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The Strike at Hinman's by Robert J. Burdette

The following is the complete text of Robert J. Burdette's "The Strike at Hinman's." The various books, short stories and poems we offer are presented free of charge with absolutely no advertising as a public service from Internet Accuracy Project.

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The Strike at Hinman's by Robert J. Burdette



Away back in the fifties, "Hinman's" was not only the best school in Peoria, but it was the greatest school in the world. I sincerely thought so then, and as I was a very lively part of it, I should know. Mr. Hinman was the Faculty, and he was sufficiently numerous to demonstrate cube root with one hand and maintain discipline with the other. Dear old man; boys and girls with grandchildren love him to-day, and think of him among their blessings. He was superintendent of public instruction, board of education, school trustee, county superintendent, principal of the high school and janitor. He had a pleasant smile, a genius for mathematics, and a West Point idea of obedience and discipline. He carried upon his person a grip that would make the imported malady which mocks that name in these degenerate days, call itself Slack, in very terror at having assumed the wrong title.

We used to have "General Exercises" on Friday afternoon. The most exciting feature of this weekly frivolity consisted of a free-for-all exercise in mental arithmetic. Mr. Hinman gave out lists of numbers, beginning with easy ones and speaking slowly; each succeeding list he dictated more rapidly and with ever-increasing complications of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, until at last he was giving them out faster than he could talk. One by one the pupils dropped out of the race with despairing faces, but always at the closing peremptory:

At least a dozen hands shot into the air and as many voices shouted the correct result. We didn't have many books, and the curriculum of an Illinois school in those days was not academic; but two things the children could do, they could spell as well as the dictionary and they could handle figures. Some of the fellows fairly wallowed in them. I didn't. I simply drowned in the shallowest pond of numbers that ever spread itself on the page. As even unto this day I do the same.

Well, one year the Teacher introduced an innovation; "compositions" by the girls and "speakin' pieces" by the boys. It was easy enough for the girls, who had only to read the beautiful thought that "spring is the pleasantest season of the year." Now and then a new girl, from the east, awfully precise, would begin her essay--"spring is the most pleasant season of the year," and her would we call down with derisive laughter, whereat she walked to her seat, very stiffly, with a proud dry-eyed look in her face, only to lay her head upon her desk when she reached it, and weep silently until school closed. But "speakin' pieces" did not meet with favor from the boys, save one or two good boys who were in training by their parents for congressmen or presidents.

The rest of us, who were just boys, with no desire ever to be anything else, endured the tyranny of compulsory oratory about a month, and then resolved to abolish the whole business by a general revolt. Big and little, we agreed to stand by each other, break up the new exercise, and get back to the old order of things--the hurdle races in mental arithmetic and the geographical chants which we could run and intone together.

Was I a mutineer? Well, say, son, your Pa was a constituent conspirator. He was in the color guard. You see, the first boy called on for a declamation was to announce the strike, and as my name stood very high--in the alphabetical roll of pupils--I had an excellent chance of leading the assaulting column, a distinction for which I was not at all ambitious, being a stripling of tender years, ruddy countenance, and sensitive feelings. However, I stiffened the sinews of my soul, girded on my armor by slipping an atlas back under my jacket and was ready for the fray, feeling a little terrified shiver of delight as I thought that the first lick Mr. Hinman gave me would make him think he had broken my back.

The hour for "speakin' pieces," an hour big with fate, arrived on time. A boy named Aby Abbott was called up ahead of me, but he happened to be one of the presidential aspirants (he was mate on an Illinois river steamboat, stern-wheeler at that, the last I knew of him), and of course he flunked and "said" his piece--a sadly prophetic selection--"Mr. President, it is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope." We made such suggestive and threatening gestures at him, however, when Mr. Hinman wasn't looking, that he forgot half his "piece," broke down and cried. He also cried after school, a little more bitterly, and with far better reason.

Then, after an awful pause, in which the conspirators could hear the beating of each other's hearts, my name was called.

I sat still at my desk and said:
"I ain't goin' to speak no piece."

