|Samantha Learns a Lesson, and so will you.|
Not that I'll even get to Grace's books if I don't pick it up and get to book blathering. Better rate than one book every unexpected month, Neth. I'll still do illustrations on my book reviews all I want as long as they're available. On with the show.
Like the first book, Samantha Learns a Lesson was written by Susan S. Adler, with the first edition books illustrated by Nancy Niles and the second release by Dan Andreasen. Unlike Ms. Alder, Ms. Niles got to do the whole series before getting replaced in 1998. Part of the deal with Mattel taking up AG was insisting the images in the books be done uniformly; this resulted in all of Samantha's books, and all of Addy's books being re-illustrated. Molly's had already been fixed in 1989. There were a few years where the older white parchment books had the newer illustrations, but they are a little harder to find.2 The book came out originally in 1986 with Samantha.
Chapter One: Notes and Knee Bends, or Memories of Gingerbread and Recaps
Samantha is in school trying to get her learn on when she's jabbed in the back. She doesn't even have to turn around to know it's Helen Whitney, the girl sitting behind her, poking her with a pencil. They have a way, the two of them, of communicating in class when you can't talk. There's a swirl in the loopy fancy desk that allows the perfect tucking of notes, because if there's one thing girls have done through history it's passing notes back and forth when the teacher isn't looking. Nowadays teens do it with texts or the snapchat or IMs or something, but back then you had to waste paper like a scrub.
Samantha waits for her teacher, Miss Stevens, to turn around and then yanks the note out to read.
|It's all cursive.|
Samantha doesn't even have time to answer, actually, cause Miss Stevens turns around after writing a list of French words on the board. Of course it's French, this is 1904. If you are learning any modern language in school at that time, it's French, the language of class and sophistication.3 No one's taking Spanish or Japanese or German or heaven forbid, Italian. Those people aren't even white yet.
"Helen, what's la gorge means?" Miss Stevens asks, the innate Student Doesn't Know Sense tingling to make her call on her.
Samantha tries to save Helen's ass by clearing her throat loudly. Then she rubs the back of her neck.
"You got an issue, Samantha?" Miss Stevens says, looking through her glasses like the stern schoolmarm she is and willing Samantha to keep up these shenanigans in an era where she can be made to stand in the corner on one foot.
"Nope," Samantha says, and sets her hands on her desk. Helen is going to have to drown on her own.
"The neck?" Helen guesses, and is wrong.
Edith Eddleton stuffs her hands high in the air and gets called on before smugly saying it means the throat. Edith was set up to be the Snotty Bratty Girl of the series before the whole thing got retooled, and Samantha thinks in her head that Edith is probably ticking that down as another sign she's better and smarter than everyone in the entire world. Fuck that bitch.
The class plugs through the whole list of what I presume are French body parts before Miss Crampton rings the lunch bell. The girls stand by their desks and wait to be dismissed to fetch their lunches out the coatroom, because you don't bolt out willy-nilly at a private academy for young ladies. It's a nice day, so the girls go outside to eat. Samantha eats her lunches with Helen, Ida Dean, and Ruth Adams. Samantha's legs itch as she sits down, because she's got long flannel underwear under her entire clothes. Grandmary makes her put it on at the start of September so she doesn't get the consumption and die. Ah, the time before knowing how some diseases got caught. As long as Samantha isn't making out with any high class courtesans in the Moulin Rouge, she should be good.
|Time to eat out of our tea tins in our high button shoes, cause we're classy as hell.|
"You know what's worse? Knee bends, and I bet Miss Crampton is going for a world record in them," Helen says, using a term she likely wouldn't have had much familiarity with since there'd only been three Olympics Games and most nine year old rich girls would not be chattering about them at all or using the term "world record." She might as well have added "much bends, very wow, such exercise," and then kickflipped off the side of the building while InstaGramming it. #RichGirl
"Could be suckier," Ruth says. "My cousin has to do swimming practice with no water, just a tube around her middle hanging in the air. Swear to God, they just hang there in the air and paddle."
Everyone pictures looking like that and says a quick silent blessing that even if they have to swim in ugly ass swim dresses, they don't have to do it in the air like a bunch of hanging baubles or something. Ida decides that knee bends are maybe not the end of the world.
Samantha takes a gingerbread cookie out of her lunchbox and promptly remembers Nellie, doing a little bit of the backstory for anyone who somehow missed the numbers and picked up Book 2 before Book 1. Alas, the memory of the first taste of gingerbread, among the cool fall air of New York State, and the fun in tunnels and the start of deep relationships. Nellie, as you recall, had to go back to the City for not being an automaton for the Ryland family, and so she's likely suffering with her family in a cold apartment with little heat and no food.
The gingerbread goes dry in Samantha's mouth thinking about how her girl is struggling. Realizing your privilege can do that.
She finishes her milk just as the bell is jangled, and the class all go inside to face an afternoon of wholesome exercise and knee bends.
Chapter Two: Nellie, or The Reason Edwardian Public Schools Suck
Saturday morning, Samantha is putting on her many layers of clothing when Elsa, whose entire role in the books is to be a grumpy sour maid, knocks at her door. "Your grandmother says you've got a guest in the parlor," she says, managing not to add "you rich little shit" on the end. Samantha wonders who the hell she knows who would come over and be allowed to sit in Grandmary's Sacred Parlor Land before meeting with her--friends come over, but not Parlor Friends. Samantha gets on her clothes fast as she can and hurries downstairs and opens the parlor door. The room looks empty until she sees a wide blue bow peeking over the back of a green velvet chair.
