The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2001

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Bee-dle-ee um-bum-bum

for Lizzie B. Stewart

Boyds Corners School, Boyds Corners, New York
1934 - 1939


Roland Barr Bentley


I love goulash. I love the smell of a big, simmering pot of goulash. I love the taste and texture of this delightful one-dish meal. But most of all, I love where it takes me in memory. And it has been like that most of my life—at least since I was seven or eight years old.

Many years ago during the early days of my marriage, my wife, quite unknowing of my love affair with this food, prepared a tasty goulash dinner for us and I think she was rather surprised with my response. "Great," I said, "that reminds me of Mrs. Stewart."

As we shared dinner that evening, I related to her why goulash and Mrs Stewart seem to me to be inseparable.

I think the year is 1935 and the hard times of these depression years are making life difficult all around here. It seems especially rough for my mom and dad and grandparents who moved here to this rural upstate New York farm just to make a living after dad's sign-painting business in a bigger city "bellied up" three or four years ago. But all this doesn't seem to bother me too much. I have plenty to eat and there's lots of fun things to do around here with my older brother, Tom. One of the things I enjoy most is going to school. I haven't been going long, but I go almost everyday now. You see, I don't really know when I started because the teacher here told my mom I could spend the day at the school with her whenever I wanted to and, wow, she has so many fun things for me to do that I like to go a lot.

Our one-room school is about two miles from our house and my brother and I usually walk there every day. We just follow the county roads until we cross the creek by the white country church. The narrow macadam road makes a sharp right turn there as it winds its way alongside the creek to other small villages quite a ways away. But when we cross the bridge we follow the dirt road straight ahead past the church and cemetery. Soon the road goes up quite a steep grade and there, high up on the bank, is our little white school with bright green painted trim all around. Actually there are four buildings in all—the schoolhouse itself, the woodshed and two "outhouses," one for the girls and one for the boys, which are both sorta hidden behind the school and the woodshed. I guess its pretty much like any other country schoolhouse around the countryside. I don't know about that because I haven't been to any other. But what makes my school special and fun for me is the teacher who I have here every day. Her name is Lizzie B. Stewart. But, of course, I wouldn't think of calling her anything but Mrs. Stewart—except in school. Then we just call her "Teacher."

Inside the school, the double-desks where we sit are along both sidewalls of the room. In the middle of the room there are a few single desks but we usually don't need to use them because there aren't that many of us who come to school here. Towards the center front of the open room stands a large wood stove with an ornate metal top that swings to the side exposing two or three removable stove lids. Arriving early in the morning, Mrs. Stewart goes to the woodshed and gathers the kindling and the wood to build the fire, that is, if she has forgotten to have it put in the wood box in the "ante-way" the day before by one or two of the older boys. By the time most of us get to school the room is nice and warm and the smell of the wood-fire fills the air. And a large teakettle of water is steaming on the stove.

You know, it gets pretty cold early in the fall in these parts and we often get really chilled walking in the snow and facing the wind. Even though we carry our lunches, Mrs. Stewart thinks we should have some hot food every day for lunch to go along with our cold sandwiches. Of course, sometimes in the early fall or spring she just fixes something hot to drink.

By mid-morning Teacher usually begins to unwrap the meat and the vegetables and the canned tomatoes and the macaroni, making frequent triangular trips between her desk, the blackboard and the wood-stove. Now the macaroni goes into the hot water as she listens to Helen Thompson read the Gettysburg Address. Then the jars of tomatoes give a 'hiss' and a 'pop' as she pulls the rubber sealing rings away from the glass lids. Meanwhile, she's helping Junior Hall who's standing at the blackboard working out an arithmetic problem while the rest of us are busy at our seats with lots of different things she has given us to do. And now just smell that goulash as it begins to simmer and steam on the stove. Excuse me for awhile. Teacher wants my reading class to come around her desk now. There's only three of us, so we get lots of help reading fun stories. When we finish, Mrs. Stewart tells all of us in the school to clean off our desks and put everything away. Looking at the big clock at the front of the room right under George Washington's picture, she says it's lunch time. And I'm glad because I'm really hungry. As we gather around the stove Teacher dips each of us a big bowl of hot goulash to go along with our cold lunches we've brought from home. It tastes so good before we go outside to play for noon-hour.

