Only in Kirsten Learns a Lesson
Chapter by Chapter Summary
Chapter One: Miss Winston
Kirsten hurries after her eleven-year-old cousin, Lisbeth. Kirsten complains that Lisbeth is walking too fast, but Lisbeth doesn't slow down. Instead she explains that Mr. Coogan would be very angry if they would show up late. Mr. Coogan had been Lisbeth's teacher since she was nine and she loves to tell stories about how strict he is. It is November and the harvest is over, so Kirsten can go to school now. Today is her first day.
Kirsten and Lisbeth stop beside the stream when seven-year-old Anna who is tagging father behind calls to them to wait. Kirsten puts her fingers into a deer track in the sand, wishing that she could just stay by the stream instead of going to school. Lisbeth tells Kirsten that Mr. Coogan would like her if she minds him, but gets very angry when the older boys fight. Kirsten says that the boys weren't allowed to fight in school back in Sweden.
Lisbeth tells Kirsten that boys in America get wild whether they should or not. She goes on about Mr. Coogan, who once punched a child with his first, hits boys with his cane and swats hands with rules if one talks back. Anna pipes up, saying that Mr. Coogan is mean but would never hit Kirsten because she is so nice.
Kirsten insists that she isn't worried, but yet she feels dizzy like she did when she was seasick. She was so nervous that she didn't eat the pancakes her mother made for breakfast. Anna asks Kirsten if her stomach hurts since her own stomach sometimes hurts when she is scared. Kirsten admits that her stomach hurts a little. Anna sympathizes with her; it is hard to be the new girl.
Lisbeth slips her arms through Kirsten's and says that she'll be fine if she just does what they do. But Kirsten cannot do what they do because she speaks very little English and can't write it at all. She wishes to be back in Sweden where everyone speaks Swedish like she does. Anna adds that school will only last till four, and they could play in their fort afterwards. Anna hides their dolls in their secret hideaway under the cherry tree and breaks off a spring of bittersweet, handing Kirsten a few of the waxy berries.
Kirsten says that they can use them on their dolls cakes. Before Anna can reply Lisbeth hears the school bell and urges the other two girls to run.
At school, Anna points out the outhouse and promises Kirsten she wouldn't let any boys peek at her, an idea that hadn't even occurred to Kirsten and made her even more nervous. Inside the schoolhouse, the only familiar faces were her brothers, Lars and Peter. Instead of Mr. Coogan, a young woman in a black dress stood in the middle of the room. She tapped the stove with her ruler and introduced herself as Miss Winston. She explains she was here to take Mr. Coogan's place, who was still recovering from being thrown off his horse. A boy, who Lisbeth introduces as Amos Anderson, shouts in the back that he hoped the horse stepped on him too. Miss Winston tells Amos not to act out of turn and reminds him while they did live in the woods, they were not savages like the Indians.
Miss Winston asks the students to step forward and introduce themselves, starting with the ladies. Kirsten's head buzzed as the rest of the girls introduced themselves; she didn't want to stand in the center of the room where everyone was looking at her. Kirsten was the last to introduce herself, and quickly murmurs her name before trying to go back to the bench. Miss Winston, however, reminds her to say "ma'am", which Kirsten mispronounces when she tries to repeat it. The teacher asks if Kirsten knew how to speak English. Kirsten explains that she could speak a little, but heard a girl giggle at her halting English. Anna explains how Kirsten came from Sweden and spoke Swedish at home, and Miss Winston tells Kirsten that she was to speak English while at school. She tells Kirsten to start on the easiest lesson alongside Anna and Kirsten nods, to which Miss Winston tells her to speak out loud so she can practice her English.
Amos laughed at Kirsten and Miss Winston glares at him before motioning Kirsten back to her seat. Miss Winston then suddenly turned and smacked the stove with her ruler. She states that her father could not be the captain if he wasn't in charge of his crew, and she wouldn't be a teacher if she wasn't in charge of her students. She smacks the stove again and states this was her first lesson: Miss Winston was the subject, hit the verb, the stove the direct object of the verb. She warns the students to be careful the direct object didn't turn into 'the student'. No one speaks a word.