Holy dickens balls, it's Nellie.
|Nellie Nellie Nellie~|
"Oh god and black people no," Nellie replies. "Your grandmother spoke to Mrs. Van Sicklen about my family, and she hired my whole family to be her servants. Dad gets to be the driver and take care of the horses, Mam gets to cook and clean and do laundry, and my sisters and I get to help around the house, and we're going to live above the carriage house! It's still work and servitude, but it's not the city which fucked me and mine up."
"That's only two houses away!" Samantha says, dancing around the parlor. "We can have lilac tunnel shenanigans again once I'm out of school."
"We can when I'm not working--but it gets better!" Nellie says, like it's her birthday, Christmas, and the future goodness of Halloween all wrapped up at once. "I'm going to go to school too. I'm allowed to now."
Of course Nellie's excited as shit at the idea of school. In the days before school was mandatory and work wasn't for poor kids, kids often started working from extremely young ages. Nellie didn't think anything about working, because she could and probably had worked from the age of five or six if not younger. The idea of school is what has her on bounce, because she's never gotten to go at almost nine. Not even a little bit. And her excitement is the best. I'm not saying modern school and education couldn't use massive reform nowadays, but being able to learn is something precious to the world. There's a reason people who want to oppress others do it in part by denying them adequate education about the world and the truth of things. Over history, people of lower classes and outside of privilege have found being able to learn a big damn deal, and people in power who want to keep them stupid have tried to take that away from them. So Nellie wanting to so powerfully learn and go to school touches me right in my snarky little heart. Get your learn on, girl. Get your education.
Samantha swings Nellie around the parlor some more, excited for Nellie that she gets to get her learn on too. She then insists they go to the kitchen to get some gingerbread and maybe get back in the lilac tunnel and play with cans.
That Monday, Samantha leads a little parade of first time students down the hill and across the street to Mount Bedford Public School. There's her, looking tall and proud in her best grey dress from the cover of the book. There's Nellie, skipping and bouncing and excited to learn. And there's Nellie's little sisters, seven year old Bridget and six year old Jenny who are very quiet. They're both going to be in the first grade since they can't read or write even a little. Nellie, who at least knows her letters, is going to be in second. After dropping her sisters off, Nellie gets to the class door and is a touch scared.
"It's gonna be okay, bae,4" Samantha says. "I'll pick you up after school on the front steps, kay?"
Nellie takes a deep breath and goes into the class, and Samantha hauls ass the two blocks to her private academy.
Samantha spends all day thinking about Nellie and how her first day of class is going. She hadn't even taught her the Pledge of Allegiance5 or any of the hymns they would sing. At lunch she thinks about the lard pails the girls had carried for lunch and how they probably didn't have a lot in there, and that she could have given them her cookies at least. During penmanship as she's writing cursive S's and Qs, she thinks she should have stayed longer to show her where the pencil sharpener was or the bathroom. What I'm saying is that Nellie stayed all over Samantha's mind, because Samantha loves that girl like burning.6
At 3 p.m. Samantha is fit to burst to hear about Nellie's first day. She runs the two blocks to the public school and takes the steps two at a time nothing at all like a lady. Jenny and Bridget are there waiting and get all excite like little kids do.
"We have thirty desks! I can count to thirty! I have my own desk! Lunches go in the clock room!"
"The cloak room," Samantha corrects.
"Whatever I have books we have books and a leather belt to hold them in and--"
"That's sweet honey, where's Nellie?"
"Dunno," the two girls go. "Ain't seen her."
Samantha starts to look around for Nellie. She sees other boys and girls on the way home, and Eddie pulling the hair ribbon out of a girl named Carrie Wilson and running down the street with it, because Eddie Ryland is a total shit--
Wait, wait, wait. Before we go find Nellie? Let's address this. The Rylands are claiming to be rich. What is their only son doing at public school? If they are as well off as they claim to be, they would be sending him to a private academy for boys, or give him a private tutor at home. He wouldn't have gone to mixed gender public school. This, along with the way Mrs. Ryland acts later and acted in the prior book, makes me think that the Rylands aren't as rich as they claim. That or they're the new snotty rich that act like total shits to the poor because they feel they have to act that way to stay separate from them at any costs. Suddenly it all makes sense, like seeing the Matrix rain code.
Back to Nellie. Where is sh--
|Oh, Nellie, you sweet beautiful girl.|
The girls run to Nellie's side. "What's wrong, Nellie?" Samantha says, freaking out because this is not how school should be.
And Nellie says one of the most heartbreaking statements ever.
"I can't do it. I'm too old to go to school."
Pause right here cause I need to hug Nellie IRL.
"What happened?" Samantha asks, likely with a tone that means shit is about to go down.
Nellie cry-burbles out the whole thing, "They laughed cause I'm so big and in just second grade, and the teacher made me sit in the back when I forgot where the Atlantic Ocean was and treated me mean, and the kids laughed even more, and they called me a ragbag and one boy even called me a dummy. Fuck school. I'm never going back. I can't."
Now you know why I'm happy to slap the taste out of the mouths of people who smack anyone down who is trying to learn--teachers and students and anyone who gets in the way of someone earnestly trying to learn. Nellie is eight--almost nine--at this point. She's been working likely since she was old enough to stand up and pick up anything. She's poor, she's sickly from wearing herself out living in terrible conditions, and at this point in America she's not even considered that much white because whiteness is an exclusion race, not inclusion. She's finally in a place where she can attempt to get an education and try to do better, and she's getting picked on for trying to learn. And not just by the students--by the teacher.
