15. The First School
We’d been back from the Fair a couple of days, and we were lingering over breakfast, it being too hot to really want to get up and do anything. Frodo had been thinking out loud how he could approach families with children, to talk them into letting their lads come to school.
He gave Sam a look of indescribable innocence, but there was mischief in his eyes.
“Well, I'll be the schoolmaster, of course, since the idea is to give me a break from the writing. So I’d like it to be someplace convenient, and I thought the dining room would do nicely.”
Sam spluttered and choked on his tea. I slapped him on the back and he mopped himself up with his napkin before he answered.
“The dining room – of course! And once you get it all cluttered up with slates and pencils and copybooks and what-all mess a school can provide, there won’t be no choice but for you to take all your meals in the kitchen, will there?”
Frodo shrugged. “I always did prefer the kitchen.” He looked like he was having a hard time keeping a straight face, and when he met Sam's eyes they both laughed.
“Right you are, Mr. Frodo. You’re the master! But when company comes, all that school clutter goes in a basket out to the pantry, and we serve you in the dining room like the gentlehobbit you are, sir.”
It was easy enough for Mr. Frodo to decide to start a school, but not so easy to get students for it. Folk didn’t see much value in having their little ones learn their letters, not when it would keep them from weeding the garden or picking berries or a dozen other chores that Hobbiton youngsters commonly did. In the end it was Sam who found the way to bring them in.
“Feed them,” he said. “Nine chances out of ten, that’s why the Gaffer let Mr. Bilbo teach me – I got second breakfast and many times lunch as well, at Bag End. It takes a lot of grub to fill up young hobbits, and every little bit helps. But don’t think you’ll get ’em to your school during harvest, Mr. Frodo! Their parents need 'em at home then, whether you feed them or not.”
So the school was begun in haste, to get it underway before harvest began. Mr. Frodo went round Hobbiton and down the New Row, talking to the fathers about the usefulness of being able to keep records -- types of seed and crop results, just what sort of harness had been asked for and by whom, who had paid for their order of ironmongery and who had not.
I followed a few days later, visiting with the mothers over cups of tea, promising second breakfast and elevenses and a good noon dinner for any child who came to school. And Sam made it his business to cross paths with as many of the youngsters as he could, telling tantalizing snippets of Elven tales to whet their appetites.
Within a fortnight, we had half-a-dozen little lads perched on the big chairs in the dining room. Lads only, of course. Schools were few and far between in the Shire, and Hobbiton had never had one. To send their lads to school was novelty enough – no chance at all of folks sending their lasses.
I had mentioned to a few of the mothers that I was learning to read, myself, and they looked at me like I'd suddenly grown two heads.
"Well, mayhap you'll find it useful, working up at Bag End, dearie," one of them said at last. "If Mr. Baggins wants to leave you a note what he wants for dinner, say, or that it's time to order more beer…." I smiled and agreed, thankful that she had come up with an acceptable excuse for my odd activity.
The first day we had three students. Hob Goodbody was there, chubby and freckled, a lovable imp. His cousin, Polo Brownlock, taller, with serious brown eyes. And for a wonder, Ted Sandyman's little brother, Fosco.
Sam's eyebrows shot into his bangs when he saw Fosco coming up the walk. "What in the Shire is he doing here?" he muttered to Mr. Frodo. "I never said a word to him about no school."
"I called on his mother, Sam," Mr. Frodo said quietly. "It hasn't been easy for her, you know."
No, it wouldn't have been easy for Bloomie Sandyman. Her husband had died a year or so before the Troubles, and Ted had made enemies a-plenty for the family, toadying to Lotho like he had, and doing his dirty work. I looked sharp at little Fosco. Undersized for his age -- scrawny, even. A tight, thin little face with hooded eyes.
"His mother was very glad for him to have this chance. I suppose she was thinking primarily of the free food, and he certainly looks as if he needs it, wouldn't you say?"
Sam nodded. "He does, for a fact, Mr. Frodo. I just hope he don't break up your school for you – his brother was a rare one for starting trouble, when he was a lad. And he didn't change none."
Frodo shot him an amused glance. "Oh, I think I can manage him, Sam. He can't be much more of a problem than Smeagol!"
Sam shouted with laughter and headed around back to his garden work.
I carried breakfast and elevenses in to them – Mr. Frodo had agreed that the lads should be kept to just the dining room, so's to disrupt the housekeeping as little as might be – and found them busily copying letters on their slates while Frodo went from one to another, helping and correcting. Sam had made the slates, using the one he'd had as a child for a model, and Mr. Pippin had sent over a supply of slate pencils from the school at Great Smials.
"I wonder if he asked the schoolmaster, or just – er – liberated them," Mr. Frodo mused when the box from Tuckborough arrived. There were copybooks, too, and pens, and a large bottle of washable ink.