Miss Winston then invites the boys to introduce themselves, reminding them to be gentlemen, not savages. Kirsten notes how quickly her younger brother Peter seemed to learn english and how confident Lars was, even in face of a teacher like Miss Winston. Amos Anderson, who seemed more like a man then a boy, introduces himself last. Miss Winston asks what book he was using and upon learning he only just finished the 3rd book, asks his age. He states that he was 19, the same age as her. Miss Winston states that while she was 19, she was the teacher and him the student. Her job was to help him read and do sums the way a man must do if wants to make his way in the world, and she asks him to set a good example for the others. Amos blushes and offers to fetch the drinking water for the children, which she allows him to do, and Kirsten sees him dash off like a deer.
Miss Winston has the class sing until Amos returns, saying it would be good exercise for their lungs. They sing "Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home", which makes Kirsten yearn to be back in Sweden, back home with her Mama, anywhere but here with Miss Winston. When Amos returns, he passes the water dipper around, as if he was the one in charge of the kids, while Miss Winston handed out the books and slates. Anna and Kirsten start on the alphabet section together, Anna showing Kirsten how to spell.
When Miss Winston comes by to check on their work, Kirsten proudly shows how she spelt 'dog' on her slate. Instead of praise, Miss Winston tells Kirsten she must learn to write complete sentences, pointing to Anna's slate as an example. Anna asks Kirsten if she loved school as much as she did, and Kirsten sighs, realizing this was going to be a long day.
After school, the three girls went to their doll fort under the cherry tree. Anna pretends to be a schoolteacher while greeting the dolls, and asks Kirsten if she thought Miss Winston was nice. Kirsten didn't know; she seemed to like Anna, but not Kirsten herself. She points out how Miss Winston scolded, to which Lisbeth says Mr. Coogan was much worse. Anna suggests they play school, to which Kirsten suggests they pretend it's lunchtime, the only good part of Kirsten's school day. That was the time where it didn't matter if she spoke English, it only mattered that she was the fastest runner during tag.
The girls pretend to feed their dolls and Anna scolds the toys for eating too fast, reminding them they weren't savages like the Indians. Kirsten laughs at Anna's perfect impression of Miss Winston, then asks what 'savage' meant. Lisbeth explains it meant wild, and Kirsten asks if Indians really were savage. Lisbeth says how some folks said Indians were kind, giving them food in times of need, while others said they were cruel and bloodthirsty. Anna shares a story of how an Indian once came to their door when Mama was roasting pork. While he didn't hurt them, he didn't say thank you when she gave him a piece of pork. She remarks his outfit did make him look wild and calls his sudden appearance at their door Indian magic, but Lisbeth laughs that he was just wearing soft shoes.
She shares how their Papa was worried about the Indians; if they kept planting crops on their hunting ground, the wild animals would go away and if the Indians didn't have enough to eat, they were bound to get angry. Lisbeth trails off and looks at Kirsten, saying that her Papa said they needed the land too. Kirsten asks if the Indians ever get cold during the winter living in their tepees, but Lisbeth states she doesn't know and criticizes Kirsten for being too curious.
Chapter Two: A Secret Friend
A few days later, Miss Winston excitedly announces that everyone in the class was to memorize a poem to recite to the class. If they did an excellent job, they would earn a Reward of Merritt. Kirsten immediately dreads the assignment: even if she memorized the poem, how could she recite it in front of everyone? Miss Winston ads that she expected each student to recite with feeling, to properly reflect the tone of the poem. This further stresses out Kirsten. Miss Winston hands out the poems, excited to give Kirsten her poem as she felt it wasn't too long, but still would allow Kirsten to express anger and love. Kirsten, unable to read the poem, asks Anna to read it to her. Anna reads "Coo, coo, says the gentle dove/Coo, Coo says its little mate/they play each other in love/and never show anger or hate". Kirsten fought back tears, overwhelmed by the idea of learning all those words, and wishing she could vanish from this school.