Fuck all those people. That's not how you help. Line up for slaps.
Samantha is like "No, you can and will go back to school." And she's fucking pissed, and when Samantha Mary Parkington is Fucking Pissed, she's going to do something about it, like the angry little Gemini she is. "Can you get home by yourself?" Nellie nods. "Then you take your sisters home, and dry your eyes, and let me do what I do best and do something about this, cause I promise I'm going to make it all right." And then Samantha turns around and takes her ass right back to Miss Crampton's Academy to do something about it.
Because Samantha didn't have to wage a one girl campaign for feminism and worker's rights to be a good person. She just wanted to help her friend, and that gives her motive to do something. And that means a lot more to me, that she was angry about someone getting shit for trying to get an education, than the Fluffed Up Socially Powerhouse Samantha that every flashback article seems to make her out to be.
Chapter Three: Mount Better School, or Samantha the Teacher
Samantha's teacher, Miss Stevens is busy writing something when Samantha arrives. "You need something, Samantha?" she asks.
"Damn dickens I do." At first she's not sure how to start, so she starts with "So I have this friend." Sam don't do that everyone will think you're lying.
"I have this friend who just started school, because we as a society fuck the poor and she had to work in factories as a kid. She's in the second grade." Pause to make sure that Miss Stevens doesn't think this is a joke or a lie. She doesn't. Continue. "The other kids are fucking picking on her and the teacher's being a bitch and she's smarter than they think and this is balls and ass. I want to help her learn and tutor her. You gonna help me or what?"
Miss Stevens, who is a firm teacher, is not a heartless bitch. "Of course I am. Sit down, let's get some stuff." Samantha sits and Miss Stevens gets some basic books--the reading, the maths, the geography, and the speller. "These are the second grade books, and I'm marking the parts you will want to focus on. You getting this down?"
"Yes," Samantha says, without even the help of a notebook or a smartphone.
Miss Stevens hands her the books. "See me on Friday, tell me what she's learned, and we'll plan the next set of lessons. This ain't a game, though. This gonna be work. Can you do it?"
"I know this ain't a fucking game. We're gonna do this." Samantha takes the books and takes her happy ass home. She runs most of the way, so eager to start Nellie on the path to the learning the girl is capable of that she doesn't even curtsy when she goes into the sitting room, like some sort of ill bred heathen child. She bobs one off just in time to avoid Grandmary's Victorian frown of wrath.
"I want to start a school," she says.
"What the dickens and hell," Grandmary says, used to Samantha bursting things at her out of nowhere but this is special and new. "You sure you have a full education? What does la gorge mean?"
"The throat. We are not in Chapter One. Also, lemme explain, no lemme sum up, no lemme summarize. Nellie just started public school, and she's fucking trying to learn and the teacher and other students are mean as shit to her because she's in second grade. I'm going to cram her sweet smart head full of learnings so she can get to third and not have to deal with that shit. C'mon, Grandmary."
Grandmary takes pause, remembering that she's Victorian minded and so can't just say yes right off the lace cuff. "I'm sure you're very eager to help Nellie, but if you get in the way of her work at the Van Sicklens', she might get up to our level of society and then where will we be? Cats and dogs living together, total chaos. And I'm sure you don't want her to get in trouble, let's use that as an excuse too."
"OH MY GOD Grandmary, I promise she can scrub underwear and press sheets and dust nicknacks and all that when I'm not trying to teach her things. Also we won't make a whole lot of noise or anything, not even when we're playing Lilac Tunnel."
Grandmary gets a tiny smile. Samantha wins! Take your battle spoils. "Fine, girl, I guess it won't hurt anything." Slowly but surely, we will chip away at this Victorianisms. Samantha hugs Grandmary again and goes to make super prep.
By the time she gets to the Van Sicklens' house, it's after four p.m. Samantha looks around the backyard and hearing someone in the laundry room, she peeks inside to see Nellie ironing clothes. This ain't the nice kind of ironing, because electric irons are not a thing. This is the stick heavy ass irons on the stove, and let them heat and press and don't burn the fabric, sweat and struggle kind, the kind of ironing that can take half a day or longer. Nellie's sweating like a sinner in church as she moves the irons, but she sees Samantha and gets happy.
"Come over like now," Samantha says, "I have done things."
"Samantha, did you forget all of Book One?" Nellie says. "Work first, then I can mess around with you. But I'm almost done being a good little servant girl, so go do something useful for a half hour."
Samantha, who has never lifted a hot iron with her delicate ladygirl hands, does not volunteer with this. Unlike hanging up laundry, she can probably fuck things up good if she touches anything. She listens for once, takes her happy ass back home, and waits on the back steps with a book until she sees Nellie show up, Lydia in tow. Lydia, the pretty fancy doll from Book One, ain't pretty no more. Her dress is all wrinkled and her hair is mussed and her china hands and face are all grubby. And Samantha takes one look at her and is like "I did the right thing. Lydia is definitely loved."
"Up the stairs, Nellie," Sam says, "I have something to show you."
Nellie wonders for a half second what kissing will be like before following. They head up a stairway off the kitchen and then up another and all the way to the attic, past Elsa's Room of Grump and Jessie's Room of Magical Negro Sewing, and to some more narrow stairs--all the way to the tower at the top of the house. Nellie's heart gets all pitter patter flitter flutter and she holds her breath. The tower room has four windows and she can see all across the town, down to her new house, out to the school, and up and up--oh wait, there's stuff inside too. There's a blackboard, cushions, and books and a jar of white beans.
