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My Year at School by Margaret Watson


I was rather old to start out as a school-girl, for I was seventeen, and had never been to school before.

We lived in the heart of the country, and my education had been rather casual—broken into now for a day's work, and now for a day's play, now for visitors staying in the house, now for a visit to friends or relations; as is the way when you are one of a large family, and do your lessons at home—especially if your tastes lie rather in the line of doing than thinking.

I did not love books. I loved gardening and riding the pony, and making cakes, and minding the baby. My sisters were much cleverer than I, and I had never believed it possible that I could excel in anything requiring study, so I satisfied myself with being rather clever with my hands.

However, I didn't really mind work of any kind, and I worked at my lessons when I was at them, though I was always ready enough to throw them aside for anything else that might turn up. When my mother said I must go away to a good school for a year I was quite willing. I always loved a change.

The school chosen was a London High School, and I was to board with some people we knew. They had no connection with the school, so I was thrown pretty much on my own resources, and had to find my way about for myself.

I had to go up first for the entrance exam., and I shall never forget my feelings that day. The headmistress had a sharp, quick manner, and I thought she set me down as very stupid for my age. I was put in a room with a lot of girls, mostly younger than myself, and given a set of exam. papers to do. The way the questions were put was new to me, I was nervous and worried, but I worked on doggedly with the courage of despair, certain that I was showing appalling ignorance for a girl of seventeen, and that I should be placed in a form with the babies.

Two very pretty girls were working beside me. They had curly black hair, and bright complexions, and lovely dark eyes, and there was a fair girl, who wrote diligently all the time, and seemed in no difficulty. When it was over I asked her how she had got on, and she said she had found it quite easy, and answered most of the questions. We compared notes, and I saw that if she was right I must be wrong, and as she was quite sure she was right I went home very despondent indeed, but determined to work my way up from the bottom if need be.

Next morning I hardened my heart for what was to befall me, and started for school. I had to go by omnibus, and found one that ran just at the right time.

I was met at the school entrance by a tall, thin, small-featured lady, who wore glasses, and spoke in a sharp, clear voice, but quite kindly, telling me that I was in the Fifth Form, and my desk was that nearest the door.

There was a good deal of crush and confusion as there were a lot of new girls, and I sat at my desk and wondered whether the Fifth Form was the highest or the lowest. I could hardly believe I was in the highest form, but the other girls sitting at the desks looked as old as myself. The two pretty dark girls were there, but I saw no sign of the fair girl who had worked so easily.

I sat and watched for her, and presently she came in, but she was moved on to the form behind. She was in the Fourth Form, and I heard her name—Mabel Smith.

I had a good report at the end of the first term, and went home happy—very happy to get home again, for I had never been so long away before, and I found my little brothers grown out of knowledge. But the Christmas holidays were soon over, and I went back in a cold, snowy week; and London snow is a miserable spectacle, not like the lovely pure white covering which hides up all dirt and ugliness in the country.

However, I knew my way about by this time, and found my old familiar bus waiting for me, and the conductor greeted me with great friendliness. He was a most kind man, and always waited for me as long as he could.

This term we had a new mistress for mathematics, and I didn't like her a bit.

I was always very slow and stupid at mathematics, and the new mistress was so quick, she worked away like lightning, and I could not follow her. She would rush through a proposition in Euclid, proving that some figure was, or was not equal to some other figure, and leave me stranded vainly trying to understand the first proof when she was at the last, and I couldn't care, anyhow, whether one line could be proved equal to another or not, I felt it would be much simpler to measure it and have done with it. It was the same in arithmetic; she took us through innumerable step-fractions with innumerable steps, just as fast as she could put the figures down, and all I could do was to stare stupidly at the blackboard and hope that I might be able to worry some sense out of it all at home; and she gave us so much home-work that I had to toil till after ten at night, and then had to leave my sums half done, or neglect my other work altogether.

I was slow and stupid, I knew, but the others all suffered too, though not so much, and presently complaints were made by all the other mistresses that their work was not done, and all the girls had the same reason to give, the arithmetic took so long.

So Miss Vinton made out a time-table for our prep., and said we were to leave off when the time was up, whether we'd finished or not. It was a great relief, my hair was turning grey with the work and worry! But I did not get on at all with mathematics, and in the end of term exam. I came out very badly in that and in French.

As most of us had done badly in those subjects our poor madame and the mathematical mistress did not come back next term.

