Thorntree – Chapter 6

VI. School the First.

The shattering of his solitude; the birth of his isolation; society convenes; a revelation; a near miss.

Well and enough! But the time has come that we must summon the initial true moments of Samuel’s life, and the troubles that were brought down on him from the very first.

“From the very first,” we say. “Was it as early as that?” counters another. Yet — was it not even “before the very first”? The ancients speculated on the soul’s life before our birth: and what man, recognizing that this barge of our body floats aloft in the world already laden with so much cargo from the very first, can suppose that they were simply childish in their reasoning? Nay, but some trials are spun around us like a second skin; we could not avoid them if we wanted nothing more. And I do not believe we go too far to say that Samuel faced already in his earliest days just such an ineluctable trial.

He did not attend pre-school, being permitted the alternative by his age. He spent his earliest years in an abnormal solitude, almost an incipient asociality, finding himself much in the company of adults and seldom, if ever, in the company of persons his own age. Sara and Cody, to whom Samuel had come rather late, had no friends with children of any age nearing Samuel’s — sign of the times, to be sure — and there was no family, near nor distant, to make up the lack. He had uncles and aunts enough, many dwelling or at least residing in cities not long distant to Silverspur — but somehow, no cousins, so that the tree of his family were threatened with truncation, and its branches all set to wither after that final generation was perished. Indeed, its very continuation rested now solely on Samuel and Samuel’s most personal decision. He, the last living branch of a millennial tree, with a single question wrapped firm around him like bark: was he meant to shoot out new sprouts, or to bear bloom, or to die fruitless and damn the entire trunk below him, as futility and error?

But that is the question, not only with Samuel, but with any human being — is it not? And we, as of yet early come to these matters, are concerned with but one consequence of this question, and a consequence of an after all very local and “subjective” importance: namely, that Samuel’s first immersion into the world of his peers came at a strangely late age, already in kindergarten. We are not entitled to blame all that followed on this fact; it was not the heart of the beast, but only the spur to send the beast to its rage. For it is hard enough for any child, that mixture of angel and animal, to accustom itself to the strange world of incomprehensible and unnatural obligations known as “society.” And for a child like Samuel —

But let us try as we might to figure for ourselves the mind of this boy on his first day of school, all the enigmatic newness of it. It makes an epoch in his life, and its character will already determine so much of what is to follow. Consider: here is the child. He is unsure what is befalling him; he senses only that a momentous change is upon him, and that the routines, habits, and banalities of his days hitherto are about to be turned upon their very heads in some unspeakable upheaval. He knows he is going to some new place — hardly does he comprehend why, or what he is to do there. He knows he is to be surrounded by others his age, in such numbers as he has likely never encountered; but wherefore must remain one of those mysteries eternally enshrouding the doings of adults. There must sure be childish fear and childish hope in our little soul; there must be anticipation and expectation, excitement and dread — but to which of these antipodes his new experience itself shall most incline, he hasn’t any means of predicting, nor would know how to go about such scrying work even if he did. His being is coiled into a tension which it has likely never before tried; he is immersed into emotions and imaginings and even rudimentary passions which are to him thoroughly unfamiliar, frightening and alien in themselves, and the nature of which is yet to be decided, yet to be revealed — like the tracks of some unknown animal upon the snow, that he must follow whether he will or no, not knowing what manner of beast he shall find in its den, nor comprehending to what danger or to what delight he is proposing himself. Does it not seem that the child’s whole future is placed now upon the scales, even already on the first day of his new adventure? Does it not seem that his entire relation to school — and thence to education, and friendship, and society — and thence to a countless host of other human matters, both elemental and incidental — is here, if not to be defined and dictated, still very much to be hardened into an initial mold by his first days and weeks in this new, unforeseeable world? Here, the tracks are laid down, the momentum set; here, the train of his life is strongly thrown upon its first thrust through society. To make a change after the beginning is no easy feat; and there is a decision, cast like the judgement of a hidden god, that already weighs upon his life in his first hour in the schoolroom.

