Guest post by Melanie Stringer
Sent Home from School has always been a stand-out chapter for me. Even when reading it as a child and teenager, I found it a noticeable departure from the usual depiction of Laura’s harmonious obedience and diligent effort in every task or obligation. It was almost difficult to imagine this was the same Laura Ingalls, and were it not for the re-introduction of the antagonist Nellie Oleson, bolstered by a new and more influential partner-in-crime in the character of Eliza Jane Wilder, it would have been hard, back then, to believe Laura was capable of openly participating in this kind of conflict and rebellion. Reading it as an adult, the conflict speaks volumes to the intertwined relationships of Laura, Eliza Jane, Carrie, and even Rose.
Interesting because it represents the initial conflict between a pre-courtship Laura and “Teacher” Miss Wilder, who one day will be sisters-in-law “Bessie” and “EJ,” this chapter is rife with implications about power, subordination, obedience, leadership, justice, loyalty, and even a bit of the evils of gossip. In many ways, this episode seems to reflect more of Laura and EJ’s distaste for each other as fully mature adults, which prompts me to wonder how much of this scene is literal—that is, a reasonably accurate account of particular incidents—and how much of it is actually a metaphorical device for Laura “Mama Bess” vs. Eliza Jane “Aunt EJ” regarding Rose? Throughout the chapter, indeed, in much of the book, Laura is in protective, Mother-Hen mode regarding a “still pale and spindly, and always tired” Carrie. Laura’s sense of justice, and her concern for Carrie’s health, put her in a defensive position which quickly escalates to full-scale rebellion. Miss Wilder’s child-like insistence on being the students’ “friend” is contrasted sharply with her sudden switch to provocative, inequitable punishment for selected students—namely by singling out the vulnerable Carrie. Is it too far “out there” to think of Carrie as a metaphorical and literary stand-in for Rose? Mama Bess was notoriously protective of her only child, but perhaps she felt she had solid reasons for it. She may have perceived numerous threats to this daughter who (aside, of course, from Manly) was one of the few constants in a life riddled with loss and uncertainty. Defending one’s family in the face of all adversity is hardly unusual, and the value of family loyalty is undeniably a constant throughout Wilder’s work, so it seems at least plausible to put a little psychological twist to this otherwise straightforward episode of Sent Home From School.
That being said, it is hard to imagine that a fictionalized Miss Wilder could be unaware that Laura would rise in defense of her sister. Rather, as the story is presented, it is assumed that Miss Wilder singles out Carrie particularly because she wishes to provoke Laura. This behavior creates a power struggle which she seems determined to win—or perhaps simply does not know how to de-escalate. The power struggle is a classic and almost inevitable problem in every position of authority, from teachers or parents to employers and even heads of state. Just about every person who assumes a leadership role will be faced with a conflict—sometimes an inadvertent creation of the leader’s own making—that is largely a power struggle between subordinate and authority. When the pride of one or both parties is left unchecked, the situation can escalate almost to the point of chaos. This what comes about on the second day of open conflict in class, when Carrie and Mamie are once again “causing trouble” and Laura decides to intervene.
The chapter sets Laura and Eliza Jane against each other in an adversarial relationship, ignited by the initial conflict over Miss Wilder’s unjust punishment of Carrie. We have already seen that Laura has a keen sense of justice. At the Fourth of July races she is convinced Almanzo can’t win because he has a heavy wagon instead of a light buggy, and her reaction is straight to the point: “Oh! It isn’t fair!” Now, Laura’s sense of justice is deeply offended as Miss Wilder metes out unequal punishment to Carrie and Mamie for their failure to learn their spelling words. When Carrie, dutifully performing her punishment of writing the misspelled words fifty times each on the blackboard, starts to look sickly and faint, Laura insists she must be relieved. A startled Miss Wilder allows Carrie to sit, but takes the interruption as an affront to her authority and directs Laura to continue the punishment in Carrie’s stead. Laura’s protective instinct in defense of Carrie is strong, and, though mortified, she remains compliant.
Although “it was a disgrace to her,” and “she felt her face grow flaming hot,” Laura feels some comfort when she quickly realizes “no one was jeering at her.” When one of the boys, Charley, tries to get her to protest and says, “we’ll all stand by you!” she is “warmed all through” but refuses to add to the disruption. After school, Charley, Clarence and Alfred seem determined to “fix that old meanie tomorrow,” but Laura begs them not to stir up any more trouble. She even shames them for the suggestion: “That is no way for you boys to treat a woman, even if you don’t like her. I do wish you wouldn’t.” Her sense of propriety, coupled with her fear of trouble in school and the possible loss of education, all demand that she do what she can to keep the peace.
The next day, Laura and Carrie return to school early, and before they can even take their seats, Miss Wilder seems ready to challenge Laura once again. Upon snagging her skirt on the coal hod, Laura makes a mild exclamation, to which Miss Wilder taunts: “Why don’t you get us a new coal hod, since your father is on the school board and you can have everything as you want it?” In disbelief, Laura protests the accusation and points out Miss Wilder likely could have a new one if she wanted. Miss Wilder’s snarky “Oh, thank you,” has her puzzled, but she does not pursue the issue. Laura does, however, notice Nellie’s silent reaction, which seems to confirm that Nellie is behind Miss Wilder’s negative impression of Laura. Interestingly, even to this point, Laura is intent on behaving, and sympathizes with Miss Wilder: although the boys keep their promise to Laura, “they did not know their lessons, for they would not study, and Miss Wilder was so harassed that Laura pitied her.”