Of course, Mrs. Stewart doesn't make goulash everyday. She brings lots of other good things to eat from home. I think she must work very hard every night getting all that food ready for all twelve or fifteen of us. Every day she makes something hot for lunch here on the wood stove. But the goulash is still my favorite.

As I finished relating this story to my wife, I realized, perhaps for the first time consciously, that goulash means much more to me than an enjoyable food. It remains a symbol of security and the warmth and love which filled these early school days making the learning process for me a joyous and exciting experience. For over four years my young life was enriched with the energy, enthusiasm, creativity, love of life and caring qualities of this unusually foresighted and gifted lady there in the little one-room school at Boyds Corners, Steuben County, New York.

Thank you, Teacher, for the goulash!

Bee-dle-ee um-bum-bum

The air this morning is very chilly as Tom and I start walking to school. Down the road, just across the creek we stop at the front gate of Junior Hall's house to see if he's ready to walk with us. The three of us play together quite a lot and he often walks to school with Tom and me. They're both older and bigger than I, so sometimes they walk faster than I do. They're always telling me to "hurry up," but in the winter I like to make angels and all kinds of tracks in the snow, but they'd rather have snowball fights. Sometimes they get to playing and forget what time it is so I get to school before they do. But today there's no snow because it's only the middle of October. The sky is blue, the air is crisp and the corn shocks stacked around that field over there will soon be put on a wagon and taken to the barn to be cut up and put in the silo for winter ensilage to feed the cows. Down there on the corner as the road makes a sharp left turn this side of the bridge is where Glenn Boyd lives. He grows a big garden with lots of corn and tomatoes, squash and pumpkins. By now its pretty brown and almost everything is dead and covered with a white frost this morning. But he has a pile of pumpkins of all sizes sitting out there along the road. Sometimes he brings a load of them up to the school for Halloween Jack-o-lanterns. Gosh, I'd better hurry along and get up the hill to school so I won't be late.

As I begin to climb the dirt road I see the puffs of grayish-white smoke coming out the chimney on the schoolhouse. Boy, that fire will feel good this morning. As I get to the concrete slab outside the ante-way, Mrs. Stewart is just coming out the door to ring the big hand bell. "Good morning, Rolly," she says. "I have something to ask you when we get inside." Wonder if I've done something wrong, I think. Hope I'm not in trouble. After I hang up my jacket in the ante-way, I go in and stand by the stove to get warm.

Then Mrs. Stewart comes back in and as she sets the bell on the corner of her desk, she says, "Rolly, how would you like to be a pumpkin in our Halloween Program?" I sorta smile and say, "OK, I guess," afraid to show how excited I really am. As I go over to my desk, Teacher follows me and when I slide into my seat she leans over my desk, puts the palms of both hands flat on my desk in front of me and with that winsome smile and twinkle in her eyes she says: "I'd also like to have you sing a solo. Think you'd like to do that?" I just nod my head 'cause I like to sing. Except for a couple times in Sunday School tho, I've never sung alone for big people sittin' out in the audience. I suppose Teacher has been talking to my mom or maybe she has heard mom, my brother and me sing around the piano at home. We do that quite often so I think it'll be a lot of fun to sing in the Halloween program here at school—especially in a costume.

"Today we're going to plan our Halloween program for all our parents," teacher told us this morning. "It's only about two weeks from now, so we have to begin making our costumes this afternoon after lunch."

Seems to me Mrs. Stewart can somehow get everyone busy making things all at the same time as she walks around and helps each one of us. Some of us are making bats, others, cat faces and witches and all sorts of Halloween costumes. Teacher says these are going to be big paper costumes that we can get right inside and wear for the program. She's been helping me make my big pumpkin costume. It's so big that only my head and arms will stick outside. Maybe I'll get to keep mine to take home after the program.

The days are going fast and everyone is getting very excited and a little nervous, too. Every day we're painting costumes, practicing our poems and readings and trying to put everything all together. A couple of the older boys are putting up hooks on both sides of the room. Then they will run a wire from one side to the other so we can have two curtains come together at the center right there in back of the stove. My mom has been helping me learn my song at home. She's a piano teacher and plays along with me there, but we don't have a piano here at school, so Mrs. Stewart brought a small tambourine for me to shake and thump as I sing my song. It's bright orange and about six or seven inches across with three sets of metal rattles around the edge of the rim. It's perfect for Halloween because it's got a witch in a tall, pointed hat riding a broomstick painted in black right on the face of it where you hit it.