In so uncertain and unprepared and overwhelming a state, little Samuel arrived at school, where he was committed all at a toss from his peaceful adolescence into the fuss and noise and frenzy of better than a dozen of his comrades. We imagine him shrinking into himself amidst this unpleasant racket; we imagine him, the shy, strange, beautiful green-eyed boy who stands, uncertain and stand-offish and perhaps even a touch aloof, if so adultish a trait can be ascribed to so boyish a figure, as his companions all take to their puerile introductions and their initial, testing play. We imagine him sidling off to some space he marks as his own, trying to recapture the quiet, self-absorbed world to which he is accustomed, only to find his sanctum quickly invaded by some new “classmate,” so that he must negotiate this stranger, mainly by shirking him, fleeing fugitive-like to some unpeopled spot in that densing crowd. We imagine him approached now and again by some curious boy or girl — the tentative reaching out, the uneasy yearning, the crossing of some secret boundary — and Samuel retracting, recoiling into himself, looking at that other child with something akin to a hurt wonder, and at last escaping once more, to reclaim his own company yet again. We imagine all this so far: for the rest, we need not imagine. The rest was marked in a way in his very history, recorded in the notes of the teacher herself to Samuel’s parents, like the trail of the first crack along an avalanche’s fault line.

It was a time for the children to become acquainted with each other, and for the teacher to begin to learn her pupils’ names, to divine their personalities and to get a sense of the character of that organism called her “class.” Samuel had taken to himself again, and had found a tiny plastic dinosaur, of the carnivorous variety as he best liked, and with which he was making an earnest and intent play, as if to forget or ignore the sudden turmoil surrounding him. A lively frank boy approached and gruffly demanded the toy; Samuel ignored order and child alike. The boy attempted to take it in hand, gamely, as one accustomed to play — a scuffle ensued, Samuel looking straight down, his tiny lips compressed, his hands clinging obstinately — the teacher intervened — Samuel fell silent (proudly silent, dare we claim of a child of so few years?) as his rival with practiced ease justified himself — and the toy was withdrawn from the one child and yielded to the other. And in conclusion to the scene, Samuel is reprimanded, perhaps mildly but at any rate unexpectedly, for refusing to share with a “new friend.”

Would have been something even this! But the second time the same series of events unfolded, an improvised and much simplified lecture was delivered regarding fairness and treating others with respect. And when still the third time, and a fourth and a fifth, proved he had not learned the lesson, then Samuel was punished in the way the very young are sometimes punished in our schools: he was set apart in a corner of the room, alone and without distraction or play. Around his life already, the vines of a strangling isolation began to take their winding hold —

We speak as if the school did all this, but that is false. The school was house to a drama. It did what it was instituted to do, what it needed do as the representative of a society; and Samuel, but a child, reacted precisely as his untutored nature bid him. It was in the end a conflict of dumb forces, one inscribed in law, the other infused more profoundly in spirit and flesh. It was nothing more and nothing less than a conflict inevitable. It could not help but come, and coming, could not fail to persist.

For Samuel, beholden to the law within, reacted to his punishment in a way few children would: he withdrew yet the more into himself, resolved somehow never to bow before that power that had once so unfairly spurned him. Or perhaps he somehow lacked the means to interpret this punishment rightly, and saw it not as a means of molding his behavior but as an assault on his very person; and this led him to all the quietude of a young shame and a stiff recalcitrance. Or perhaps there truly was a pride in him already that lifted up its fiery head, despite the fact it could not comprehend the situation nor weight the right or wrong of it.

Regardless of the cause, it was so. From the very first day, Samuel detached himself from his peers and also from his teacher, and would do as little as he could of what the class demanded. He would seldom speak and sometimes refused to participate in the activities of the class. He was caught daydreaming incessantly, as though trying to flee in his mind to a place his body was no longer sanctioned to take him. And it was not long before the first terrible danger to him approached him — the first easy slide under the bubbling waters.

To his teacher, he was but a sullen, fractious, reticent boy, moody and largely unpleasant, and she expressed her concerns early to his parents, with all due, if somewhat hypocritical, concealment of the personal note they contained. Samuel’s parents, in turn, attempted to reason with their little son, sought with every means at their disposal to initiate him into what remained to him the mysteries of his right social status. They invited several of his classmates and their parents to visit him in their home: but each time, he fled the room, or hid morosely behind his parents’ legs, glaring out at the intruder, and would not speak or play until the disturbance had been removed. His parents at the extremes of their apprehension threatened him with punishments — the loss of his toys, restriction to his room, even his occasional subtraction from dinner — and, as ever, he accepted his punishments stoically as they came, but would not change his ways. Indeed, rather than rectifying his behavior in school, his parents’ earnest efforts seemed only to compromise his happiness at home. All the mirth disappeared from him as though the world were become sieve to his boyish joy, and the dregs that remained settled into him in black despondency, so very incongruous with such youth. He no longer set his plays for his relatives, no longer wished to stalk through the forests and the hills wielding sticks like swords against the presumed monsters there, no longer displayed any interest in any of the things that had hitherto so captivated him. He trudged sullen through his house, evidently aimless and without purpose, and in a show of terrible precocity refused even to smile. The Thornfields, in exasperation and anxiety, met with the school counselor and asked for advice. And a meeting was arranged together with Samuel’s teacher.