"I'm so ready to make a love nest here," Nellie says. "Dunno what you plan to do with the beans though."
"Me too," Samantha says, "but first, we're going to do some learning. Set Lydia down and sit down next to me, cause we're going to get you out of the second grade like now." This is back in the day where all you had to do to prove yourself to the next grade mid-year was show you were capable.
|Tutoring like a boss.|
After much reading and writing down words Nellie doesn't know, they get into writing--well, penmanship, because this is back in the day where you had to handwrite everything.7 Samantha thinks Nellie is going to hate handwriting and the struggle to make letters neat, but Nellie is like "loopy swirl letters shit yes!" and keeps trying and trying to make them pretty. Samantha has to be the one to get Nellie to set the handwriting down and move on to math.
Sam dumps perfectly edible dry beans on the floor and starts to sort them. "So we got seven beans and five beans, that--"
"The fickens duck?" Samantha goes. ""All right, fourteen and nine."
"Twenty-three. Gimme a hard one."
"Seventeen and fifteen."
"Thirty-two. I said give me a hard one."
"How the fuck can you math so well, girl?" Samantha says.
Nellie decides that if she's going to be taking lessons from Samantha, Samantha's going to learn as well as she teaches. She saved her from learning about babies, that's all the protection she's getting from now on. "In the city I had to do the food shopping for the whole family. I had a dollar to feed five people, I had to know how many pennies everything was, how many I had left to buy anything else, and if I fucked around counting change the shopkeep wouldn't give us our cabbage or meat or flour. Poor people know exact change like a bitch. We math early and math accurate, because we need to know how much food will feed us when there's not enough to cover the end of the month, which bill can float for a little longer, and how much we have to buy toilet paper and tampons and maybe save up for something special like a birthday cake, which we will then get shit for when some smart ass food bastard sees that in our cart and goes online to wail about their tax dollars going to feed babies such luxuries as cake and sweets. So how about that shit, Samantha?"
Samantha gets uncomfortable having to think about the fact that Nellie knows math from being poor and decides that's enough math for today and not enough time for geography. How about that privilege check?
As they put the books away, Samantha decides their school needs a name, and they should call it the Mount Better School since they have better students. "Better teachers too," Nellie says, and they grin.
Chapter Four: The Contest, or Questioning the Dominant Paradigm in a Useful Way
The next day at school, while Nellie is off dealing with the suck that is her second grade class and Jenny 'n Bridget are learning to count chairs, the head of Samantha's academy makes an announcement. "The Mount Bedford Ladies Club is taking a break from being vacuous rich ninnies whose only goal in life was to look pretty, land a rich husband, and spend all day in the parlor sipping tea with their equally vacuous friends talking about how dickens damn terrific it is to look pretty and have a rich husband.8 So they're holding the Young People's Speaking Contest on October fifth on the topic of Progress in America. Students from Lessing's Boys School and the public school will compete, and since we're allowing girls to do speeches now, two girls from here will be going to take part."
Again, there's a private boys' school in town, and Eddie doesn't go to it. His family is not as rich as they claim. Oh snap.
"So you have three weeks to make a speech, because that is how we do essays in this era, you memorize them and do public speaking. Get on that. Everyone has to make a speech and Miss Stevens and I will choose the best two." She then goes on about the progress of society and things like the telephone, steam engine, electric lights, and all these newfangled devices of the Edwardian era that the girls can think about speeching. "And this is 1904, so you had better do an excellent job."
By lunchtime everyone is buzzing like a newfangled electric lightbulb. "If you win you get a medal," Helen says. "From the mayor and everything!"
"I don't give a flying dickens if it's President Badass himself, Theodore Motherfucking Roosevelt!" Ida says. "I shit myself and forget my own name anytime I have to speak in public."
"Your name goes in the paper too, because those are still relevant," adds Helen.
"I will shit myself and fall off the stage and die, and my parents will have to bury me in the poor part of the cemetery and then leave town in total disgrace," Ida says, because little girls are total drama queens in any era.
"Psh, I don't shit myself," Ruth says, "but I don't use enough huge words so I'll never win."
"SHIT MYSELF AND DIE, BRING SMELLING SALTS," says Ida, hand over face and summoning a fainting couch out of the ether like Rarity.
"Samantha's going to win," says Faceless Girl #1, solely added in to flatter Samantha. "She's the main character and I'm genre savvy. Also she writes good essays and can speak in public or something. But mostly her name's on the cover."
Samantha gets all modest. "I wish I could take this all the way." Then she daydreams about the end of the book and getting the medal, without knowing exactly how much her speech is going to change by the end of Chapter Six.
"Edith might win too," Ruth says. "She's not only smart but she's an arrogant shit, and she's also terrible to everyone and not scared to talk in public. And if there's one thing several AG books are good at, it's making a total bitch rival character to the main. Wait til you hear about this girl named Harriet Davies. She's this light skinned Negro woman and like 50-something now and she won't shut up about that time she didn't win a spelling medal."
Everyone groans at the idea of anything else existing to make Edith more arrogant than she already is. "Shut up and eat your damn sandwich, Ruth," Helen says.
At three, Nellie and her sisters are waiting at the stairs for Samantha, and Nellie is not sobbing like the world is over. "How was today?" Samantha asks.
