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Thread that Runs so True

About The Book

First published in 1949, Jesse Stuart’s now classic personal account of his twenty years of teaching in the mountain region of Kentucky has enchanted and inspired generations of students and teachers.

With eloquence and wit, Stuart traces his twenty-year career in education, which began, when he was only seventeen years old, with teaching grades one through eight in a one-room schoolhouse. Before long Stuart was on a path that made him principal and finally superintendent of city and county schools. The road was not smooth, however, and Stuart faced many challenges, from students who were considerably older—and bigger—than he to well-meaning but distrustful parents, uncooperative administrators and, most daunting, his own fear of failure. Through it all, Stuart never lost his abiding faith in the power of education. A graceful ode to what he considered the greatest profession there is, Jesse Stuart’s The Thread That Runs So True is timeless proof that “good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.”


Chapter 1

Monday morning when I started on my way to school, I had with me Don Conway, a pupil twenty years of age, who had never planned to enter school again. I was the new teacher here at Lonesome Valley and I didn't know what kind of brains he had. He had left school when he was in the fourth grade. But I did know that he had two good fists and that he would be on my side. All day Sunday while I had worked at the schoolhouse, I was trying to think of a plan so I could stay at Lonesome Valley School. I knew I had to stay. I knew if one had to go it would be Guy Hawkins. I might have to use my head a little but that was why I had it.

It had taken a lot of persuasion to get Don Conway to return to school. He had planned to get married after his tobacco crop was sold. But I explained the value of an education to him in dollars and cents. I told him I would teach him how to measure a field and figure the number of acres, how to figure the number of bushels in a wagon bed, cornbin, and how many cubic yards of dirt one would have to remove to dig a cellar or a well. Don Conway was interested in this type of knowledge. I told him no man should be married and live on a farm unless he knew these simple things, for he could easily be cheated the rest of his days. I was interested in his learning these things all right, but I was interested in something else.

Don, his two small brothers, his sister Vaida, and I went to school together. I congratulated John Conway for sending all his children but one. I told him he should set the example for other farmers on the creek. It would have been hard on John to try to worm and sucker his ten acres of tobacco and care for his other crops if Flossie, his older daughter, had not volunteered to help him. And Bertha, his wife, assured him she would divide her time between the housework and work in the field.

Flossie, eighteen years old, who had left school six years ago, would gladly have started back to school if I had insisted. But I knew John and Bertha had to have someone left to help them. I insisted and almost begged Don to return to school when he and I were sitting on the porch late one Sunday afternoon and Ova Salyers and Guy Hawkins rode past on their horses. They glanced toward the porch for their first look at the new teacher, never spoke but rode silently down the road.

Don Conway looked at Guy Hawkins and Ova Salyers and then he looked at me. He didn't ask me how old I was. I didn't tell him in eighteen more days I would be seventeen. One had to be eighteen before he was old enough to teach school. Don Conway knew the fate of my sister when she was employed to teach the Lonesome Valley School. He knew how Guy Hawkins had blacked her eyes with his fists, had whipped her before the Lonesome Valley pupils. She was a fair-haired, beautiful blue-eyed girl of nineteen when she had come to Lonesome Valley. She went home a nervous wreck, long before her school was finished. After I'd seen the way my sister was beaten up, I begged to go to Lonesome Valley. My parents would have none of it. They thought if I went hunting trouble I would get more than my share.

But I made the mistake at Landsburgh High School of going to the wrong room. I'd forgotten the Greenwood County rural teachers were having "teacher's examination" in our American literature room. And when Superintendent Harley Staggers, who didn't know all his teachers, mistook me for a rural teacher an idea came to me. I knew the school I wanted if I passed the examination. I made a second-class certificate. Then I had John Hampton, a rural teacher and friend, contact John Conway and get the school for me. Superintendent Staggers didn't want me to go to Lonesome Valley. But there wasn't anything he could do about it after John Conway, Lonesome Valley District School trustee, recommended me. That was why I was here to teach school.