Mr. Hinman looked gently surprised and asked:
"Why not, Robert?"

I replied:
"Because there ain't goin' to be any more speakin' pieces."

The teacher's eyes grew round and big as he inquired:
"Who says there will not?"

I said, in slightly firmer tones, as I realized that the moment had come for dragging the rest of the rebels into court:
"All of us boys!"

But Mr. Hinman smiled, and said quietly that he guessed there would be "a little more speaking before the close of the session." Then laying his hand on my shoulder, with most punctilious but chilling courtesy, he invited me to the rostrum. The "rostrum" was twenty-five feet distant, but I arrived there on schedule time and only touched my feet to the floor twice on my way.

And then and there, under Mr. Hinman's judicious coaching, before the assembled school, with feelings, nay, emotions which I now shudder to recall, I did my first "song and dance." Many times before had I stepped off a solo-cachuca to the staccato pleasing of a fragment of slate frame, upon which my tutor was a gifted performer, but never until that day did I accompany myself with words. Boy like, I had chosen for my "piece" a poem sweetly expressive of those peaceful virtues which I most heartily despised. So that my performance, at the inauguration of the strike, as Mr. Hinman conducted the overture, ran something like this--

"Oh, not for me (whack) is the rolling (whack) drum,
Or the (whack, whack) trumpet's wild (whack) appeal! (Boo-hoo!)
Or the cry (swish--whack) of (boo-hoo-hoo!) war when the (whack) foe is come (ouch!)
Or the (ow--wow!) brightly (whack) flashing (whack-whack) steel! (wah-hoo, wah-hoo!)"

Words and symbols can not convey to the most gifted imagination the gestures with which I illustrated the seven stanzas of this beautiful poem. I had really selected it to please my mother, whom I had invited to be present, when I supposed I would deliver it. But the fact that she attended a missionary meeting in the Baptist church that afternoon made me a friend of missions forever. Suffice it to say, then, that my pantomime kept pace and time with Mr. Hinman's system of punctuation until the last line was sobbed and whacked out. I groped my bewildered way to my seat through a mist of tears and sat down gingerly and sideways, inly wondering why an inscrutable providence had given to the rugged rhinoceros the hide which the eternal fitness of things had plainly prepared for the school-boy.

But I quickly forgot my own sorrow and dried my tears with laughter in the enjoyment of the subsequent acts of the opera, as the chorus developed the plot and action. Mr. Hinman, who had been somewhat gentle with me, dealt firmly with the larger boy who followed, and there was a scene of revelry for the next twenty minutes. The old man shook Bill Morrison until his teeth rattled so you couldn't hear him cry. He hit Mickey McCann, the tough boy from, the Lower Prairie, and Mickey ran out and lay down in the snow to cool off. He hit Jake Bailey across the legs with a slate frame, and it hurt so that Jake couldn't howl--he just opened his mouth wide, held up his hands, gasped, and forgot his own name. He pushed Bill Haskell into a seat and the bench broke.

He ran across the room and reached out for Lem Harkins, and Lem had a fit before the old man touched him. He shook Dan Stevenson for two minutes, and when he let him go, Dan walked around his own desk five times before he could find it, and then he couldn't sit down without holding on. He whipped the two Knowltons with a skate-strap in each hand at the same time; the Greenwood family, five boys and a big girl, he whipped all at once with a girl's skipping rope, and they raised such a united wail that the clock stopped.

He took a twist in Bill Rodecker's front hair, and Bill slept with his eyes open for a week. He kept the atmosphere of that school-room full of dust, and splinters, and lint, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, until he reached the end of the alphabet and all hearts ached and wearied of the inhuman strife and wicked contention. Then he stood up before us, a sickening tangle of slate frame, strap, ebony ferule and skipping rope, a smile on his kind old face, and asked, in clear, triumphant tones:
"WHO says there isn't going to be any more speaking pieces?"

And every last boy in that school sprang to his feet; standing there as one human being with one great mouth, we shrieked in concerted anguish:

And your Pa, my son, who led that strike, has been "speakin' pieces" ever since.

~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~

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