The Strike at Hinman's by Robert J. Burdette
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"The Strike at Hinman's."
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The Strike at Hinman's by Robert J. Burdette
THE STRIKE AT HINMAN'S
BY ROBERT J. BURDETTE
Away back in the fifties, "Hinman's" was not only
the best school in Peoria, but it was the greatest
school in the world. I sincerely thought so then,
and as I was a very lively part of it, I should know.
Mr. Hinman was the Faculty, and he was sufficiently
numerous to demonstrate cube root with one hand and
maintain discipline with the other. Dear old man;
boys and girls with grandchildren love him to-day,
and think of him among their blessings. He was
superintendent of public instruction, board of
education, school trustee, county superintendent,
principal of the high school and janitor. He had a
pleasant smile, a genius for mathematics, and a
West Point idea of obedience and discipline. He
carried upon his person a grip that would make the
imported malady which mocks that name in these
degenerate days, call itself Slack, in very terror
at having assumed the wrong title.
We used to have "General Exercises" on Friday
afternoon. The most exciting feature of this
weekly frivolity consisted of a free-for-all
exercise in mental arithmetic. Mr. Hinman gave
out lists of numbers, beginning with easy ones and
speaking slowly; each succeeding list he dictated
more rapidly and with ever-increasing complications
of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division,
until at last he was giving them out faster than
he could talk. One by one the pupils dropped out
of the race with despairing faces, but always at
the closing peremptory:
At least a dozen hands shot into the air and as
many voices shouted the correct result. We didn't
have many books, and the curriculum of an Illinois
school in those days was not academic; but two
things the children could do, they could spell as
well as the dictionary and they could handle figures.
Some of the fellows fairly wallowed in them. I didn't.
I simply drowned in the shallowest pond of numbers
that ever spread itself on the page. As even unto
this day I do the same.
Well, one year the Teacher introduced an innovation;
"compositions" by the girls and "speakin' pieces" by
the boys. It was easy enough for the girls, who had
only to read the beautiful thought that "spring is
the pleasantest season of the year." Now and then a
new girl, from the east, awfully precise, would begin
her essay--"spring is the most pleasant season of
the year," and her would we call down with derisive
laughter, whereat she walked to her seat, very
stiffly, with a proud dry-eyed look in her face,
only to lay her head upon her desk when she reached
it, and weep silently until school closed. But
"speakin' pieces" did not meet with favor from the
boys, save one or two good boys who were in training
by their parents for congressmen or presidents.
The rest of us, who were just boys, with no desire
ever to be anything else, endured the tyranny of
compulsory oratory about a month, and then resolved
to abolish the whole business by a general revolt.
Big and little, we agreed to stand by each other,
break up the new exercise, and get back to the old
order of things--the hurdle races in mental arithmetic
and the geographical chants which we could run and
Was I a mutineer? Well, say, son, your Pa was a
constituent conspirator. He was in the color guard.
You see, the first boy called on for a declamation
was to announce the strike, and as my name stood very
high--in the alphabetical roll of pupils--I had an
excellent chance of leading the assaulting column,
a distinction for which I was not at all ambitious,
being a stripling of tender years, ruddy countenance,
and sensitive feelings. However, I stiffened the
sinews of my soul, girded on my armor by slipping
an atlas back under my jacket and was ready for the
fray, feeling a little terrified shiver of delight
as I thought that the first lick Mr. Hinman gave me
would make him think he had broken my back.
The hour for "speakin' pieces," an hour big with fate,
arrived on time. A boy named Aby Abbott was called up
ahead of me, but he happened to be one of the presidential
aspirants (he was mate on an Illinois river steamboat,
stern-wheeler at that, the last I knew of him), and of
course he flunked and "said" his piece--a sadly prophetic
selection--"Mr. President, it is natural for man to indulge
in the illusions of hope." We made such suggestive and
threatening gestures at him, however, when Mr. Hinman
wasn't looking, that he forgot half his "piece," broke
down and cried. He also cried after school, a little
more bitterly, and with far better reason.
Then, after an awful pause, in which the conspirators
could hear the beating of each other's hearts, my name
I sat still at my desk and said:
"I ain't goin' to speak no piece."
