The Friday Everything Changed
Tradition. In Miss Ralston’s class the boys have always carried the water bucket. Until one day, the girls decide it’s time to challenge the rule. ..
The last hour of school on Friday afternoons was for Junior Red Cross. The little kids would get out their Junior Red Cross pins and put them on and us big kids would start elbowing down the aisles to the book cupboard at the back to see who would get the interesting magazines. There was a big pile of them and they were of two kinds: the National Geographic and the Junior Red Cross News. Because the boys were stronger and sat near the back they usually got the National Geographics first, which meant they could spend the rest of Red Cross looking at African ladies wearing nothing on top, while us girls had to be satisfied with the Junior Red Cross News, which showed little African kids wearing lots of clothes and learning how to read. Apart from the magazines for the big kids and maybe the teacher reading a story to the little kids, about the only other thing that happened regularly during Red Cross was picking the two boys who would carry water the next week.
In our school the water bucket always stood on a shelf at the front of the room just behind the teacher’s desk. First you’d make a paper cup out of a piece of scribbler paper, then you’d grab the teacher’s attention from wherever it happened to be and then up you’d go to the front of the room for a drink from the water bucket.
I t was kind of interesting to stand at the front of the room behind the teacher’s desk and drink water. The school looked different from up there and sometimes you could get just a glimpse of an idea of what the teacher thought she was all about. I mean, from the front, looking down on those rows of kids with their heads bent over their desks and the sun coming in the windows and the blackboards and all that stuff on the walls, you might almost think, at first glance, that you were looking at one of those real city schools -like in the health books-where the kids were all so neat and all the same size. But after the first strange moment it just became our school again, because you had to start adding in things like the coal stove and the scarred old double desks and the kids themselves. I mean, we just didn’t look like the kids in those pictures. Maybe it was because we were so many different sizes-from the kids snuffling in the front rows over their Nan and Dan readers to the big boys hunched over their desks at the back-maybe it was because we wore so many heavy clothes all the time, or maybe it was because of something that wasn’t even there at all but seemed to be on the faces of the kids in those city pictures: a look as if they liked being where they were.
But all that’s a long way from Junior Red Cross and who would carry the water .
The water for our school came from a pump at the railway station, which was about a quarter of a mile away. One day long ago a health inspector had come around and had announced that water must be made available to the school. For a while there had been some talk of digging a well but in the end we got a big, shiny, galvanized water bucket and permission to use the railway station pump. And from that day on-for all the boys-the most important thing that happened at school, even more important than softball, was who would get to carry the water.
If you were a boy it was something you started dreaming about in Grade I, even though there was not the remotest chance it could ever happen to you before at least Grade 5, and only then if the teacher thought you were big and strong enough. You dreamed about it partly because carrying the water meant you were one of the big guys, and carrying the water meant you could get away from school for maybe half an hour at a time. But mostly you dreamed about it because carrying the water was something real, and had absolutely nothing whatever to do with Nan and Dan and all that stuff. So every Friday afternoon toward the end of Red Cross, when it got to be time for the teacher to pick the two boys who would go for water the next week, all the National Geographics came to rest like huge butterflies folding up their yellow wings and a big hush fell all over the back rows. And that’s the way it had always been until one extraordinary afternoon when, right out of the blue, just after the teacher had picked Ernie Chapman and Garnet Dixon to carry the water, my seatmate, Alma Niles, put up her hand and said: “Why can’t girls go for the water, too?”
If one of those German planes, like in the war movies, had suddenly appeared over the school and dropped a bomb, we all couldn’t have been more surprised. A silence fell over the room and in that silence everyone looked at the teacher .
Now our teacher that year was named Miss Ralston and even though she came from River Hibbert we all liked her quite a lot. She was strict but she was never really mean like some of the teachers we’d had. Because she was young (she’d just finished Grade 11 the year before herself-River Hibbert had fancy things like Grade 11) she’d had quite a rough time the first week of school with the bigger boys. But she was pretty big herself and after she’d strapped most of them up at the front of the room before our very eyes (and even the little kids could see that it really hurt) things had settled down. The boys kind of admired Miss Ralston for strapping so hard, and us girls admired her because she was so pretty and wore nylon stockings and loafers all the time. But the really unusual thing about Miss Ralston was the way she sometimes stopped in the middle of a lesson and looked at us as if we were real people, instead of just a lot of kids who had to be pushed through to their next grades. And that was why, on that Friday afternoon when Alma Niles put up her hand and said: “Why can’t girls go for the water, too?” we all turned and looked at Miss Ralston first instead of just bursting out laughing at Alma right away.
And Miss Ralston, instead of saying, “Whoever heard of girls going for the water?” or, ” Are you trying to be saucy, Alma?” like any other teacher would, said nothing at all for a moment but just looked very hard at Alma, who had gone quite white with the shock of dropping such a bombshell.
