them there when we can educate them here in Blaineton?”
He sighed. “Quite obviously, by your words and the way you live, you are not bothered by the mixing of the races. But many are bothered, Mrs. Smith, and their voices must be heard.”
“And so, you cater to them, rather than do what is right.”
At this, Josiah mustered up a condescending smile. “I’m afraid, you don’t understand the way of politics. But that is not uncommon. You are a woman.”
Maggie felt her face flush. Quickly organizing her thoughts, she said, “You are correct, Mr. Norton. I am a woman. And I am a mother. And I know that all mothers wish their children to receive an education and to be treated a fairly, although the vicissitudes of life often make that difficult. Perhaps if more men thought as we do –”
Josiah burst into laughter. “The world would be in a pretty mess if men did that! No, Mrs. Smith, you know nothing of politics and nothing of the world, and that is as it should be.”
Maggie had seen plenty of both politics and the world, as well as some things that she suspected would make Josiah’s hair stand on end. But she held her tongue and calmly said, “I disagree with you, sir. In fact, I disagree to such an extent, that I came here today to take Bob out of the school.”
“Indeed? What do you intend to do? Teach him at home?”
His insolent expression straightened her spine. “Indeed, I do. Mrs. Beatty, Mrs. Johnson, and I are starting a school. In it we will teach, Bob, Addie and Mary Brooks, and Natey, as well as any other children of color and children who do not conform to your idea of acceptable students.”
Josiah’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Start a school? But you must discuss this with the school board first.”
“Ah, but Mr. Norton, Greybeal house is just outside Blaineton’s boundary. I don’t believe the board needs to have oversight of this endeavor as the school will be outside of town. In addition, it will be a private school, thus the town’s taxes will not go to its support.” Maggie kept her posture regal as a queen, although her heart was pounding, although more with anger than fear. “So, Mr. Norton, start a school we shall. Children of all colors need an education and if our town will not take that responsibility, then we intend to do it for you. Good day, sir.”
With that, she turned on her heel and marched down Third Street.