From the Children’s Friend, February 1924 –
By Elsie Chamberlain Carroll
For several weeks the Sixth Grade had been studying about great heroes – particularly about Washington and Lincoln because their birthdays come in February.
“To be a hero one must be brave,” the teacher had said over and over. “One must have courage. Courage to do difficult things – almost impossible things. Heroes are never cowards.”
And always when the teacher came to this part of her moralizing after her stories, Tommy Dickerson would visibly shrink in his seat and lower his eyes that he might not see the scornful or pitying glances cast in his direction. For all of the Sixth Grade knew that Tommy was a coward. And “such a silly, sissy coward” the boys expressed it. Why, he was afraid of the dark and would tremble at the touch of a feather or any soft wooly object and would turn deathly pale at the sight of blood.
One would naturally think that Tommy would get used to the jibes and jeers this weakness brought upon him, but he never did. There was always a sickening dread lurking in his soul that he would expose his weakness in a new way. And more and more each year he dreaded the month of February when in every class the hero idea was emphasized. For no one knew – except Miss Tracy his teacher when he was in the second grade – how he longed to be a hero.
If only he dared to ride like Bill Palmer had done, clear over to Mill Creek in the middle of the night for a doctor when Granny Saunders was ill. Or if he could help when anyone was hurt like Pete Dyer who washed Danny Duncan’s head that time he fell from the ledge during the class hike. Peter had cleansed and bandaged the wound almost as well as a doctor could have done it.
Most of Tommy’s spare time was spent in reading hero stories. Miss Tracy, his beloved second grade teacher who had early discovered his weakness had recommended this. She seemed more than anyone else to understand and to sympathize with him. In fact she knew a man who had been a physical coward when he was a boy and later by sheer force of will had become a hero.
Always Miss Tracy had encouraged him and spared his feelings and tried to help him. But later teachers had not understood, and as he grew larger his condition became all the more humiliating.
Miss Tracy used to say: “Keep thinking brave thoughts, Tommy, and reading about brave men and trying hard to overcome your fear and someday you will conquer it just as my cousin Jim did.”
She used even to try and help him in actual practice. Once after school when he had remained to tell her about a new story he had read she coaxed him to climb the ladder out in the storeroom which led up through the manhole into the attic. To please her he started up. But when he reached the upper end of the ladder and looked at the dark hole yawning above him he grew dizzy and came staggering back down the ladder as everything went black and smothery. She had gathered him in her arms and cried over him, but even after that she had continued to encourage him.
“Someday if you keep on trying hard and thinking courage – when a great need comes, you will find courage to do the act that must be done. And when you have once triumphed over your fear it will not haunt you any more.”
He had always remembered those words and several times he had tried to meet great emergencies. For instance two years ago when the big flood came down Mill Creek someone needed to cross the swaying bridge before it went down, to carry ropes for old man Horton who lived across the creek and whose cabin was almost surrounded by water.
No one would ever know how hard Tommy had tried to make himself volunteer. But the swirling water made his head swim and he felt sure he would faint. It was Pete who had seized the rope and with a ringing shout had dashed over the dangerous bridge. And Tommy was larger than either Pete or Bill. In fact he was one of the largest boys in Room Six. That made his cowardice all the more humiliating.
The girls, most of them, scorned him. And worse than that, he knew that pretty little Mollie Durnell pitied him. She tried to be friendly but he drew instinctively away from all his associates, feeling himself unworthy of respect and comradeship.
That is the way things stood with Tommy Dickerson that afternoon of Feb. 18th – just three days before the big Washington’s Birthday celebration on which occasion a medal was to be given by the Town Civic League to the bravest boy in South Bend. A committee had been investigating cases of distinguished bravery for several weeks back.
Tommy knew that Pete’s crossing the Mill Creek bridge had made him a candidate for the prize, and so was Harry Dover who had stood for three hours holding up a plank to save his little brother Ned from being crushed the time they were out camping with Vick Norris and the old Norris cabin had blown over in the night. Ned had been pinned under the ruins and the boys had partially extricated him when a heavy plank became dislodged and would have crushed Ned had not Harry caught and held it. Vick could not free Ned alone and Harry had stood for three hours holding the plank while Vick had gone to town for help.
There had been other commendable exhibitions of courage during the year but the general opinion seemed to be that the prize would go either to Harry or to Pete.
As Tommy walked alone from the room at the afternoon recess he was thinking how wonderful it would seem to Pete and Harry. They were real heroes. They didn’t know how it felt to be a coward.
The boy walked listlessly as usual out of the door and around to the south side of the building where the other children were playing in the snow. He made no effort to join them in the sport.
