Caddie got us talking about a number of things as we moseyed through the book. One little nugget that really caught my attention was the insightful scene in which Obediah Jones finally finds the thing for which he was made.
One of the biggest boys in school, sullen and ill-behaved, Obediah makes it quite clear that he'd rather be somewhere else, but he'll take school if it means having some fun picking on the teacher who
had her hands full with the boys of the Dunnville School. Some of them were as big as she was, or bigger, and they were used to the rough ways and the crude humor of a pioneer life. Ashur and Obediah Jones were the worst. Great, hulking boys who could scarcely get their knees beneath the desks, they came to school, not to learn, but to see what fun they could have baiting the teacher.
The teacher, Miss Parker, does (later in this same chapter) best Obediah. They have a showdown, and
Obediah had met his Waterloo, and Teacher was at last the greatest person in her little world.
As we read this, the girls of course noticed how disobedient and downright unpleasant Obediah could be. And that was certainly true. He was a bully. I pointed out to them, however, that the author also told us that Obediah "had a slow brain," and one couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for him as he was forced to sit in a classroom day after day, expected to feign interest in things which he could not possibly care about.
Much later in the novel, a prairie fire is fast approaching the school. Teacher has ordered the children out of the building, and yelled for everyone to run into Dunnville for help. But then
... a firefighter was already at work. Obediah, his head down, the smoke swirling all about him, had caught up a flat board and was beating out the fire as fast as he could. When his brother Ashur saw what he was doing, he caught up a board, too, and ran to join him. The other boys, forgetting their panic in a common purpose, began to imitate the two Jones boys.
"Hey, you," shouted Obediah to Tom, "get a shovel or sumpin' to dig with." In the schoolhouse, Tom found the shovel they used to make a path through the snow in winter. He knew what Obediah wanted, and he began to dig and scrape the dry grass away in a trench between the oncoming fire and the schoolhouse. The ground was baked almost as hard as rock and the shovel was not sharp. It was slow work and the sweat stood out all over Tom's round face after a few moments of digging.
"Here!" said Obediah, and he grasped the shovel and thrust his board into Tom's hands. The board was already charred and smoking, but Tom seized it and fell to beating back the fire, while Obediah threw his strength into clearing a trench around the school before the fire reached it. Obediah's great, hulking frame, which fitted so badly into the school benches and desks, seemed splendid at last. No grown man could have done braver or harder work than Obediah did that day to save his schoolhouse.
"Children," said Miss Parker, "you have all been very brave, but one among you has been a hero today, and I want to salute him. Obediah Jones, please come up here in front."
Grinning a little sheepishly, Obediah came forward. His face was blackened with smoke and his hands were cut and burned, but he had lost his hang-dog slouch. Obediah stood straight as a man.
That Miss Parker called Obediah to the front of the room is a superb counterpoint to the scene in which she had beaten him down. Then, too, she had called him forward and had caught him off guard when she whipped him with a ruler. The scene of his humiliation becomes the scene of his triumph.
And so we saw, my girls and I, that Obediah had finally found his purpose, meaning and a reason to be proud. This boy who cared nothing for reading and sitting, reciting and memorizing, knew what had to be done in a crisis, and he did it. His "slow brain" was quick where it was needed, and his physical strength, once so intimidating, saved lives and a schoolhouse.
What gems to discuss with my girls: an individual's gifts, finding one's place in a community, hidden talents, excelling in school vs. excelling in "the real world", the almost impossible job of the classroom teacher (their father, after all, is one) who has to keep order and sometimes exert a control she despises, and the fairness and humility of a good teacher who can admit that a difficult student just might not be so difficult after all, all things considered.
All of this ... thanks to one little scene from Caddie Woodlawn.