When I carried noon dinner into the dining room, students and master were gathered by the open window. They had thrown the chair cushions down on the floor to loll about on, and were listening, spellbound, while Mr. Frodo told them of Bilbo and the trolls. Three little mouths were hanging open, three sets of eyes big as saucers. Fosco Sandyman was sitting a little apart from the others, as caught up in the story as any of them.
By week’s end all six lads were coming most days, and the room wasn’t as quiet as it’d been with only the three. The boys got restless as the morning wore on, and Mr. Frodo, he started letting them go outside for a break after elevenses. It gave us a chance to clear the table and spread the cushions on the floor, before he called them in for their story.
After the way he’d talked about stories, legends, before he started the school, I was surprised to see how much time Mr. Frodo gave to telling the lads tales. He was a natural storyteller – listening to him, you felt carried right into the middle of whatever adventure he was recounting -- and I got in the habit of pulling up a chair just outside the open door, catching up on the mending while I listened in. I’m sure he knew I was there but he didn’t seem to mind, and the lads couldn’t see me so it didn’t distract them none.
The first week he told about Bilbo’s adventures. The next week he went back, “Now what Bilbo didn’t know,” he said, and he started telling about the Dwarves, about Moria and how they lost that kingdom, and how Smaug came to the Lonely Mountain. Then he told about the Elves – the Silmarils and Beren and all – and I realized that the tales were really history, but told so enticingly that the lads didn’t think they were having a lesson at all.
And I'm sitting here myself, I thought, listening just for the pleasure of the tale, no matter if it’s real history or not.
But Fosco Sandyman being there was bound to cause trouble eventually. It began with Balco Grubb, the middle of the second week.
Balco was a little older than the others, bigger and stronger, and he wanted no part of school in the first place. His father was blacksmith in Hobbiton, and thought it’d be handy to have someone in the family lettered, to keep accounts. Balco couldn’t refuse to come, with his big, burly father standing over him, but he didn’t have to like it.
He was surly with Mr. Frodo, but Frodo didn’t appear to notice. With the other lads, being older and stronger, he took what he wanted – the sharpest pencil, the fattest cushion, the last cherry tart. They backed off and let him have whatever he’d a mind to grab.
They were outside having their break the day things came to a head. We heard some commotion, shouting, and Balco’s voice ringing over them all.
“Aw, run on home and tell your big, mean brother, little poop-face, and I’ll beat him up too! Your family’s not hot stuff around here no more – why don’t you just pack up and leave? Like it’s not bad enough listening to cracked old Frodo all morning, without having to smell you, too!”
“Why that ungrateful little –“ I began indignantly, but Frodo shushed me.
There was a heartbeat of silence, then a positive roar of noise. Mr. Frodo was out the door with me behind him, but by the time we reached the lads, Sam had broken it up.
He held little Fosco by both arms round the middle, and still the child was struggling to get loose, kicking and trying to push his arms away, wild with rage. Balco stood staring at him, holding his ear, blood dripping onto his shirt.
“Rose, take Balco in the kitchen and clean him up, will you?” Mr. Frodo’s voice was as calm as ever.
I led him away. In the kitchen I took his shirt and set it to soak in cold water while I saw to his ear. It looked as if Fosco had bitten clean through it and tried to tear it off. Another few minutes, I thought, and he might have succeeded.
Sam came in carrying Fosco over one shoulder, still kicking but oddly silent.
“You want down, you’ll have to quit kicking me,” he said to the child. The kicking stopped.
“And stand still, mind! No more fighting!” He slid the lad to the floor but held on to him, just in case. Fosco glared at Balco, but made no move toward him.
Fosco was a mess. Both eyes were blackened and his nose dripped blood. His shirt was half ripped from his skinny body. Sam went down on one knee and began unbuttoning it.
“What was that all about?” he asked.
Neither boy answered, and at last I said, “Balco don’t want to be in school, seemingly.”
“No?” Sam said, looking over at the bigger boy. “Figure if you beat someone up, Mr. Frodo’ll throw you out?”
“Be more like it if he threw out that little runt! Don’t need the likes of him in no school – don’t need him in Hobbiton! Not him nor any of his kin!”
“At least I want to be here! At least I give Mr. Frodo some respect!” There were tears in Fosco’s voice, but he wasn’t giving in. He looked like he might fly at Balco again, and Sam kept a grip on his arm.
“Right you are, lad. Steady now. Rosie lass, put his shirt to soak, will you, while I find them something clean to wear?”
He brought out a couple of his own work shirts, and I got some lumps of cold beef for Fosco's worsening shiners.
“Hold that to your eyes, lad -- sit down and lean over the table, now, I don’t want no drips down my clean shirt," Sam told him. "Balco, you go sit over by the fireplace, away from him.”
“I don’t need to sit no place. I’m going home.”
“Oh I don’t think so, Balco, not quite yet.” Mr. Frodo came into the room. “I thought we’d just talk this over while we have dinner.”
"Will I bring the food into the dining room now, Mr. Frodo?" I asked.
"No, I sent the other lads home, Rose. We'll all eat in the kitchen today."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.