The next morning, Kirsten admired the nature around her as she went to fetch Mama a bucket of water. Kirsten noticed a deer drinking by the stream, then noticed a face in the cat tails. An Indian girl was crouching there, looking straight at Kirsten. Kirsten softly greets her, and while the stranger didn't react, it was enough to scare off the deer. When Kirsten looked back from the deer, the girl was gone. Kirsten, almost thinking she imagined the whole thing, investigated the area the girl was sitting at. She found a footprint on the shore, slightly smaller then her own, and a blue bead that the girl had dropped. Kirsten picked up the bead and wrapped it in her hankie. As she filled the bucket with water, she wondered if the Indian girl was fetching water for her family like she was.
Kirsten wanted to meet the Indian girl, but didn't know how or if she would even come by again. She gets the idea to go grab one of the doll cakes from the fort and leave it by the footprint. If the girl returned, she would know it was Kirsten who left it there. When Kirsten returns to the cabin, Mama scolds Kirsten for taking so long, warning her she would have to hurry to make it to school in time. All day, Kirsten wondered about the Indian girl. When she returned to the stream after school, the doll cake was gone. It it's place was a green duck feather, sticking out like a little flag. Kirsten smiled as she added the feather to her handkerchief. Maybe there was a way to make friends with the girl after all.
Every morning and evening, whenever Kirsten went to the stream to fetch water, she kept an eye out for the girl. She didn't know exactly when the girl came by, but the gifts they exchanged proved she was there. Kirsten once left a piece of red yarn tied around a pebble and got a length of leather in return. Kirsten's little mud doll with a leaf skirt was traded for a tiny woven grass basket. Kirsten's green button with a thread through it was replaced with a purple bead. The girl's gifts became Kirsten's secret treasures that Kirsten would turn to whenever she was tired of school. She day dreamed about running across the prairie with the girl. They wouldn't need to talk; they'd run faster then the wind.
One evening, Kirsten saved her slice of bread of honey from supper before going to the stream. She wrapped her food using a leaf, left it in the usual spot, then settled down. Kirsten decided she would meet her, no matter what, but the sun set lower and Kirsten knew she would have to return soon if she didn't want her mother to worry. Kirsten begs for the girl to show up under her breath, and suddenly the Indian girl is there. She picks up Kirsten's gift and sniffs it before taking a bite. She noticed Kirsten as she ate and Kirsten silently approaches the girl, not wanting to scare her.
When Kirsten got close, the girl pulled out a tiny decorated clay pot and held it out to her. Kirsten accepts it, complimenting the pot and calling it pretty. The Indian girl slowly reaches out to touch Kirsten's braid, which pleased Kirsten so much she laughed. Kirsten repeatedly tells the girl the pot was pretty, but the girl was still fixated on Kirsten's braids. Wishing the two could talk to each other properly, Kirsten touches the girl's necklace and calls it pretty. The girl touched Kirsten's apron and attempts to say pretty as well. Kirsten wishes for a moment she could give the girl her apron, but knew Mama would be upset if she returned without it. Instead, Kirsten pulls out her hanky where she kept the girl's items in, and the girl is happy to see Kirsten kept her gifts. Kirsten hands her hanky to the girl, the two of them saying pretty.
Suddenly realizing it was almost dark, Kirsten draws a setting sun in the ground and points to the sun in the sky. The girl looked at the sun and drew another setting sun next to Kirsten's drawing. Kirsten touched each sun and asked if she would come tomorrow when the sun was like this. The girl didn't say anything, but put Kirsten's hanky to her cheek before running off.
Chapter Three: Visitors
Lisbeth announces on the way to school that Miss Winston was going to live at their house. Anna is excited by the news and Lisbeth finds it a great honor, but it upsets Kirsten. It felt like school was following her home. Lisbeth explains that Miss Winston used to live in the shed the Engberg's had by the kitchen, but was too cold to live in during the winter.