"It didn't suck as hard as it did that first day," Nellie says, as they each take a little O'Malley hand. Samantha takes Bridget.
"Did they pick on you again?"
"Yes, but I shook it off and also the teacher seems to have moved out of mean and into 'ignore the Irish kid' territory."
"Can we have more private teaching today?"
Nellie counts her tasks up. "Well I have to clean the parlor, sweep the mats, and be there to serve dinner. But if I set the fine plates out fast enough I might be able to get in a snuggle and some learning."
And then Edith Eddelton, tired of merely being seen speaking French and talked about, rolls by on her bicycle. She sees Samantha and the O'Malleys and in the second illustrations, she mostly looks slightly concerned about the poor fraternizing, with her long bowed braid. But in the first ones?
|Oh, ew, poors. And Irish poors. Double ew.|
"Th' fuck?" Samantha says.
"Don't act like you don't even know, Samantha. They're the Van Sicklens' Servants, and here you are walking in public and touching and talking to them like they're our equals or something. Jesus and dickens, they're even Irish, that's like one of the worst kinds of people. My mother raised me better than to touch Irish. But I guess that's just how you was raised. You know. Without a mother. Some people aren't very particular." And she pedals off, having popped in long enough to be a total bitch.
Nellie turns red and Samantha can't even talk for a half a beat before she takes Bridget's hand and marches down the road. "Edith Eddleton is a total megabitch!" she says in so many words, when she finally does speak.
It's dinnertime with Grandmary. Samantha does not get regulated to the kid's table since it's just her and Grandmary, so she gets to enjoy the pleasures of drinking from crystal and eating with silver and watching Grandmary order the servants around with a bell. This means sitting up straight and not slurping her soup or stuffing nuts up her nose, using her napkin, and knowing which fork to scratch her ass with.9 But such is the price of Fancy Dinner.
She waits until Grandmary asks about school because no speaking until spoken to. "So what do you think the best sign of progress is in America?" she asks, putting Grandmary on the spot.
Grandmary pauses for Victorian-Edwardian conflict. "First of all, not all progress is good," she starts, because she has a role in this story and a huge part of it is being old and hating the future. "The world did fine without things like lightbulbs and cars and all of this new stuff is full of confusion." Grandmary would be the kind to complain that back in her day, young ladies did not take "selfies" or "tweet" and that millennials aren't buying enough houses and gas cars. Back in her day they just hired someone to come to the house and paint them surrounded by material goods, and wrote diaries and calling cards, and also had pensions and steady jobs, but I guess the new generation seems to think they're to do better than we do or something.
Then she decides to be a little less of an old. "The telephone has done some help for things like ordering meats and groceries, but it'll never take the place of a good letter." Don't you worry Grandmary, we'll replace phone calls with texts. "Also, it's good when we must call the doctor or the fire department. Yes, I'll pick the telephone."
Samantha wants to talk about something else, but she has to wait until Grandmary talks to her again.
"Does something have your bloomers puffed?" Grandmary asks.
"It certainly does. Edith was a total megabitch and says she can't play with Nellie. Why the shit is that?"
"Edith is a young lady," Grandmary says, as if it's clear as anything.
Edith is going to grow up to be a vacuous girl who spends the 1920s having garden parties while her husband smokes cigars in the lodge and paying people to do the laundry until the stock market crashes and she and her husband have to get along without servants.
What the dickens, Samantha thinks. "But I'm playing with Nellie, duh."
"No you're not, you're helping her, and there is a difference. At least, there is to people stuck in the Victorian mindset."
Fuck this shit, Samantha thinks. There's no damn difference.
Chapter Five: Progress, or Gossiping Old Bitches Get Stitches
Uncle Gard has one appearance in this book, and it's in Chapter Five. He comes to visit on Saturday and doesn't even bring Cornelia. This way, Samantha can spend all her time with him her time asking Gard about progress after tea, and Cornelia can be off pushing for the vote. Over tennis--a perfectly respectable sport for the idle rich--Samantha asks him about progress and recaps the whole contest thing, and how she wants to stomp Edith's smarmy bitchface into the grou--how she really wants to win.
"What's the haps, Sammy?" Gard says, because he's all kinds of progress.
"What's the best invention ever?"
Gardner thinks a bit, what with being all future and progress minded. "First of all, electricity. Very useful at night, much less of a chance of burning the house down to see. I suspect in the future people won't even use gas lamps at all," he adds, seeing into the future and having a vision of people with lights on all the time. "And there's cars. Goddamn how I love cars. You can go anywhere in a car."
"Not without gas," Samantha says, "which is sold in drugstores."
"So take the gas with you, we've also invented the gas can."
"And you can't go in the rain, cars get stuck in the mud."
"C'mon, Sammy, you loved the hell out of the car just one book back."
"I like horses more. You can't feed carrots to a car." Well you don't have to scoop car shit off the road Samantha, so hah.
Samantha spends the next two weeks learning her ass off about progress in America, both from reading books and and irritating everyone with questions about what they think the best invention is. Mrs. Hawkins, being a cook, says that it's the gas stove because unlike a wood stove it doesn't get full of ashes and require coals burning all the time in the summer. Hawkins fucks everything up for future scenes by talking about how factories are the best, what with the making of things and making them cheap and fast and getting them all across the country.
Ooo, Hawkins, shit will go down and you don't even know.