Mr. Hinman looked gently surprised and asked:
"Why not, Robert?"
"Because there ain't goin' to be any more speakin'
The teacher's eyes grew round and big as he
"Who says there will not?"
I said, in slightly firmer tones, as I realized that
the moment had come for dragging the rest of the
rebels into court:
"All of us boys!"
But Mr. Hinman smiled, and said quietly that he guessed
there would be "a little more speaking before the close
of the session." Then laying his hand on my shoulder,
with most punctilious but chilling courtesy, he invited
me to the rostrum. The "rostrum" was twenty-five feet
distant, but I arrived there on schedule time and only
touched my feet to the floor twice on my way.
And then and there, under Mr. Hinman's judicious
coaching, before the assembled school, with feelings,
nay, emotions which I now shudder to recall, I did my
first "song and dance." Many times before had I stepped
off a solo-cachuca to the staccato pleasing of a
fragment of slate frame, upon which my tutor was a
gifted performer, but never until that day did I
accompany myself with words. Boy like, I had chosen
for my "piece" a poem sweetly expressive of those
peaceful virtues which I most heartily despised. So
that my performance, at the inauguration of the strike,
as Mr. Hinman conducted the overture, ran something
"Oh, not for me (whack) is the rolling (whack) drum,
Or the (whack, whack) trumpet's wild (whack) appeal!
Or the cry (swish--whack) of (boo-hoo-hoo!) war when the
(whack) foe is come (ouch!)
Or the (ow--wow!) brightly (whack) flashing (whack-whack)
steel! (wah-hoo, wah-hoo!)"
Words and symbols can not convey to the most gifted
imagination the gestures with which I illustrated the
seven stanzas of this beautiful poem. I had really
selected it to please my mother, whom I had invited
to be present, when I supposed I would deliver it.
But the fact that she attended a missionary meeting
in the Baptist church that afternoon made me a friend
of missions forever. Suffice it to say, then, that my
pantomime kept pace and time with Mr. Hinman's system
of punctuation until the last line was sobbed and
whacked out. I groped my bewildered way to my seat
through a mist of tears and sat down gingerly and
sideways, inly wondering why an inscrutable providence
had given to the rugged rhinoceros the hide which the
eternal fitness of things had plainly prepared for the
But I quickly forgot my own sorrow and dried my tears
with laughter in the enjoyment of the subsequent acts
of the opera, as the chorus developed the plot and
action. Mr. Hinman, who had been somewhat gentle with
me, dealt firmly with the larger boy who followed, and
there was a scene of revelry for the next twenty minutes.
The old man shook Bill Morrison until his teeth rattled
so you couldn't hear him cry. He hit Mickey McCann, the
tough boy from, the Lower Prairie, and Mickey ran out
and lay down in the snow to cool off. He hit Jake Bailey
across the legs with a slate frame, and it hurt so that
Jake couldn't howl--he just opened his mouth wide, held
up his hands, gasped, and forgot his own name. He pushed
Bill Haskell into a seat and the bench broke.
He ran across the room and reached out for Lem Harkins,
and Lem had a fit before the old man touched him. He
shook Dan Stevenson for two minutes, and when he let
him go, Dan walked around his own desk five times before
he could find it, and then he couldn't sit down without
holding on. He whipped the two Knowltons with a skate-strap
in each hand at the same time; the Greenwood family, five
boys and a big girl, he whipped all at once with a girl's
skipping rope, and they raised such a united wail that
the clock stopped.
He took a twist in Bill Rodecker's front hair, and Bill
slept with his eyes open for a week. He kept the atmosphere
of that school-room full of dust, and splinters, and lint,
weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, until he reached
the end of the alphabet and all hearts ached and wearied
of the inhuman strife and wicked contention. Then he stood
up before us, a sickening tangle of slate frame, strap,
ebony ferule and skipping rope, a smile on his kind old
face, and asked, in clear, triumphant tones:
"WHO says there isn't going to be any more speaking
And every last boy in that school sprang to his feet;
standing there as one human being with one great mouth,
we shrieked in concerted anguish:
And your Pa, my son, who led that strike, has been
"speakin' pieces" ever since.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~
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