Kirsten states that even if her house had room for her teacher, she wouldn't be able to stay because Mama couldn't speak English. Anna says the best part about the news was that Kirsten's family would be eating with their family more often so Kirsten's parents could practice their English with Miss Winston. Kirsten's spirits sank further; dinner was the happiest time for her family, how could they have their conversations if they struggled with English? Would Miss Winston smack the dinner table with her ruler like she did at school? Kirsten asks when Miss Winston was arriving, and calculates that she had five days of freedom left until her teacher moved in Sunday.
Anna starts wondering what kind of beautiful petticoats a lady like Miss Winston had, and Kirsten scowls that she didn't care what underclothes her teacher wore. Realizing she hurt her cousin's feelings, Kirsten apologizes. Lisbeth comments Kirsten must be upset because she was struggling with her poem, which only makes Kirsten more upset. She reached into her apron pocket where she kept the gifts Singing Bird gave her.
Kirsten had learnt the Native girl's name was Singing Bird, and they had already became the best of friends. Everyday they explored the woods and cave by the stream together, and Singing Bird taught her how to whistle like a meadow hawk. When Kirsten was with Singing Bird, she felt free and strong, forgetting all about school and speaking English correctly.
The two girls met up again that afternoon, and this time Kirsten invites Singing Bird to the doll fort. Kirsten knew Lisbeth and Anna would be angry if they knew she brought a stranger in without permission, especially an Indian, but she was willing to take that chance. Singing Bird admires the fort, calling it pretty, and the two play around with the doll furniture. Singing Bird constructs a mini-tepee, uses her fingers to walk into it, and instructs Kirsten to come. Kirsten thinks it's part of the game, but Singing Bird explains she wanted Kirsten to come see her tepee. Kirsten knew Lars had seen teepees when setting up rabbit traps, but no one Kirsten knew had ever been there. Most of them didn't trust Indians, but they didn't know Singing Bird either. Kirsten asks where the teepees were, and Singing Bird points towards the ridge where the sun was setting. Kirsten says it was too late to go today, but she would come with her soon.
The two reorganize the doll fort to it's original state and walk back to the stream. Singing Bird draws a full sun, meaning to meet in the morning tomorrow. Kirsten shook her head and drew two full suns, meaning she couldn't come tomorrow, but would come the day after. Kirsten wasn't sure how she would manage to get away before school started, but she knew she would find a way.
Chapter Four: Singing Bird and Yellow Hair
Miss Winston scolds Kirsten, saying she felt Kirsten wasn't really trying to learn her poem. Kirsten bites her lip and insists she was trying, and Miss Winston instructs Kirsten to look at her while she spoke. Kirsten forces herself to look up, thinking how if Miss Winston wasn't so stern, she would be very pretty.
Miss Winston asks if Kirsten could actually read the poem and Kirsten murmurs that she could, she just had difficulty memorizing it. Miss Winston says that Lisbeth was able to recite a 32 line poem, while Kirsten only had to memorize 4 lines. She explains that the memory is a muscle, and it must be used to make it strong. Kirsten nodded unhappily, her mind feeling like a tired muscle. Everyone else had already recited their poem, and It felt like Miss Winston was proud of everyone except for her.
Miss Winston tells Kirsten she must work harder and recites the old idiom "if at first you don't succeed, try and try again". Kirsten thought how even if she could memorize the poem, she was sure to forget it once she stood in front of the class. If that happened, Kirsten was bound to cry, the worst possible thing that could happen.
The next morning, Kirsten got up extra early and rushed through her morning chores. Mama put out a breakfast of thin pancakes and ham, asking why Kirsten was in such a rush. Kirsten wrapped a few pancakes around her ham, explaining that she wanted to go to school early to practice her verse, and she would eat her breakfast along the way. Mama grins, proud Kirsten had learnt a whole verse in English, and Papa says she's allowed to go on if she's doing schoolwork. She rushes out, asking her parents to tell her cousins that she'd meet them at school. Kirsten felt bad about her lie, and attempted to recite her poem as she ran so it wouldn't be a complete lie.