Meanwhile, Samantha and Nellie are doing lessons in the tower room and trying not to sneak kisses as a reward for learning. Samantha works like hell on her essay without even the benefit of a computer to move paragraphs around easily and has to make do with a copybook like a scrub. Nellie hears Samantha talking aloud and writing and talking more and keeps her mouth shut and does more reading and writing and geography, because she has something to say but she is going to wait for the best damn moment to do it.
Sam and Nellie are heading home one day when of course, more Edith. She's walking with Clarisse Van Sicklen, who is likely a relative of the Van Sicklens because if she was their daughter I think Nellie would have brought her up before now or something. "Oh my god there goes Samantha walking around with that Irish servant girl again," Edith says all loud and bitchlike. "Perhaps she's learning how to be a washerwoman, because fuck the poor."
"Oh nah, I bet Nellie's teaching her how to talk for that contest or something," Clarisse says just as bitchily.
"Maybe we should all take lessons in hanging around the poor," Edith says, and the two walk off laughing because they are going to grow up to be vacuous rich women and are getting the snotty part down now while they're young.
Samantha ignores them best she can, even though she can hear them laughing. "Ugh, those bitches, how I wish girls could fight." Samantha, just whoop her like she owes you money, you'll feel so much better and I bet you can make a pretty necklace of her teeth.
That afternoon at Mount Better School for Learning and Lesbianism, they run out of pencils and Samantha goes to the library to fetch more from Grandmary's desk. On the way back she hears voices in the parlor and doesn't even have to look in the calling card bowl to know who it is--the raspy smarmy one is Mrs. Ryland and the shrill, super bitch one is Mrs. Eddleton. And they've mentioned Nellie. Never one to miss a good chance to get her eavesdrop on, she peeks through a crack in the parlor door and starts to listen. (Both illustrations have a gap in the door big enough to see Sam, so that's not just a peek.)
|Keep talking, so I have more reason to hate your ass.|
"Imaging bringing that whole family here to our neighborhood like some sort of poor," Mrs. Ryland says. "Nellie couldn't even be an automaton for a dollar a week. I can't even think what got into Mrs. Van Sicklen's head."
"I told her about them," Grandmary says, pouring tea and passing it along. "I urged her to give them a good home away from the city, since it was a bad deal for them there. And Mrs. Van Sicklen says they're a good, hardworking family."
The other two look embarrassed before they continue, but they continue. "But they like, wear rags and my Edith says they're practically filthy little Irish urchins."
"No dickens they're poor," Grandmary says, "but they're clean and polite and well mannered." Samantha can see Grandmary is sitting stiff backed and has that bitchface frost in her eye that means her visitors better check themselves before they wreck themselves. So that's where Samantha gets it from.
But nope, they keep talking. "Do you really think it's wise to let Samantha spend so much time with them? She might get ideas about equality instead of being a pretty vacuous girl."
"Samantha's doing a great deal of good, and it is our duty as the rich to do good." Grandmary sets her teacup down. "Want more tea, ladies?" she says in a tone that basically means How about you go fuck yourselves?
Samantha scoots back down the hall, suddenly wanting to be as close to Nellie as she can. I would like to think that once Grandmary notices that Samantha is gone and she was being polite for the sake of her eavesdropping grandchild, she asks Mrs. Ryland how Eddie is doing in his public school. You know, the one he's going to because either they're not rich enough for a tutor or he's too much of a shit to go to Lessing's Boys. And then when Mrs. Ryland gets all raspy and offended she's like "Drink your tea and don't ever mouth off to me again, bitch."
Grandmary might have had her issues, but don't you dare say shit to her about Samantha, she'll fuck you up.
Oh, right, the contest. The girls in the academy file into the assembly room, stand by their seats like little ladies should, and sing a little hymn and say a little prayer before they sit. You don't fuck around in Miss Crampton's when there's an assembly going down, no you don't. Miss Crampton reminds them all that two of them will get to move on to the finals tomorrow night, where they can get a medal and all. Samantha crosses her fingers in her lap and takes steady breaths to chill her nerves. Miss Crampton doesn't waste much more time since she's sure they all want to hear the results of the hard work, and has the students come up to give their speeches.
Helen comes up first, and the rest of the class goes. A lot of them have shaky voices and Ida Dean speaks so softly she can barely be heard but she does not shit herself and die. Samantha is the last to speak, and she's clear-spoken and steady.
"Factories!" she goes. "American factories are the best damn things in the world. We used to have to make shit by hand and it took hours and days to make even a shoe or a table. Now we make hundreds of shoes and tables in a few hours. And factories also make toys and cloth and bicycles and even thread and automobiles. And everything costs less because of all the people working in factories, so more people can buy them. That's progress, and we can't move forward in the twentieth century without them. Factories, fuck yes."
There's applause and Miss Stevens nods her approval, and Samantha sits down.
"You've all done a great job, but there can only be two winners," Miss Crampton says. "The first is Samantha, because her name is on the cover of the book." Samantha practically fondles her Speaking Award with its crisp sexy edges and smooth paper feel as the others clap for her.
"And the second is Edith Eddleton, because of course."
Chapter Six: Winners, or Samantha Gets her Privileged Ass Handed Back to Her and Learns Shit Proper
That afternoon at Mount Better School for Learning and Lesbianism, Samantha pins her award to the wall in front of Nellie. "Can I hear the speech?" Nellie asks, thinking this speech is going to be the best since four score and seven years ago. Samantha clears her throat and uses her best proper speaking voice, saying it just like she did at the Academy and feeling mighty proud of herself. Then looks at Nellie, waiting for her to clap and cheer like the girls at class did. "Wasn't that the best speech you ever heard since I told Eddie I was going to cram his pocketknife full of taffy?"