The counselor and the teacher delivered their opinions as gently as they could. Samuel Thornfield was a troubled boy. He could barely read, was not learning to write or even to count. He was anti-social, refused to play with the other children, and constantly neglected the basic rules of the classroom regarding fair-play, sharing, and respect. He was forgetful, lost things constantly, seemed a daydreamer, atimes seemed not to be listening at all. Had he any ability to focus, they wondered? He was indeed often obstinately disobedient — or so they believed, though he was never noisy or showy about it — and sometimes the teacher even suspected he nursed some inexplicable hatred for her. He seldom seemed happy, and, though nothing of the sort had yet happened, she feared there might even be the potential for violence lurking beneath his ominous silence.

It was the school’s considered opinion that Samuel in all likelihood had a learning disability, perhaps a severe one, which might be coupled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other, more obscure psychological difficulties. This was not necessarily a reflection on his intelligence, they quickly added — but it was, at least without some kind of firm and appropriate intervention, an insurmountable impediment to his continued education. It was likely Samuel would need to begin a regimen of psychiatric pharmaceuticals (a doctor was recommended who could prescribe the right stuff), and it was recommended that he be put forthwith (probably only temporarily, they hastened to reassure) into what they sweetly called “special education.”

Heavy with these revelations, numb in their failure to comprehend how their brilliant little child, the light of his parents’ life, the actor on the stage of his own making, might have struck against such vicious reefs so early in his days, his parents retreated to their home, and long contemplated and discussed the matter. They debated it long into that evening, and at last agreed that there was nothing to be done, save but what the school suggested.

So Samuel’s life would have taken a radically different course, might have been corrupted and stunted and drawn already at zero, but for an accident that occurred not a week after this conspiratorial meeting. His mother, going about her household duties, entered the living room one Saturday afternoon to find her son sitting on the floor before the bookshelf with a book spread out before him; and so intent was he upon it, he did not even hear her enter. His parents knew he had been reading the children’s books they had bought for him; they themselves had taught him how to read even before kindergarten began, feeling this a way to help ensure his development and to put down a solid foundation for what they, as good parents, hoped would be a successful future. But it was no children’s book sitting split along the spine Samuel on this day, and no engaging and colorful drawings adorned it, such as might distract even a preliterate child or play surrogate for the word. It was a work of fiction for adults, an old book of Edgar Allen Poe that Sara had inherited from an aunt, and far advanced for one who, so far as anyone knew, had yet to be weened from Dr. Seuss.

Suddenly, in the very midst of leafing a page, Samuel became aware of his mother’s presence, and at once pushed the book away from him, as though it had been no affair of his, or he had been but toying with it. But his mother came to him at once, and riddled him with a kind of motherly cross-examination, and insisted in her search, until she had at last plied from the child enough information to discover that, not only had he been reading the book — but he had, in some foggy inchoate way, understood it.

And so, to Samuel’s abiding fortune, the Thornfields did not bend blindly to the vested authorities, nor, as would have been simpler and far more convenient, followed the after all so very modern and practical recommendations of the school. They settled instead on a contrary interpretation of the facts, a radically opposed hypothesis to explain his idiosyncrasy: their child, far from being “learning impaired,” was in point of fact abnormally gifted. This was the key to the riddle, this the root of his tedium in class, his impatience with his teachers, his wild nature, uncomprehended by his peers and uncomprehensive of them. And certain suddenly in the security of this happier view of things, they resolved, on the back of their new notion, to change his school.


The above chapter has been excerpted from the novel Thorntree, by John Bruce Leonard. Chapter 5 can be read here. Chapter 7 can be read here. Thorntree can also be purchased at the following links:

Purchase Thorntree at The Book Depository (Preferred for Europe)

Purchase Thorntree at Barnes & Noble (Preferred for USA)


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