Miss Vinton gave us mathematics herself, and a splendid teacher she was, letting some daylight even into my thick head, which was not constructed for that kind of work, and her sister gave us French, and we really began to make progress. Some of the girls had done well before, those who sat near madame and talked to her, but most of us had not learnt much from her.

Altogether it was with regret that I saw the end of my school-year drawing near; and I was very anxious to do well in the final exams.

They were to be rather important, as we were to have a university examiner, and there were two prizes offered by people interested in the school, one for the best literature paper, and one for the best history. I did want a prize to take home.

There was great excitement in the school, and we all meant to try our best. The Fourth and Fifth Forms were to have the same papers, so as to give the Fourth Form girls a chance for the prize, and Mabel Smith said she was determined to win that offered for literature.

The exam. week began. Geology, arithmetic, Latin, French, German. We worked through them all conscientiously but without much enthusiasm. Then came the literature, you could hear the girls hold their breaths as the papers were given to them.

I read the questions down the first time, and my head spun round so that I could not understand one.

“This won't do,” I said to myself, and set my teeth and clung to my desk till I steadied down. Then I read them through again.

I found one question I could answer right away, and by the time I had done that my brain was clear, and I knew the answers to every one.

Alice Thompson was sitting next me, she was one of the pretty dark girls, and very idle.

“What's the date of Paradise Lost?” she whispered.

I didn't know what to do. I wouldn't speak, and of course I knew that it was very mean of her to ask, but I was sure of the date, and I thought it would be mean of me not to tell her. Just then Miss Vinton walked up the room and glanced round at us.

Alice bent over her work, writing diligently. Miss Vinton went down the room again, and Alice edged up to me, questioning me with her pretty dark eyes.

I hesitated, then I pushed the sheet I had just finished close to the edge of my desk so that she could read the date, which she did quickly enough. After that she looked over my papers freely whenever Miss Vinton wasn't looking.

I was rather worried about it, but I didn't think she could win the prize, for I knew she hadn't worked at the subject at all, and if she didn't I thought it couldn't matter much to any one.

I had answered all the questions a good while before the time was up, I thought we had been allowed too long, and was surprised to see Mabel Smith and one or two more scribbling away for dear life till the last minute. However, the time was up at last, and we all gave in our papers.

“How did you get on, Margaret?” asked Miss Vinton, smiling kindly at me.

“I think I answered all the questions right,” I replied.

“That's good,” she said.

The history paper was given us next day, and it filled me with despair. The questions were so put that short answers were no use, and I was afraid to trust myself to write down my own ideas. However, after a bit the ideas began to come, and I quite enjoyed scribbling them down.

Alice had been moved to another desk, so I was left in peace, for Joyce, who was a friend of mine, was next to me, working away quietly.

I was getting on swimmingly, when all at once the bell rang, and I had only answered three quarters of the questions.

I was vexed, for I could see one or two more I could have done. However, there was no help for it. The papers must be given up.

“I wish I had had a little more time,” I said to Miss Vinton, as I gave in my work.

“You had as much as the rest,” she answered, rather sharply, and I went away feeling sad and snubbed.

The exams. were over, and we were to know the result next day.

I don't think any of us wanted that extra half hour in bed in the morning, which generally seemed so desirable; and we were all waiting in the cloak-room—a chattering throng, for discipline was relaxed on this occasion. When the school-bell rang, and we hurried in to take our places, Miss Vinton made us a speech, saying that the general results of the examinations had been very satisfactory. Our term's work had been on the whole good.

We could hardly listen to these general remarks when we were longing for particulars. At last they came:

Alice Thompson was awarded the literature prize. Her work was so very accurate, and her paper so well written.

There was a silence of astonishment.

Alice turned scarlet. I felt horrified to think what mischief I had done by being so weak-minded as to let her copy my work. Mabel Smith was white. But Miss Vinton went on calmly:

“Mabel Smith comes next. Her paper was exceptionally well written, but there were a few blunders which placed it below Alice's.”

Then came Nelly, Joyce, and the rest of the Fifth Form, and one or two of the Fourth—and I began to get over the shock of Alice's success and to wonder what had happened to me. At last my name came with just half marks.

My cheeks were burning. I was dreadfully disappointed and ashamed. Miss Vinton saw what I was feeling and stopped to explain that the examiner had not wanted mere bald answers of dates and names, but well-written essays, showing thought and intelligence. This was how I had failed, while Alice, cribbing my facts, had worked them out well, and come out first. I felt very sore about it, and almost forgot the injustice done to Mabel Smith.

