Jana Harris

The Hardest Thing

          Helen Welch, Butter Creek School House, 1866

From a sod floor beaten to hardpack
by use, we watched Miss Teacher sweep
loose grit, putting down
gunny bag carpet except for a square
near the stove for us to scratch
our letters and numbers into the ground.
During the first year, she
boarded at our house
as part of her pay. At night
we tried not to stare as Miss
Teacher climbed into bed
with all her clothes on,
changing under the covers.
We rode, three to a horse,
the four miles to school.

Neither blackboard nor books, only
tattered Bible and ancient almanac
to practice geography and spelling.
Our only light, the open door until
hollowed potatoes made perfect
candlesticks. Light or dark
we mapped St. Paul’s missionary journeys
compared with equal distances down
the road to home: If Columbia Gorge
was our Jordan, then
Mt. Hood our Sinai and—
without question—Umatilla Landing
(with Spanish dance halls and
twelve liquor emporiums)
the Wilderness of Sin. But
when Miss Teacher made us hold
the scratching stick like a pen,
pretend to drip the ink,
now blot, blow dry—
that was the hardest thing.

Copyright 1997, Jana Harris

“The Hardest Thing” is taken from Jana Harris’ epic poem, The Dust of Everyday Life (Sasquatch Books, 1-800-775-0817, Seattle, 1997). Jana has published seven books of poetry, including Oh How Can I Keep on Singing? Voices of Pioneer Women (Ontario). Her second novel, The Pearl of Ruby City, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s. She teaches creative writing at the University of Washington and is editor and founder of Switched-on Gutenberg.

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