A few hundred yards west of the building in which the higher classes were held, stood the old schoolhouse – a low frame structure of three rooms in which the first two grades still convened as the new building was not yet completed. These school buildings stood on a knoll out from town several blocks.
The day was unusually cold. Tommy could see the children of the first and second grades huddled against the old building. He wondered if Miss Tracy still hated to send them out on cold days as she used to when he was in her room. He had heard her argue with Miss Bicknell, the principal, over the wisdom of the rule that all children must go out at recess. Miss Tracy always considered the children individually and collectively. It was because of her unusual understanding of his own weakness that made Tommy worship her.
There was a sudden cry of alarm from a group of children who had been running around the two buildings.
“Fire! Fire!” They screamed and pointed to the old schoolhouse. Tommy looked. Sure enough, there was an unusual volume of black smoke coming from the old chimney and now and then a darting flame of red could be seen shooting up from the south end of the building.
The cry soon spread. The children were excitedly called from the building structure. Miss Bicknell and other teachers hurried from the new building. Miss Rogers, the first grade teacher was with them. Suddenly she gave a cry of horror.
“Miss Tracy!” she cried. “She’s in the store room sorting out books – and the inside knob is off the door. She asked me to open it when I came back.”
Tommy heard and at once understood the peril of his adored friend. He seemed paralyzed.
“Come on!” shouted Miss Bicknell who had been dispatching some of the older boys to town to give the alarm. “Someone must go in and open that door.”
The store room was back of the main room which had been partitioned for the first and second grade classes.
There was a mad rush for the south side of the old building where the outside door was located.
It took only an instant to see that the southwest corner of the building was a mass of flames which were spreading rapidly toward the outside door, already almost hidden by dense clouds of smoke.
A hush fell on the teachers and pupils who stood and realized the peril of one of their number. At any moment the walls and roof might crash in.
It was Miss Rogers who first found her voice after the horror stricken pause which had fallen on the entire group.
“O, we must save her. She’s locked in that store room. Someone must run through the smoke and open that door.”
There was another hush. For an instant more they all stood dazed and questioning.
Then the strange tumult which had been surging within Tommy Dickerson’s soul took form. The dreadful nausea and blindness which had threatened to overpower him gave way. He seemed to be hearing his beloved teacher saying once again:
“Keep thinking brave thoughts, Tommy, and reading about brave deeds and trying hard to overcome your fear and someday you’ll conquer it.”
Suddenly Tommy realized that his great moment had come. If he could not face danger to save Miss Tracy he knew he could never face it, and unless he conquered that despised fear, life was not worth living. He’d be glad to die in the burning building.
As his great purpose took shape, in less time than it takes to tell it, he saw Harry and Pete looking questioningly at each other. Evidently it was up to one of them. They were both about to dart toward the burning building, when Tommy, his pulses pounding, his eyes and nostrils dilated and his face ashen white, shot by them and before anyone could realize what had happened he had rushed through the school house door from which now poured volumes of smoke to mingle with the clouds already on the outside.
“Tommy!” Gasped more than one spectator in incredulous amazement.
The seconds seemed like hours as they waited for him to reappear.
Men were now running from the village, and frightened women were hurrying up the hill.
The flames were leaping nearer and nearer the door. Timbers were beginning to crack.
At last Tommy appeared in the doorway, half dragging, half carrying the unconscious teacher. His clothes were smouldering; his hair was singed; his hands were blistered, and as soon as eager arms reached forth to relieve him of his burden he crumpled in an unconscious heap in the snow.
* * *
Tommy opened his eyes as he heard footsteps of several people in the hall and the rustle of someone entering his room. His mother bent over him, gently touching his bandaged hands as they lay on the outside of the bedcovers.
“Tommy, here is Miss Tracy. Do you feel strong enough to see her a few minutes?” Tommy nodded.
His beloved teacher came and stood beside him. For a moment she could not speak. Her eyes were blurred with the tears she was trying to choke back.
“Tommy,” at last she breathed.
“You saved my life!” His shining fearless eyes met hers and he smiled a crooked little smile.
“I couldn’t have done it for anyone else but you,” he confided, “not that time – but I could again. I have conquered. Miss Tracy, that did it. I can’t tell you how grand it feels not to be a coward.”
“There is just one thing grander, Tommy, and that is to feel you are a hero. Mr. Adams is waiting out in the hall for me to tell him he can come in and pin the Bravery Medal on you. It is Washington’s birthday, you know, and as you couldn’t come to the program the committee sent their chairman here to decorate you.
“O,” breathed Tommy. “Now I know I am going to get well.”