The pitying would be short-lived. After the nooning, what starts out as a minor distraction quickly escalates. Carrie and Mamie are studying the speller, both silently rocking back and forth on their bench. Miss Wilder strangely chooses this distraction above those which are causing any actual noise as an object lesson to the entire class. She demands Carrie and Mamie put away their books and “just rock that seat!” Miss Wilder’s manner of address is volatile and inexplicably mutable as she then decrees, “sweetly,” to the entire class, “Hereafter anyone who disturbs us may continue the disturbance until he or she is thoroughly tired of making it.” Laura sees Carrie’s shock and shame, but does not protest—yet.
The power struggle is impending; it will now become the focus of the chapter. The worst of the tension, dread, and conflict is about to come, and the reader is keenly aware that the scene is far from over. The sense of dread in this chapter is overwhelming, and this is one of those moments where Laura the author’s talent is about to leap off the page. The tension hangs in the air and is almost tangible. The conflict is about to reach an emotional crescendo. Laura is still trying to be the diligent, obedient scholar, when she is distracted by Mamie’s own rebellion as the little girl: “gave a little toss of her head and boldly moved across the aisle into another seat.” Try as she might, Carrie cannot continue rocking without Mamie, and once again Miss Wilder inexplicably excuses Mamie’s action while insisting (again, “sweetly”—how nauseating that must have sounded to Laura!) Carrie continue the punishment alone.
The self-control which Carrie and Laura exhibit here is downright flabbergasting. Laura “bit her lip hard, and sat still.” She is furious, but still has faith that Teacher will excuse Carrie. Carrie puts forth all her effort, but cannot continue. Then the proverbial straw breaks Laura’s back when Miss Wilder says, “Faster, Carrie! Faster!…You wanted to rock the seat. Now do it.”
The battle royale, the kind of power struggle of which legends are born, has commenced! Laura can no longer sit idly by; she cannot allow ANYONE to torment Carrie this way. The scholar who was so intent upon keeping the peace—who felt she must respect the authority of anyone employed by the school board, who wanted to respect anyone who so clearly knew the material and had earned a certificate even if that teacher did have an unconventional or “silly” approach to discipline—was no longer puzzled by the Teacher’s snide remarks and unjust methods. Rather, she was infuriated! Laura’s sense of justice was no longer the only emotion offended by Miss Wilder. This was an out-and-out attack on a beloved little sister, a frail, sickly, timid little sister who never did any harm to anyone! This, to paraphrase Jane Austen, Could Not, WOULD NOT, be borne! Laura’s protective nature kicks into high gear, and the squawking Mother Hen inside the young girl rages forth, with all the fury of anyone whose dearest loved one is threatened: “Miss Wilder, if you want that seat rocked faster, I’ll rock it for you!”
The “Thump, THUMP!” of Laura’s aggressive rocking makes a statement that escapes no one. “No one could study now…No one could recite, no one could even be heard.” The entire class is spellbound, and Miss Wilder is at a loss. Little did she think (though the reader may feel, “how could she NOT know this would happen??”) that young Laura Ingalls would really, truly, stand up to her. Laura, being so wrapped in her anger and indignation, must, at least momentarily, be oblivious to the consequences of her unprecedented behavior upon her relationship with the sister whom she is so valiantly trying to defend. I wonder, though, what exactly was Carrie thinking? I am inclined to believe this outburst must have terrified her. If we are to believe that at least the fictional Ingalls family is generally harmonious and loving, and rarely argues, would not this violent reaction be so unusual that it may indeed be the very first time Carrie has seen any member of her family so angry?
Laura, for her part, may have been stewing a long time. As a blossoming young woman, charged with being the “eyes” for Mary, a part-time breadwinner with aspirations to earning a teaching certificate, and having taken the place of Big Sister to the younger girls, this fourteen-year-old is under a lot of pressure. Add to that the usual challenges of being a teenager (drat those nasty restrictive corsets!!), and we have a recipe for rebellion. She feels her anger surge so strongly that “not even the swinging weight eased Laura’s fury.” Miss Wilder may simply have underestimated her adversary, and now the only recourse is to take out one of the last weapons in the arsenal: Send them home!
Everyone had heard of being sent home from school. No one there had seen it done before. It was a punishment worse than whipping with a whip. Only one punishment was more dreadful; that was to be expelled from school.
When Laura and Carrie are sent home, the walk is a moment of assessment and reflection before facing the ultimate Judge and Jury of Ma and Pa. Their reactions are not to be presumed nor predicted; surely they have good reason to be severely disappointed and to hand down punishment more disgraceful than any which Miss Wilder might invent. Taking all the blame for the incident, Laura reassures Carrie that the fault lies solely with herself for defending Carrie: “They won’t blame you, this isn’t your fault. It’s my fault because I rocked that seat so hard. I’m glad of it! I’d do it again!” And here, one of the wisest lines in all the series strikes the reader with its simple truth: “Carrie did not care whose fault it was. There is no comfort anywhere for anyone who dreads to go home.”
Finally the moment of truth arrives, and the almost benign reception the girls receive upon arriving home is not only unexpected, but actually justifies to some degree Laura’s behavior: “Is Carrie sick?” A ha! Justice! A shamed Carrie tries to take the blame, but Laura explains fully the events of the day as Ma and Pa patiently listen, and it is simply decided the girls will “go on as though none of this had happened.” But will such a thing be possible? The reader simply must turn the page to find out what happens next…
Melanie Stringer is a New England-based historian who presents living history programs in the first person as author Laura Ingalls Wilder, as interpreted within the context of Wilder’s experiences during the period 1890-1895.
Her website is www.meetlauraingallswilder.com and she blogs at www.blogspot.meetlauraingallswilder.com