Fire across the Road
For Lizzie Burns Stewart
teacher at Boyds Corners School,
Boyds Corners, New York, 1934 - 1939
That lady coming out of the school door there is my teacher, Mrs. Stewart.
In her hand she's carrying a white pail. Hurrying over to the water pump,
she pours some water from the pail down the pipe at the top of the long,
green handle and begins to pump vigorously. Soon water rushes out in rhythmic
spurts filling the pail she had placed on the square cement block underneath
the spigot. Picking up the sloshing water pail, she turns and starts walking
back towards the school. Glancing up, she sees us walking up the hill
on our way to school. "Good morning, boys," she says in her usual cheery
voice. "Good morning, Mrs. Stewart," we eagerly respond. By now we have
learned that this lady we call "teacher" is always our friend and that
makes coming to school here more enjoyable.
We follow her into the ante-way of the school. After setting the pail
of water down hurriedly on the white-painted stand, she picks up the long-handled
drinking dipper and hangs it on the nail beside the pail. It feels like
its going to be a hot, muggy day today and we sure will need a lot of
cold drinking water. We'll probably have to fill the pail again by recess
time later this morning.
We take our seats and after the usual morning preliminaries, Mrs. Stewart
begins the day by calling up the fifth grade arithmetic class around her
big desk at the front. My brother, Tommy, is in that class and he's pretty
good at arithmetic, too. The rest of us are all busy at our seats doing
Then, Rell Alliger says, "Teacher, I smell smoke—like leaves or
something burning." See, we don't have to raise our hands when we want
to say something. We just speak right out—even when Teacher has
a class up front. "I have been smelling it also," she replies, "but it
probably just smoke on the wind coming from some farm nearby." And then
she continues with the arithmetic class.
Soon the class ends and it looks like its about recess time. We all rush
outside to play "Annie-over-the-woodshed" in our few minutes of playtime.
We quickly choose up sides with six or seven of us on each side and then
take turn trying to toss the little ball we have over the roof. "Annie
Over" we yell when it goes over the peak. Then if someone can catch it
as it rolls off the roof on the other side, their side gets a point. The
woodshed roof is quite high so when we can't get it over, we yell "back
ball," and then they know its not coming over yet. It's a lot of fun and
Teacher sometimes keeps score for us by standing out in front where she
can see both sides. But today she seems busy inside the school.
As Teacher rings the bell, we all crowd into the ante-way and around
the water pail. We're all thirsty because it's a very hot, dry day. School
will soon be out for summer vacation. While we're getting back into our
places, teacher seems to be looking all around, inside and out, for something
burning, I guess. The smell of smoke is getting stronger, but she doesn't
say anything to us about it. Then she calls my third grade geography class
up front. "Before we begin," she says, walking over to my brother Tom,
"would you please go out and fill the water pail for us?" After my class
gets seated and just as I start reading out loud from the geography book
Tommy comes hurrying back in the school. "Teacher," he says excitedly,
"therms a lot of smoke coming up over the hill across the road. It looks
like a big forest fire." Mrs. Stewart gets up and goes out the door to
see for herself, but returns to her desk chair without saying anything.
But by the look in her face, I can tell she is worried. Now I can hardly
sit still in my chair. I want to start running home. Fire frightens me
so much since our neighbors' big barn burned last fall.
It was just down the road from our house and several cows and horses
burned to death. For weeks the smell of that burning barn filled the air
and now even the smell of smoke frightens me. I know I'm safe here today
with Mrs. Stewart, but why doesn't she let us go? How can she continue
like there's no danger to all of us with the fire coming closer and closer?
Then suddenly she again goes to the door to look at the smoke. When she
returns she says, "I think we'll close school today. The fire may come
this way so I want all of you to hurry home now." As we go out the door,
the air is full of smoke and huge billows of black and gray smoke are
coming up over the tops of the big pine trees across the road. I try to
run but my legs just won't seem to carry me very fast—they're shaking
so much. My brother Tommy is already at the bottom of the hill. Then I
hear, "Rolly, you better wait here with me and I'll take you home." But
I want to leave now. I want to get away from here, I think to myself.
The fire is coming over the hill fast and in just a few minutes the school
and everything around us will be on fire, just like the Butler's barn.
I rush back into the school in a frenzy so I won't have to watch the fire
as it overcomes us in flames. But Teacher seems so calm and unhurried.
She just walks around picking up papers, arranging the desks and tidying
up the school room. Then she goes over to the closet, takes out the big
broom and begins sweeping the floor. "Come on, Mrs. Stewart," I beg, "let's
go now." I don't think I can stand it to stay around here any longer.
Why doesn't she want to get out of here as much as I do? Suddenly, I
can't control myself any longer. I start dancing up and down and crying.
"Teacher, please, oh, please, let's go. Let's go right now." Very calmly,
continuing to sweep even slower than before, it seems to me, she says,
"It's all right, Rolly. We're both ok. Here you take these things out
to the car and I'll be there in a minute." Again I plead, "Please, please,
let's go. Can't we go right now?" Sobbing and frightened more than I have
ever been, even when the barn burned, I manage to carry the things to
the car. Teacher doesn't come near me, nor tell me to stop crying. I guess
she just knows how frightened I am of fire—of this awful fire across
the road that's going to burn us up before we can escape. I know it.
Finally, she comes out, turns and locks the school door and still without
hurrying, opens the car door, gets in and starts the motor. She slowly
turns the car around and we head down the hill away from this starry fire.
As I look around, the big clouds of ugly smoke are belching into the sky
and I can almost see the flames. I just know that our school and the woodshed
and everything here will all be gone in just a few minutes. I'm sure glad
we're getting out of here.
When we get down the road to my house, Mrs. Stewart pulls the car in
by the barn and parks the car by the milk house. I jump out the door as
fast as I can, run up across the yard to the house and burst in the door
trying to tell my mom what's happened. But I can hardly talk. Then I see
Mrs. Stewart coming up over the bank towards the house. When she comes
in she talks quietly to my mom for a little while, then returns to her
car and leaves. I watch the smoke over by the school for a long time.
I just know that everything there has all burned down by now. But in a
little while I don't see the smoke anymore.
Next morning, I'm still really afraid to go up there to school again.
But I guess I have to go so I start walking slowly down the road. As I
round the bend by Glenn Boyd's house, I glance up towards the school and,
gosh, its all there—the school house, the woodshed and everything.
It all looks just as it did when Teacher and I left yesterday. I'm really
glad it didn't burn our school.
Thank goodness there's no smoke today and no fire across the road.
—© 2003, Roland Barr Bentley