Guest Post by Wendy Corsi Staub
It’s the last day of school for the spring session, and Laura is taking a long last look around the schoolroom. She knows this is goodbye forever. She won’t be coming back on Monday morning with the others, because she’s leaving to teach another term of school.
Mr. Owen, her teacher, has no idea she isn’t planning on returning. When she tells him, he’s upset and apologetic that he didn’t graduate her—he was waiting until the whole class was ready to graduate together. He apologizes, and Laura assures him that it doesn’t matter. She’s glad just to know she could have.
With characteristic stoicism, Laura gets past her melancholy by reminding herself that endings are really just beginnings. As if to drive that point home, we see her on a twilight buggy ride with Almanzo, singing a song about metaphorically moving on and looking ahead to their future as man and wife.
It’s fitting that the chapter “School Days End” pops up this week, the next to last of my own sons’ school year. (I know many of you have been out for awhile, but here in suburban NYC, we’re in session till late June.)
In the midst of overseeing my boys packing up their school supplies and books, studying for finals, saying goodbye to teachers, and getting ready for my younger son’s middle school graduation, I reread these pages that feature the same theme, only as it unfolded a hundred and thirty years ago.
I am struck, as always, by the universal themes in Laura’s books—how the events she lived are so similar, in so many ways, to the events we live now, and how similar they promise to be a hundred years, two hundred, in the future.
There’s a note of quiet wistfulness in this brief chapter, and we sense that for all Laura’s excitement to marry Almanzo and begin a new life, she’s not quite ready to let go of the old one. I liked hearing her say aloud that she was going to be married, though—suddenly, she seemed like a new, grown-up Laura.
There were some things about this chapter that gave me pause the first time I read it, and they continue to do so.
For one thing, I was always surprised that Mr. Owen didn’t know yet that she’d never be coming back to school. Unless this scene unfolds on the day after she told Florence she’d take the job at her father’s school? But even then, wouldn’t she have told him before the day was over that this was the end for her? That always bothered me. It seemed as though there was an odd absence of communication—particularly when something as significant as graduation was hanging in the balance.
That’s the other thing that still bothers me: Laura saying it doesn’t matter that she wouldn’t be graduating. She seems to take this news in stride. After all it took her to overcome her shyness to go to school in town (in past books) and to keep up her own studies while teaching throughout this one, it seems kind of anticlimactic that she wouldn’t really seem to bat an eye when she found out she wasn’t going to graduate. Sign of the times or not, I felt kind of let down that our Laura would let it go so easily, and that the subject was more or less dropped after this chapter. Not that she’s one to brood or fret over something that can’t be changed—but I felt disappointed for her, and perhaps a bit in her.
Maybe it especially bothers me given the difficult “First Four Years” we know are in store for Laura and Almanzo. The first time I read this chapter, it was with dreamy optimism that their “for better, for worse” wouldn’t contain any “worse.” But thereafter, having completed the final book and knowing about the illnesses, the lost child, the fire, and the poverty, I have always felt as though Laura was robbed of the last remaining shred of childhood and school days and the opportunity to call herself a high school graduate.
I wonder if she ever looked back with regret? Not over marrying Almanzo, because theirs was ultimately a long, happy, successful marriage. But did it ever bother her that she hadn’t graduated from school? Was that part of the reason Rose went to such great lengths to get an education and become self-sufficient?
Whatever the case, it’s gratifying that although this chapter might open with Laura looking back, when it closes, she’s definitely looking ahead to the next adventure.