There was still the history prize, and a hush of excited expectation fell on us when Miss Vinton began again:

“The history prize has been awarded to Nelly Gascoyne for a very good paper indeed. Margaret and Joyce have been bracketed second. Their papers were excellent, and only just behind Nelly's in merit.”

I gasped with surprise. I had left so many questions unanswered that I had had no hope of distinction in history.

This was some consolation for my former disgrace—and then my mind went back to the question of what was to be done about the literature prize.

As soon as the business of the morning was concluded Mabel Smith touched my arm. She was still quite white, and her eyes were blazing.

“I must speak to you,” she said.

“Come to the cloak-room,” I answered, “we can get our books after.”

“You know Alice Thompson cheated,” she said, the moment we were alone. “I sat just behind, and I saw you push your papers over to her, and she leant over, and copied whatever she wanted.”

“I never dreamt she'd get the prize,” I answered, “I only wanted to help her out of a hole.”

“Well, she did get it—and it's my prize, and what are you going to do about it?”

“I don't know, I'm sure. Of course I oughtn't to have let her copy—but I thought it wouldn't hurt any one.”

“You'll have to tell Miss Vinton now. It's not fair I should be cheated out of the prize I've honestly won, and I'd worked so hard for it too. I can't think how I came to make those mistakes.”

“I wish to peace you hadn't!”

“But, anyhow, Alice could never have got it if she hadn't cheated, and you must tell Miss Vinton.”

“Oh! that's too much,” I cried. “It's for Alice to tell Miss Vinton, I can't. I'm willing to tell Alice she must.”

“And if she won't?”

“Then I don't quite see what's to be done.”

“You'll let her keep my prize?”

“Well, you can tell Miss Vinton if you like.”

“It's you that ought to tell her. It was all your fault, you'd no right to help Alice to cheat.”

“I know that's true. But it makes it all the more impossible for me to tell on her.”

Just then Alice came in:

“Oh, Margaret!” she cried.

Then she saw Mabel and stopped.

“Are you going to tell Miss Vinton you cheated?” said Mabel, going up to her with flaming eyes.

Margaret, did you tell?” said Alice.

“I saw you!” said Mabel, “I sat just behind and saw you! You're not going to try to keep my prize, are you?”

“No, of course not,” said Alice, “I never thought of getting the prize. I only wanted to write a decent paper and not have Miss Vinton pitching into me as usual. You're welcome to the prize, if that will do.”

Mabel said nothing.

“I'm afraid that won't quite do,” I said. “It would be too difficult for Mabel to explain at home without telling on you. You'd much better tell on yourself.”

“I can't,” said Alice, “I'm as sorry as I can be, now, that I did it—but I can't face Miss Vinton.”

She looked ready to cry.

“Well, I shall have to confess too,” I said. “It was partly my fault. Let us go together.”

“I daren't,” said Alice.

But I could see she was yielding.

“Come along,” I said, taking her arm. “It's the only way out. You know you won't keep Mabel's prize, and it's as bad to keep her honour and glory. This is the only way out. Let's get it over.”

She came then, but reluctantly.

Fortunately we found Miss Vinton alone in her room, and between us we managed to stammer out our confession.

Miss Vinton, I think, was not surprised. She had feared there was something not quite straight. But she was extremely severe with us both, as much with me as with Alice, and as it was to be my last interview with her I was heart-broken.

However, I lingered a moment after Alice, and then turned back and said:

“Please forgive me, you can't think how sorry I am.”

“Remember, Margaret,” she replied, “that it is not enough to be honourable in your own conduct—you must as far as possible discourage anything dishonourable in other people. I know you would not cheat yourself, but if it is wrong to cheat, it is equally wrong to help some one else to cheat—don't you see? Will you remember this in future—in big things as well as in small? You must not only do right yourself. Your influence must be on the right side too. Certainly, I forgive you. You've been a good girl all this year, and I'm sorry to lose you.”

So I went away comforted.

And I came home with never a prize to show. But I had what was better. I had acquired a real love of study which I have never lost. I don't know what became of Alice Thompson, I only hope that she never had to earn her living by teaching. Nelly Gascoyne went home to a jolly family of brothers and sisters and gave herself up to the pleasures and duties of home. Joyce became assistant mistress in a school, and Mabel followed up her successes at school by winning a scholarship at Cambridge a year later.

And I—well, I've never come in first anywhere, but I'm fairly contented with a second place.


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