When Don and I reached the schoolhouse, at least thirty-five pupils were there waiting outside. Guy Hawkins and Ova Salyers were standing together near the coalhouse with their torn-and-tattered, first-grade books. They looked out of place with the other pupils. They were larger than either Don or me. They were older too. They looked at me when I said "Good morning" to them. Many of the pupils turned shyly away and did not speak. They were waiting for the schoolhouse to be unlocked so they could rush in and select their seats. Each had his dinner basket or bucket in his hand. The majority of them carried tattered-edged and backless books.

I thought we had reached the schoolhouse very early. It wasn't eight o'clock and school didn't start until eight-thirty. The July sun hadn't dried the dew from parts of the valley yet; dew was ascending in white formless clouds from the tobacco, cane, and corn patches. But the people in Lonesome Valley went to bed early and got up early. All of the pupils in Lonesome Valley came from farms.

The girls wore pigtails down their backs tied with all colors of ribbons. They wore clean print dresses and they were barefooted. Not one pupil in my school, large or small, boy or girl, wore a pair of shoes. I'd never seen in my life so many barefooted people, young, middle-aged, and old, as I had seen in Lonesome Valley. Wearing gloves on their hands in summer was the same to them as wearing shoes on their feet. They just didn't do it.

"Well, I'm opening the door," I said, to break the silence of my pupils.

When I opened the door they laughed, screamed, and raced for the schoolhouse. Their shyness was gone now. There was a mad scramble to get inside the schoolhouse for seats. Then there was some discussion among them as to who would sit by whom. Girls had selected their seatmates. There were a few controversies and a few hurt feelings. Often two pupils wanted to sit by the same person. No trouble with Guy and Ova. They walked inside reluctantly and sat down in a seat on the boys' side farthest from my desk.

"Now let me make an announcement to you before school starts," I said, after walking up to my desk. "There will not any longer be a girls' side and a boys' side. Sit anyplace you want to."

They looked strangely at one another. Not one boy would cross to the girls' side. Not one girl would cross to the boys' side. In Lonesome Valley it was hard to break a teaching tradition more than a century old. But after I had been to high school, where there were no such things as a girls' side and a boys' side in a schoolroom, I didn't see why it wouldn't work in Lonesome Valley. Little did I dream that what I had said here would make news in Lonesome Valley, that it would be talked about by everybody, and that many would criticize me and call my school "a courting school." Boys and girls sitting together? Who had ever heard tell of it?

The schedules were not made out for the teachers at the Superintendent's office. No one had ever heard of such routine. Each teacher had to make his own schedule. And that was what I had done long before I left home for Lonesome Valley. I knew what I had to teach and I went to work, making out my schedule and dividing my time as accurately as possible for my six hours of actual work. I had to conduct fifty-four classes in this time, for I had pupils from the chart class to and including the eighth grade.

When I walked down the broad center aisle and pulled on the bell rope, the soft tones sounded over the tobacco, corn, and cane fields and the lush green valley; with the ringing of this bell, my school had begun. I knew that not half the pupils in the school census were here. There were 104 in the school census, of school age, for whom the state sent per capita money to pay for their schooling. I had thirty.five pupils. I thought the soft tones of this school bell through the rising mists and over warm cultivated fields where parents and their children were trying to eke out a bare subsistence from the soil might bring back warm memories of happy school days. For I remembered the tones of the Plum Grove school bell, and how I had longed to be back in school after I had quit at the age of nine to work for twenty-five cents a day to help support my family. If I could have, I would have returned to school when I heard the Plum Grove bell. So I rang the bell and called the Lonesome Valley pupils back to school -- back to books and play. For going to school had never been work to me. It had been recreation. And I hoped it would be the same for my pupils in Lonesome Valley.

During my first day all I did was enroll my pupils in their classes, call them up front to the recitation seat and give them assignments in the few textbooks they possessed. At that time, the textbooks were not furnished by the state. Each pupil had to furnish his own. If he didn't, there was a meager allotment of cash set aside by the Greenwood County School Board of Education to buy books for those whose parents were not able to buy them. I knew that many would buy books after the tobacco crops had been sold or the cane had been made into sorghum and sold. These were the money crops in Lonesome Valley.

