Bound to Rise

by Horatio Alger

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Chapter IV. A Sum in Arithmetic

Harry kept on his way to school, and arrived just the bell rang. Many of my readers have seen a country schoolhouse, and will not be surprised to learn that the one in which our hero obtained his education was far from stately or ornamental, architecturally speaking. It was a one-story structure, about thirty feet square, showing traces of having been painted once, but standing greatly in need of another coat. Within were sixty desks, ranged in pairs, with aisles running between them. On one side sat the girls, on the other the boys. These were of all ages from five to sixteen. The boys' desks had suffered bad usage, having been whittled and hacked, and marked with the initials of the temporary occupants, with scarcely an exception. I never knew a Yankee boy who was not the possessor of a knife of some kind, nor one who could resist the temptation of using it for such unlawful purposes. Even our hero shared the common weakness, and his desk was distinguished from the rest by "H. W." rudely carved in a conspicuous place.

The teacher of the school for the present session was Nathan Burbank, a country teacher of good repute, who usually taught six months in a year, and devoted the balance of the year to surveying land, whenever he could get employment in that line, and the cultivation of half a dozen acres of land, which kept him in vegetables, and enabled him to keep a cow. Altogether he succeeded in making a fair living, though his entire income would seem very small to many of my readers. He was not deeply learned, but his education was sufficient to meet the limited requirements of a country school.

This was the summer term, and it is the usual custom in New England that the summer schools should be taught by females. But in this particular school the experiment had been tried, and didn't work. It was found that the scholars were too unruly to be kept in subjection by a woman, and the school committee had therefore engaged Mr. Burbank, though, by so doing, the school term was shortened, as he asked fifty per cent. higher wages than a female teacher would have done. However, it was better to have a short school than an unruly school, and so the district acquiesced.

Eight weeks had not yet passed since the term commenced, and yet this was the last day but one. To-morrow would be examination day. To this Mr. Burbank made reference in a few remarks which he made at the commencement of the exercises.

He was rather a tall, spare man, and had a habit of brushing his hair upward, thus making the most of a moderate forehead. Probably he thought it made him look more intellectual.

"Boys and girls," he said, "to-morrow is our examination day. I've tried to bring you along as far as possible toward the temple of learning, but some of you have held back, and have not done as well as I should like--John Plympton, if you don't stop whispering I'll keep you after school--I want you all to remember that knowledge is better than land or gold. What would you think of a man who was worth a great fortune, and couldn't spell his name?--Mary Jones, can't you sit still till I get through?--It will be well for you to improve your opportunities while you are young, for by and by you will grow up, and have families to support, and will have no chance to learn--Jane Quimby, I wish you would stop giggling, I see nothing to laugh at--There are some of you who have studied well this term, and done the best you could. At the beginning of the term I determined to give a book to the most deserving scholar at the end of the term. I have picked out the boy, who, in my opinion, deserves it--Ephraim Higgins, you needn't move round in your seat. You are not the one."

There was a general laugh here, for Ephraim was distinguished chiefly for his laziness.

The teacher proceeded:

"I do not mean to tell you to-day who it is. To-morrow I shall call out his name before the school committee, and present him the prize. I want you to do as well as you can to-morrow. I want you to do yourselves credit, and to do me credit, for I do not want to be ashamed of you. Peter Shelby, put back that knife into your pocket, and keep it there till I call up the class in whittling."

There was another laugh here at the teacher's joke, and Peter himself displayed a broad grin on his large, good-humored face.

"We will now proceed to the regular lessons," said Mr. Burbank, in conclusion. "First class in arithmetic will take their places."

The first class ranked as the highest class, and in it was Harry Walton.

"What was your lesson to-day?" asked the teacher.

"Square root," answered Harry.

"I will give you out a very simple sum to begin with. Now, attention all! Find the square root of 625. Whoever gets the answer first may hold up his hand."

The first to hold up his hand was Ephraim Higgins.

"Have you got the answer?" asked Mr. Burbank in some surprise. "Yes, sir."

"State it."


"How did you get it?"

Ephraim scratched his head, and looked confused. The fact was, he was entirely ignorant of the method of extracting the square root, but had slyly looked at the slate of his neighbor, Harry Walton, and mistaken the 25 for 45, and hurriedly announced the answer, in the hope of obtaining credit for the same.

"How did you get it?" asked the teacher again.

Ephraim looked foolish.

"Bring me your slate."

Ephraim reluctantly left his place, and went up to Mr. Burbank.

"What have we here?" said the teacher. "Why, you have got down the 625, and nothing else, except 45. Where did you get that answer?"

"I guessed at it," answered Ephraim, hard pressed for an answer, and not liking to confess the truth--namely, that he had copied from Harry Walton.

"So I supposed. The next time you'd better guess a little nearer right, or else give up guessing altogether. Harry Walton, I see your hand up. What is your answer?"

"Twenty-five, sir."

"That is right."

Ephraim looked up suddenly. He now saw the explanation of his mistake.

"Will you explain how you did it? You may go to the blackboard, and perform the operation once more, explaining as you go along, for the benefit of Ephraim Higgins, and any others who guessed at the answer. Ephraim, I want you to give particular attention, so that you can do yourself more credit next time. Now Harry, proceed."

Our hero explained the sum in a plain, straightforward way, for he thoroughly understood it.

"Very well," said the schoolmaster, for this, rather than teacher, is the country name of the office. "Now, Ephraim, do you think you can explain it?"

"I don't know, sir," said Ephraim, dubiously."

"Suppose you try. You may take the same sum."

Ephraim advanced to the board with reluctance, for he was not ambitious, and had strong doubts about his competence for the task."

"Put down 625."

Ephraim did so.

"Now extract the square root. What do you do first?"

"Divide it into two figures each."

"Divide it into periods of two figures each, I suppose you mean. Well, what will be the first period?"

"Sixty-two," answered Ephraim.

"And what will be the second?"

"I don't see but one other figure."

"Nor I. You have made a mistake. Harry, show to point it off."

Harry Walton did so.

"Now what do you do next?"

"Divide the first figure by three."

"What do you do that for?"

Ephraim didn't know. It was only a guess of his, because he knew that the first figure of the answer was two, and this would result from dividing the first figure by three.

"To bring the answer," he replied.

"And I suppose you divide the next period by five, for the same reason, don't you?"

"Yes, sir."

"You may take your seat, sir. You are an ornament to the class, and you may become a great mathematician, if you live to the age of Methuselah. I rather think it will take about nine hundred years for you to reach that, point."

The boys laughed. They always relish a joke at the expense of a companion, especially when perpetrated by the teacher.

"Your method of extracting the square root is very original. You didn't find it in any arithmetic, did you?"

"No, sir."

"So I thought. You'd better take out a patent for it. The next boy may go to the board."

I have given a specimen of Mr. Burbank's method of conducting the school, but do not propose to enter into further details at present. It will doubtless recall to some of my readers experiences of their own, as the school I am describing is very similar to hundreds of country schools now in existence, and Mr. Burbank is the representative of a large class.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.