Well, the day has finally arrived and tonight all of our parents and the whole neighborhood will be here. We went through the program this afternoon and Mrs. Stewart said she was proud of us all and that she thinks we'll have a good program.

It's now close to seven o'clock and almost time to begin. Some of the moms and dads have had to hurry to get the chores done to get up here to the school on time. It's getting pretty dark in here now so Mrs. Stewart and Rell Alliger's dad are lighting the kerosene lamps that sit on swinging brackets around the walls. I think there are seven or eight lamps altogether. The room is getting full of people. Don't these big people look funny sitting in our little desks? Some of them won't even fit. It's a good thing Mrs. Stewart asked to borrow some folding chairs from the church at the bottom of the hill so no one will have to stand. The dull yellowish light from the lamps in the room makes lots of flickering shadows--really good and spooky-like for a Halloween program. After Mrs. Stewart says a few words to the audience, the curtains open and we begin. I'm too excited and nervous to pay much attention to the ones before me. Now there's only one more and then I have to sing my song. Yep, the big black bat just finished, here she comes, and, a-n-d—here I go! "Walk slowly," I hear Teacher say, "so not to tear your costume." I clutch my tambourine as I hear the curtain slide open again and suddenly there I am facing all those people. Boy, am I glad I can't see them very well. Then I give my tambourine a shake and a rattle and two or three thumps and start to sing:

Bee-dle-ee um-bum-bum, Bee-dle-ee um-bum-bum,
Here comes the man with the mandolin…

Then I repeat the words again to end the song. I hear clapping as I walk off and the curtain closes quickly in front of me. There are several more students yet to perform in our little program but, you know, my heart is thumping too hard to pay much attention to who they are or what they're doing. Then I hear Mrs. Stewart say, "That's the end of our program. We hope you've enjoyed it. Please join us now for some donuts and hot cider.

Well, I did get to keep my pumpkin costume and now and then for many years I would come across it hanging on a nail in my grandmother's cob-webby closet in an upstairs bedroom. "Grandma," I'd say in my emerging adult sophistication, not wanting to be reminded of childhood things, "Why are you keeping all that stuff from the Hedgesville school?"

"You just never mind," she'd snap back at me. "Those are my things up there." Somehow, in the many changes that the years inevitably bring about, the pumpkin costume disappeared. However, after my mother died several years ago, it was necessary for me to clean out the many boxes of keepsakes and family memorabilia in her attic. One afternoon, weary of the seemingly endless process of sorting this "stuff," I hurriedly grabbed another of the many boxes desiring only to finish this tiresome task. As I opened the flaps, my attention was drawn to a rather flat, oblong box tucked at one side. As I pulled it out I noticed my name written in my mother's handwriting on the outside. I quickly opened the box. There, carefully wrapped in yellowing tissue paper was the little orange tambourine with the black witch still riding her broomstick. As I turned it over in my hand a small piece of paper fell on my lap. "Roland's tambourine," it read, "given to him by Mrs. Stewart at Boyds Corners School for his first public solo. Age 6." How quickly my mind relived that important evening so many years ago. The tambourine today has a very prominent place on a very visible shelf in our home.

As a vocal musician, public performances became common occurrences during my professional life. But sometimes, while standing in "green rooms" before a particular performance and feeling somewhat apprehensive, knowing the unpredictability of the success of the task before me, questions would often arise in my mind. "Why am I here doing this?" or "What were the events of my life which brought me to this lifestyle?"

It was then I would see again the one-room schoolhouse at Boyds Corners and Teacher's caring eyes full of encouragement and expectation tenderly looking into mine over my desk. Once again I'd feel the reassuring warmth conveyed so lovingly by her magic smile so many years ago. "I'd like to have you sing," she said. My questions are answered…"Beedle-ee-um-bum-bum" is in my ear…I smile from way down deep as Teacher and I walk briskly into the lights.

© 2001, Roland Barr Bentley
More Stories by Roland Bentley about Teacher Lizzie Stewart
Image in the Snow, Fire across the Road
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