Nellie is staring at the floor and dragging her finger over the edge of the cushion.
"Well?" Samantha says, getting confused that Nellie is not cheering her ass off.
"It's a nice speech," Nellie says in a tone of you absolute walnut, Samantha Parkington.
"...what's wrong with my speech?" Samantha does, getting all hurt and indignant.
"It's a nice set of words but just...you know...a little short of being anything like accurate."
"...what do you mean?"
"It's just that, I used to work in a factory, and I don't know who told you they were like that but they lied cause they're not like that."
Hawkins is going to have a lot to answer for.
Samantha, better than most people called on their privilege, goes, "...so what is it like?"
"You sure you want to hear, Samantha? Cause I'm not going to do like the babies or black people in the first book. You agree to listen to what I have to say, and I'm not going to pull a single punch. You want to get a lesson? You want this to be a school? You want to know what's wrong with your speech? Fine. Here's what's wrong with your speech." And Nellie goes off.
"I was in a big ass room with a lot of other kids. Twenty at least. And we didn't play and have fun and enjoy it. We couldn't even talk because the machines were so damn loud. They were so damn loud that I'd go home with the buzzing whirring sound in my head and it could take hours for me to hear properly again and I'm probably half deaf from that. I worked from seven in the morning until seven at night, that's twelve hours a day, and every day but Sunday."
|You gonna learn about factories today, oh yes you are.|
"But why?" Samantha says, knocked flat on her ass.
"Because we had to climb on the machines. That's how we changed the spools. You think they were just out there to reach like gingerbread on a plate? We climbed and shoes would make us slip. The machines move so fast that they could and would break you. Let a hand get in there wrong, or a foot. Or a finger--they would snatch a finger off. And the reason my hair is short like this? It's not fashion. We had to keep our hair short because long hair would get snatched and the machine isn't going to stop if it has your hair, it'll just keep winding. I saw it, Samantha. I saw a girl's hair get caught in the machine. One second she's standing there working, and the next she was screaming and there was blood down half her head and she almost died. And for all this, all this risk and danger and exhaustion and near death? They paid us a buck-eighty a week.10 Thirty cents a day. That's why thread is cheap. Enjoy the fruits of the Industrial Revolution and automation, Samantha. I hope it's worth the two-cent thread."
Samantha can't talk. She can't move, she feels numb and cold, and her scalp is tingling and achy and uncomfortable. And that, ladies and gentlemen and others, is what it is like to face your privilege for the first time.
You asked, Samantha, what was wrong with your speech on progress. What's wrong is that the poor get fucked in the labor industry, all for cheap, quick goods.
The Mount Bedford Opera house, used for things such as skating parties and concerts, is set up for the speech contest October fifth. The contest speakers sit on the stage, and people all over town are here to see the speeches because TV and radio aren't' widespread yet so this is a fine form of entertainment. Grandmary is in the second row, wearing a gray silk dress and looking stately and regal. Nellie is in the back with her mam, shy and out of place. The president of the Ladies Club steps to the front, waits for everyone to get quiet, and then welcomes everyone and which schools they represent.
One of the boys from Lessing's talks about a building twenty stories high, and how it will change cities. Another boy talks about automobiles, and someone else talks about electric lights. Good thing you skipped those two, Samantha, you would have been redundant. A girl from the public school talks about medicine and how people die a lot less now that there's meds. But they have cocaine in them, so whatever.
Then of course, Edith, because if Samantha doesn't go last what impact is that? Edith marches to the podium like she owns the joint, cocks her head, and then booms her voice like a champ.
"Progress! What a wonderful age we live in! Progress is the great American Adventure. In the way old days, a man had to work all day and all night to support a family. But now we have machines which benefit everyone and everyone can get what they need without a struggle. Fortunes can be made like that and machines mean anyone can be wealthy if they work at it. What opportunity! Isn't this the best damn age ever? Fuck yeah, progress." Everyone claps and Edith goes back to her seat, super cocky and proud of herself. Her speech, of course, is super contrasting to the one that's coming up.
Samantha finally goes up, not looking at Miss Crampton or Miss Stevens or anyone because they're expecting that awesome speech on factories and she can't do that after talking to Nellie. She stands up and says the words she's been practicing at Mouth Better School, because she's learned one hell and dickens of a lesson in the span of a few hours.
|Go, Samantha. Speak truth. Use privilege for good.|
Samantha walks back to her chair with long silence, and Grandmary is like "Where the DICKENS did she get that from?" Then she looks back at Nellie and Nellie is practically glowing, all "SHE HEARD ME. She learned." And Grandmary catches on. She learned it from the source. Grandmary smiles and she starts to applaud, joining the entire crowd, and Edith looks like she's been squished.
Samantha Parkington, showing how to use your privilege to speak truth to power, when the power isn't listening to other voices.
Fuck yeah, girl.
There's no lesson in Mount Better School today. Nope, it's a celebration--because Samantha may have switched speeches, but she still won first prize. Her name is, after all on the cover of the book. The girls are enjoying cookies and little cakes with pink frosting and a whole pitcher of lemonade, and very pleased with everything they've done.
"Oh, by the way, Samantha," Nellie says, finishing a cookie. "I had nice shit happen with me too."
"Yeah?" Samantha says, having learned a lot about reality and working for a better era.
"I'm now in third grade." That's right, after only a month in school Nellie has learned her way to her age-proper grade. Who's a dummy now, random jerkass second grader? Nellie: Smart and Skilled.