After a long moment, when she finally spoke, Miss Ralston, instead of saying, “Why that’s out of the question, Alma,” threw a bombshell of her own: “I’ll think about that,” she said-as if, you know, she would-“and I’ll let you know next Friday.”
The trouble started right away as soon as we got into the school yard, because all the boys knew, from the moment Miss Ralston had spoken, that something of theirs was being threatened and that, as long as there was the remotest chance that any girl might get to carry the water, they had to do everything in their power to stop it. Like driving a tractor or playing hockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs, carrying water was real, and because it was real it belonged to them.
So they went right for Alma as soon as she came out of school and that was when another funny thing happened. Instead of just standing back and watching Alma get beaten up, as we usually did when the boys were after someone, the girls rushed right in to try and help her. In the first place we all liked Alma, and in the second place we all had seen, as clearly as the boys, what our carrying the water might mean; that, incredibly, we, too, might get to skip school for half an hour at a time, that we, too, might get to sneak into Rowsell’s store on the way back and, most dizzying thought of all, that we too might get to do something real.
And, because we were so intoxicated by the whole idea, and took the boys so much by surprise by standing up to them, we somehow managed to get Alma and ourselves out of the schoolyard with only a few bruises and torn stockings, leaving the boys in possession of the schoolyard where, as we could glimpse over our shoulders as we ran down the hill, they had begun to gather together in a single ominous knot.
And for the rest of that weekend, though of course we never talked about it in front of our parents, all we could think of, both boys and girls, was what was going to happen at school that coming week.
The first thing, clearly evident by recess on Monday morning, was that the boys had decided not to let us girls field at softball any more.
Softball at our school used to go like this: every Monday morning at recess two of the bigger boys-that year it was usually Ernie Chapman and Junior LeBlanc-used to pick their teams for the week.
Whoever came out on top in laddering hands up the softball bat got to pick first and the loser second and so it went-back and forth-until all the boys who were considered good enough to be on a team had been picked. Then Ernie and Junior laddered the bat again to see which side would get up first and the losing side took to the field to be joined by the little boys who hadn’t been picked and us older girls who were allowed to act as sort of permanent supplementary fielders. And for the rest of the week the teams remained locked, at every recess and lunchtime, in one long softball game which had, as we discovered to our surprise several years later when the television came through, some strange rules. The way we played, for example, every single boy had to get out before the other team could come in. And any boy hitting a home run not only had the right to bat straight away again but also to bring back into the game any boy who had got out. Which led to kids who couldn’t remember their sixtimes table properly being able to announce-say, by noon on Thursday-“The score’s now 46 to 39 because, in the last inning starting Tuesday lunchtime, Junior’s team was all out except for Irving Snell, who hit three homers in a row off of Lorne Ripley, and brought in Ira and Jim and Elton who brought in the rest except for Austin who got out for the second time on Wednesday with a foul ball one of the girls caught behind third base. ..”
Some days it got so exciting that at noon we couldn’t wait to eat our lunches but would rush straight into the schoolyard, gobbling our sandwiches as we ran, toward that aching moment when the ball, snaking across the yellow grass or arching toward us from the marsh sky, might meet our open, eager hands.
So it was a hard blow, Monday morning recess, when Ernie Chapman whirled the bat around his head, slammed it down as hard as he could on home base and announced. “The first girl that goes out to field, we break her neck.” We clustered forlornly around the girls’ entry door knowing there was nothing we could really do.
“Oh Alma,” mourned Minnie Halliday, biting the ends of her long, brown braids, “why couldn’t you just have kept your mouth shut?” It was a bad moment. If we’d tried to go out to field they’d have picked us off one by one. We couldn’t even play softball on our own. None of us owned a bat and ball. If it hadn’t been for Doris Pomeroy, we might have broken rank right there and then. Doris, who was in Grade 9 and had had a home permanent and sometimes wore nail polish and had even, it was rumored, gone swimming in the quarry all alone with Elton Lawrence, flicked a rock against the schoolhouse wall in the silence following Minnie’s remark and steadied us all by saying: “Don’t be foolish, Minnie. All we have to do is wait. They need us to field and, besides, they kind of like to have us out there looking at them when they get up to bat.”
But it was a long, hard week. Besides not letting us field, the boys picked on us whenever they got the chance. I guess they figured that if they made things bad enough for us, sooner or later we’d go to Miss Ralston and ask her to forget the whole thing. But all their picking on and bullying did was to keep us together. Whenever one of us was tripped going down the aisle or got an ink ball in her hair or got trapped in the outhouse by a bunch of boys it was as if it was happening to all of us. And looking back on that week-when there were so many bad feelings and so many new feelings in the air-it was kind of nice, too, because for the first time us girls found ourselves telling each other our troubles and even our thoughts without worrying about being laughed at. And that was something new at our school. As for Alma, who kept getting notes thrown on her desk promising her everything from a bloody nose to having her pants pulled down, we stuck to her like burrs. But maybe Alma’s hardest moment had nothing to do with bullying at all. It was when her cousin Arnold came over to see her Wednesday after school and asked her to drop the whole idea of girls going for the water .