While enrolling my pupils, I made some temporary changes in seating arrangements. I often put a pupil without books beside a pupil with books, if they were in the same grade. As I enrolled the pupils, I tried to remember and familiarize myself with each name. I tried to get acquainted with my pupils. I found them very shy. I was a stranger among them, though I had grown up under similar circumstances with equivalent opportunities. There were approximately thirty miles separating their Lonesome Valley from my W-Hollow. But I was a stranger here.

When I dismissed my pupils for the first recess, a fifteen-minute period between the beginning of the school day and the noon hour, I was amazed to see them all jump up from their seats at the same time and try to be the first out of the house. Big pupils pushed past the little ones and there was so much confusion and disorder, I knew they would never leave the room like this again. Why were they running? I wondered. I had a few minutes' work to do before I could join them on the playground. Before I had finished this work, I heard the tenor of their uneven voices singing these familiar words:

The needle's eye that does supply,

The thread that runs so true,

Many a beau, have I let go,

Because I wanted you.

Many a dark and stormy night,

When I went home with you,

I stumped my toe and down I go,

Because I wanted you.

I walked to the door and watched them. They had formed a circle, hand in hand, and around and around they walked and sang these words while two pupils held their locked hands high for the circle to pass under. Suddenly the two standing -- one inside the circle and one outside -- let their arms drop down to take a pupil from the line. Then the circle continued to march and sing while the two took the pupil aside and asked him whether he would rather be a train or an automobile. If the pupil said he'd rather be an automobile, he stood on one side; if a train, he stood on the other of the two that held hands. And when they had finished taking everybody from the circle, the two groups faced each other, lined up behind their captains. Each put his arms around the pupil in front of him and locked his hands. The first line to break apart or to be pulled forward lost the game.

Fifteen minutes were all too short for them to play "the needle's eye." I let recess extend five minutes so they could finish their second game. It had been a long time since I had played this game at Plum Grove. These words brought back pleasant memories. They fascinated me. And my Lonesome Valley pupils played this game with all the enthusiasm and spirit they had! They put themselves into it -- every pupil in school. Not one stood by to watch. Because they were having the time of their lives, I hated to ring the bell for "books." I lined them up, smaller pupils in front and larger ones behind, and had them march back into the schoolroom.

Guy Hawkins and Ova Salyers were the last on the line. When they came inside the door, Guy asked permission to go with Ova after a bucket of water. We didn't have a well or a cistern at the schoolhouse. We had to get water from some home in the district. I told them they could go but not to be gone too long, for the pupils, after running and playing, were thirsty. The July sun beat down on the galvanized tin roof. This made the pine boards so hot inside they oozed resin. We raised all the windows but still the place was hot as the room in which I slept at Conways'. My little room upstairs with a high unscreened window of only one sash didn't cool off until about midnight. Then, I could go to sleep.

I knew the reason that all the rural schools had to begin in July, though the farmers had objected because they needed their children at home to help with farm work. Rural schools began early because coal was an added expense for winter months. The county schools all over the state had barely enough funds to keep them going, and ii they could have school during the hot months it sheared away a great expense from their budgets. But it was hard on the children and the teachers.

The first bucket of water Guy and Ova brought didn't last five minutes. The majority of the pupils were still thirsty. I sent Guy and Ova back for more, telling them to borrow another bucket. I sent them in a hurry. And I knew I had to do something about the dipper problem. At Plum Grove, too, we had all drunk from the same dipper, but when I went to Landsburgh High School I was taught something different.

So I made "an important announcement" to my pupils. I told them each had to bring his own drinking cup the next day. It could be a glass, teacup, gourd, dipper, just so it was his own and no one else drank from it. My pupils looked at one another and laughed as if my announcement was funny. But I had seen sweat run from their faces into the dipper, and the next in line put his mouth where the sweat had run or where the other pupil had put his lips. I noticed, too, several pupils had put the rim up near the handle to their mouths, so I knew they didn't like to drink after the others.