Kirsten forgot about her poem and her lie when she heard Singing Bird's whistle. She handed Singing Bird her breakfast, which she happily accepted, and the two run across the prairie towards the village. Kirsten didn't care how far she had to run; she was glad to be free from school and on this adventure with Singing Bird.
When the two reached the village, children and adults alike come up to take a look at Kirsten and her clothing. Singing Bird kept close to Kirsten and invites her to meet her father. Inside, Kirsten meets Brave Elk, Singing Bird's father. She greeted herself, remembering to curtsey. Brave Elk comments that Kristen was Singing Bird's friend and Kirsten states that Singing Bird was her friend too, touching her arm. Brave Elk mentions that Kirsten had taught his daughter some English, a fact that surprises Kirsten herself; she never once thought to speak Swedish when with Singing Bird. Kirsten demonstrates some of the words that Singing Bird taught her, like Tepee and moccasin. Brave Elk tells Kirsten she's welcome to stay, and is offered some food.
Singing Bird shows Kirsten some of her possessions, including her pouch, her knife, her needle and her doll. Kirsten wishes she could live with Singing Bird and fantasizes what life would be like as Singing Bird's sister, Yellow Hair, instead of Kirsten Larson, the girl who couldn't recite her poem. When the tepee flap opens up, Kirsten notices the sun was high in the sky. She would have to run fast to make it to school in time. Kirsten motions this to Singing Bird, and the two run back to the trail.
Chapter Five: Belonging
It was Sunday night, the first meal Miss Winston was sharing with the Larsons. Miss Winston talks about her family home in Maine and how her father worked on a ship. Anna asked her teacher why she left such a lovely home, and Miss Winston explains that she wanted to have adventures before she got married and settled down. School teachers travel, so she decided to become one. She tells Anna she could become a teacher when she grew up, as she was already a good teacher to her cousin.
Kirsten kept her eye on her plate, feeling she had forgotten all of her English. She was also afraid of her parents asking Miss Winston about her poem and learning that she still hasn't recited in front of the class yet. Anna asks more about Miss Winston's dad, and she explains that he was a captain of a trade ship. Lars says he might become a sailor as he found life on the ship exciting. Miss Winston offers to show him her father's ship after dinner.
Once everyone had finished eating, Miss Winston went to her loft and returned with a ship in a bottle, explaining that this ship looked like her father's own ship. Kirsten gasps that it looked just like the Eagle. Miss Winston hands the bottle to Kirsten for a closer look. Kirsten talks about her time on the ship that she rode to America on, surprising herself with how much she managed to blurt out in English. Miss Winston ponders for a moment, commenting that Kirsten remembered the ship very well. Kirsten says she did remember it well, as she would play with Marta on the deck often. Miss Winston tells Kirsten she has given her an idea.
The next day at school, she hands Kirsten a piece of paper, something she's never done. She explains that she felt after how Kristen talked about the Eagle, she would enjoy memorizing and reciting 4 lines from a larger poem about a man who was a sailor all his life. Miss Winston asks if Kirsten can read the lines and Kirsten slowly but clearly reads "Swiftly, swiftly, flew the ship/Yet she sailed softly too/Sweetly, Sweetly, blew the breeze/On me alone it blew".
Kirsten remembered the ocean breeze on her face, and remembered how much she missed Marta. Miss Winston compliments Kirsten's reading and asks if she was able to memorize the poem. Kirsten says she'll try, hoping if she did forget any words, she could imagine the Eagle and the words would return to her. Miss Winston says Kirsten will try and she will succeed, and asks her to remember that.
Because Kirsten's family started eating dinner at Uncle Lars' house, it was impossible for her to meet with Singing Bird at their usual time in the evening, and there was never enough time in the morning. On Wednesday Kirsten managed to leave a yarn doll for Singing Bird, and after school found a piece of beadwork she thought would make a beautiful headband for Sari. Singing Bird had drawn a full sun in the sand, wanting to meet the next morning. Kirsten sadly drew an x through the sun, meaning she couldn't make it, and wonders when she would be able to see her friend again.