"Hell yeah," Samantha says! "Go you--wait you don't look as happy as you should be about that."
"Yeah, that is because I have the desk next to Eddie Ryland because he's in public school."
"Oh god, Nellie," Samantha says, making a face. "Well, then we gotta do more learning and move you up to the head of the class!"
And Mount Better School continues.
Looking Back, or Time to Learn More!
American Schooling in 1904! First, the part about rich and well to do girls. Samantha went to a school that didn't even really look like one on the outside; it looked like a house because it was--a house with a few rooms set aside for classrooms. Girls from rich families have been going to private style schools forever. The classes were very small and met directly in the headmistress's house, and most private academies were single-gender classes. Girls learned things like reading, writing, spelling, history and all that. Penmanship--handwriting--was done to learn fancy letters, and since ink was dipped they had to learn not to leave blotches on the paper and write neat and clean. Lunch could also be a lesson, in table manners. There was also fine arts and French--again, if you were to learn a foreign language you were going to learn one of sophistication--and decorum, the art of knowing how to be a fine young lady.
And then you have the not-rich. Private schools were expensive and most people went to the public school, where classes were mixed gendered and had about twenty to thirty kids per class. In larger poorer places, kids didn't get to go to school at all and worked instead even with laws against it, because families needed money and kids could earn it. Some kids tried to school at night and work during the day, but that was exhausting.
Regardless of the school, kids were expected to be quiet and behave lest they face punishment. Academies might send home a note to a parent or guardian, but public schools could and would be harsher, including paddling with rulers, kneeling in corners, and smacks across the head. Reading also taught more than just reading--it taught stories about how girls should be good and polite and how rude terrible children got what was coming to them. In a sense. And there were essays on right and wrong, and speeches memorized and spoken in front of the whole class. A lot of school was about sitting and being lectured to, but some teachers did hand-on learning. Exercise was also important, and there were classes and lessons on stretching and exercise to help keep people healthier. (A huge part of learning is movement--America are you taking notes?)
School was to be until at least 16, but a lot of people didn't get past eighth grade, and a lot went only as long as they could before they were needed in manual labor on farms and in factories.11 Some did high school, and a few went to college. But even a rich girl probably wouldn't go to college, because too much learning made her uterus wander or something, and she'd get all these ideas and start thinking or something.
Samantha's second book is bursting with what some people would call social justice. But it's not on some massive wide level. She does things because she's angry at how Nellie's being treated. And then, when she does something super privileged and Nellie calls her on it, it makes her change her entire speech in the course of an afternoon. Samantha makes some changes in her perspective thanks to Nellie calling her out, and she uses that change to speak about it in public. Not to a room full of barons and factory owners--take off the nostalgia goggles. Take them off. Samantha really only maybe changes a few minds and wins a medal for her speech, but she's learned a powerful lesson herself, about seeing things from a less privileged perspective. Samantha as a character does well without needing to be inflated to the level of Baron Busting Child Labor Stopping Wunderkind. Samantha wasn't a radical little girl. But what she did was powerful enough. There's no need to blow it out of proportion.
As for Nellie? Oh Nellie. This book is so precious when it comes to Nellie. I cry for you when your heart breaks about feeling too dumb for school, and squeeze you when you tell Samantha all about herself and what it's really like to have that cheap stuff and what the real cost of it is. And you get through to her, is the best part. You change her mind. She hears you and she absorbs it and she doesn't dismiss you as not knowing what you're talking about. She stands up for you and becomes a better person, and helps you learn. You're smart and talented, Nellie-girl.
If the books had continued through with Ms. Alder, I think there would have been a lot more class talk and a lot more changes in Samantha's perspective. But they kicked her off the project only two books in, and I get the feeling it was in part because of this book. What could have been. What could have been.
Stay tuned for part three: Samantha's Surprise, where Cornelia appears to ruin everything during the holidays and Nellie gets pushed to the side. You were too good at it, Nellie.
1 *cough CÉCILE AND MARIE-GRACE cough*
2 I found Happy Birthday, Addy! in Half Price Books in the old cover new illustration style.
3 To be honest, Samantha learning French at age nine or so is actually smart. Better than trying to learn it as a teen. She might actually retain it instead of only remembering how to say "where is the bathroom."
4 I like the word, whatchu gonna do.
5 And there wouldn't have been any "under God" in it either. That didn't show up until the Red Scare of the 50s. She would have also done the Bellamy Salute which uh, we don't do anymore because it looks very Nazi. I have opinions about the Pledge of Allegiance but they are not for a book blather.
6 Hence me being so fucking pissed that she got kicked to the side so hard once Ms. Alder was put off the project.
7 I sucked at handwriting my entire school career. First of all, I used to write bidextrously until my kindergarten teacher told me to pick a hand, and then I picked the left because she said I should used the right--my right hand can only still only print, and I have to work at it. Then when I stuck to left, I wrote terribly and used to not write well enough--I distinctly remember a sub trying to snatch the pencil out of my hand and stuff it in my right, and then snatching my hand around when I didn't tilt the paper like the diagram and hook hand write. And now I type pretty much everything and work writing things left handed, so *left handed bird flip*
8 Season Five, Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy, for all those that are not hardcore Simpsons watchers like yours truly.
9 Season Eleven, The Mansion Family. See above.
10 About $46 in 2015 money.
11 My maternal grandfather never got much past the third grade; he was born in 1920. He was also mostly black so there was that.