On Tuesday they brought their dippers, tin cups, and glasses. Only a few had forgotten, and I stopped with my busy schedule of class work long enough to teach them how to make paper drinking cups. I showed them how to take a clean sheet of paper from a tablet and fold it to hold water. I gave them a lecture about drinking water. I told them never to drink from a stream. I told them how I had gotten typhoid fever twice: once from drinking cool water from a little stream, and once from drinking in a river. I had my pupils use the dipper to dip water from the bucket into their cups. They accepted my suggestion gladly. I also borrowed another water bucket from Bertha Conway and brought it to school. The one bucket allowed me for thirty-five pupils (and there would be more as soon as the farmers were through with their summer plowing and worming and suckering tobacco, stripping their cane and boiling the juice to syrup) was not enough. They played hard at recess and noon and in the "time of books" sat in a schoolroom almost as hot as a stove oven.

Tuesday when I stood beside Guy Hawkins and showed him how to hold his book when he read, my pupils laughed until I had to stop them. I was trying to teach Guy to read as he stumbled over the simple words in the First Grade Reader. My pupils laughed because Guy was taller by two inches than I was and heavier. He had a bullneck almost as large as his head, and a prominent jaw. His beard was so heavy that he had to shave every day.

Wouldn't Coach Wilson like to have him! I thought. He would make the best tackle Landsburgh High School ever had.

Guy had big hands. His right hand covered the back of his First Reader. And he had powerful arms. The muscles rippled under his clean blue-faded shirt. I measured him as I stood beside him. I knew that if I ever had to fight him, it would be a fight. And I knew that I wasn't going to fight him unless he forced me to fight. He was more powerful physically than I was. And the outcome of our fight might depend on the one who successfully landed the first haymaker to the other's jaw.

Then I looked down at Ova Salyers sitting on the recitation seat beside me. Another tackle for Coach Wilson, I thought. This pair would be a coach's dream. Pity some coach doesn't have 'em instead of me.

If it were not for these two young men, I wouldn't have had any trouble disciplining my school. All the other pupils played hard and they were obedient. They would have been good in their class work if they had had the proper training. I had ten-year-old pupils just starting to school. Nineteen-year-olds in the first grade. Fourteen-year-olds in the second grade. I had one twelve-year-old girl in the eighth grade. They had not been promoted because they had never attended a full school term. They had taken the same grade over and over until they could stand and recite some of the beginning lessons from memory.

"Guy, how long have you been in the first grade?" I asked.

"Oh, about eight years," he laughed.

"You're not going to be in it any longer," I said.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because I'm going to promote you," I said. "Tomorrow you start in the second grade."

Then I had Ova Salyers read. He had also been in the first grade eight years. I promoted him.

When these young men sat down again I saw them look at each other and laugh as if they thought my promoting them was funny. I knew they accepted school as a joke, a place to come and see people. A place where they could join a circle of smaller children and play "the needle's eye." And I knew there wasn't much chance of reasoning with either one. But I had a feeling that time would come. I didn't believe they were coming to school for any good. I felt that Guy was waiting his chance for me. I was not going to take any chances; I was going to give him the full benefit of the doubt.

I had doubted that my second-class certificate and my three years in high school qualified me to teach school. But now, when I measured my knowledge with my pupils', I knew without a doubt that I was an educated man. I had never known that youth could be so poorly trained in school as were my Lonesome Valley pupils. But unless I was chased out of the school, as my sister had been, I was determined to give them the best I had.

Copyright © 1949 by Jesse Stuart

Copyright renewed © 1977 by Jesse Stuart

Preface copyright © 1958 by Jesse Stuart

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (January 1, 1950)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684719047

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Raves and Reviews

Chicago Sun Stuart's joy for living illuminates every page.

Kirkus Reviews A lively, sometimes gripping, story of endurance and dedicated perseverance. Definitely worthwhile reading.

The Nation An entertaining book by a born storyteller.

Harriette Arnow The New York Times Readable and entertaining...He speaks eloquently of the many injustices in educational opportunity that arise from poverty, both in the individual and the unit of government under which he lives.

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