On Friday, Kirsten tells Miss Winston she was ready to recite her poem. She was nervous, but she wanted to recite before she forgot the poem. Miss Winston announces to the class Kirsten was to recite. Kirsten walks to the center of the room and lifts her chin like her teacher would. She saw Anna's and Lars' smiles, but the room seemed to blur and Kirsten grew nervous. Miss Winston reminds Kirsten to recite with feeling. Kirsten imagines her time on the ship with Marta by her side and recited her poem. She kept her eyes closed, and managed to recite the poem without a single mistake.
When Kirsten opened her eyes, the other students were smiling. Miss Winston compliments Kirsten's recital, and says she was proud of her. Kirsten sat down in a daze; she stood in front of everyone and spoke English! It hadn't been so hard after all, and Kirsten was sure next time would be easier. Anna and Lisbeth congratulate Kirsten, and Miss Winston instructs the class to begin their reading. Kirsten, feeling too dazed to read, offers to fetch the drinking water. Miss Winston allows Kirsten, smiling and telling Kirsten to make sure she breathes deep to get some fresh air in her lungs.
At the stream, Kirsten heard a meadow lark whistle and looked up to see Singing Bird. Kirsten greets her and Singing Bird instructs Kirsten to come. Kirsten explains she had to go back to school and offers to meet up afterwards, but Singing Bird says she had to come now as they were leaving today. Kirsten grasps her friend's hand, surprised by the news, and asks where she was going to. Singing Bird explains they had no food due to poor hunting, and they were going westward.
Kirsten remembers the pangs of hunger she and her family felt when Papa's crops had failed over in Sweden. They went to America when they ran out of food, but where would Singing Bird and her tribe go? Singing Bird strokes Kirsten's braid and invites her to come along. She grabs Kirsten's hand and calls her sister. Kirsten thinks it over: she remembers the village and knew she would be well taken care of there. She would be free to roam the woods all day and be with Singing Bird forever. But how could she leave her family and home? Her parents would be wild with worry, thinking she was killed, and there was no way they'd give her permission to leave with Singing Bird.
Kirsten tells Singing Bird while she wanted to, she couldn't go with her as she couldn't leave her home. Singing Bird looked down sadly, and reaches into her pouch to give Kirsten her needle as her final gift. Kirsten asks if she would ever return, and Singing Bird says only if the deer come back. Kirsten begs Singing Bird to return, that she would stay here and to just whistle for her by the stream. Singing Bird repeats only if the deer come back and touches Kirsten's braid one last time. She then runs off, waving from the edge of the woods before running out of view.
Kirsten watched her friend go, imagining her tribe hungry, wandering for food, not knowing how long they would have to travel before they could set up their village again. Kirsten now realized if settlers were to make their home here, the Indians would have to find a new home. Kirsten trudged back to school, where Miss Winston jokes that Kirsten was gone for so long, she thought she had found a ship that sailed back to Sweden. Kirsten softly says no, too upset to smile. Miss Winston smiles regardless, saying she left something in Kirsten's reader for her.
Kirsten looked around, unsure when this place became her own, but knew it was where she belonged now. She approaches her bench and asks Anna to help her with her reading as usual, which Anna happily agrees to. Kirsten opens her book and finds that Miss Winston had left her a Reward of Merritt inside.
Looking Back: School in 1854
Discusses education in pioneer America. Topics include:
- The different farm chores children did before and during the harvest season, which was then followed by the beginning of the school year.
- Why pioneer schools were only open during the winter and summer seasons, and the difficultly some children had with attending school on a regular basis.
- The use of readers to help children learn to read and write, and the other school subjects students studied.
- Why students were usually told to recite their lessons out loud rather than write them down.
- How students worked within their classroom and the merit rewards that were awarded to students who did very well with their recitation.
- The struggles pioneer schoolteachers had with finding proper boarding residents, which led to many teachers moving from one student's house to another student's house during the school year.