“If they find out about it, Alma,” said Arnold. “they’llprobably take away the water bucket.” “Who’s they?” asked Alma. She and Arnold had played a lot together when they were little kids and she was used to listening to his opinions on most things. “Well, the health inspector,” said Arnold, “and guys like that.”
“They’ll never take away that water bucket,” said Alma, though she wasn’t all that sure. “They don’t care who carries the water as long as it gets carried.”
” Alma,” said Arnold earnestly, “the other guys would kill me if they ever found out I told you this but sometimes carrying the water isn’t that much fun. On cold days it’s real hard work. You’re better off in the warm school.”
Alma knew what it cost Arnold to tell her this but she stood firm. “I’m sorry, Arnold,” she said.
“but I’m used to cold weather. In winter I walk to school the same as you.” So Arnold went away. If Miss Ralston, as the week wore on, noticed anything unusual going on in her school, she gave little sign of it. She passed out the usual punishments for ink balls, she intercepted threatening notes and tore them up unread, she looked at Alma’s white face, and all she asked about were the principal rivers of Europe. Nor were we surprised. Nothing in our experience had led us to believe the grown-ups had the slightest inkling-or interest-in what really went on with kids.
Only Doris Pomeroy thought differently. “Miss Ralston looks real mad,” said Doris as we trailed in thankfully from Friday morning recess.
” Mad?” a couple of us asked.
“Yeah. Like when she comes out to ring the bell and we’re all hanging around the entry door like a lot of scared chickens. She rings that old handbell as if she wished all those yelling boy’s heads were under it. Of course they do things differently in River Hibbert. I know for a fact that girls there get to play on softball teams just like the boys.”
“On teams? Just like the boys?” But it was all too much for us to take in at that moment, so preoccupied were we with that after- noon’s decision on the water. All that long, hard week it was as if Friday afternoon and Junior Red Cross would never come again. Now that it was almost upon us most of us forgot, in our excitement, at least for the time being, Doris’ heady remark about softball. So at lunchtime, just as the boys were winding up their week’s game (“And real great, eh? Without the girls?” Ernie Chapman was gloating loudly from the pitcher’s mound), when Miss Ralston, without her bell, leaped through our clustered huddles at the entry door and headed straight toward the softball field, she took us all completely by surprise. Crunch, crunch, crunch went Miss Ralston’s bright red loafers against the cinders and the next thing we knew she’d grabbed the bat from Irving Snell and, squinting against the sun, was twirling and lining it before our astonished eyes.
“Come on! Come on!” cried Miss Ralston impatiently to Ernie who stood transfixed before her on the pitcher’s mound. “Come on! Come on!” she cried again and she banged the bat against the ground.
“Come on! Come on!” cried Doris Pomeroy and we rushed after her across the cinders. The first ball Ernie threw was pretty wobbly and Miss Ralston hit it at an angle so that it fell sideways, a foul ball, toward George Fowler’s outstretched hands. ” Ah-h-h-h-h,” we moaned from the sidelines and some of us closed our eyes so we wouldn’t have to look. But George jumped too eagerly for such an easy ball and it fell right through his fingers and rolled harmlessly along the ground.
Ernie took a lot more time over his second pitch. He was getting over the first shock of finding Miss Ralston opposite him at bat and by this time he was receiving shouts of encouragement from all over the field.
“Get her! Get her!” the boys yelled recklessly at Ernie and they all fanned out behind the bases. Ernie took aim slowly. None of us had ever seen the pirouettings of professional pitchers but there was a certain awesome ceremony, nevertheless, as Ernie spat savagely on the ball, glared hard at Miss Ralston, slowly swung back his big right arm and, poised for one long moment, his whole body outstretched, threw the ball as hard as he could toward home base where Miss Ralston waited, her body rocking with the bat.
For a fleeting moment we had a glimpse of what life might be like in River Hibbert and then Miss Ralston hit the ball.
“Ah-h-h-h-h-h,” we cried as it rose high in the air, borne by the marsh wind, and flew like a bird against the sun, across the road and out of sight, into the ox pasture on the other side.
” Ah-h-h-h-h-h …”
We all stared at Miss Ralston. “School’s in,” she announced over her shoulder, walking away.
Hitting the ball into the ox pasture happened maybe once a year .
That afternoon, toward the end of Red Cross, there was a big hush all over the room.
“Next week,” said Miss Ralston, closing the school register, tidying her books, “next week
Alma Niles and Joyce Shipley will go for the water .”
She swept her hand over the top of her desk and tiny dust motes danced in the slanting sun.
Questions to the text The Friday Everything Changed
Summarize the text in your own words. Write about 200 words.
What do you think of the way Miss Ralston solved the situation? Explain.
How do you think the relationship between boys and girls is affected by Miss Ralstons decision?
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The Friday Everything Changed
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