At the age of about seven I attended my first school. The house was on my father's farm, a half a mile from our dwelling. It was constructed of round logs, and had five corners -- the fifth was formed at one end by having shorter logs laid from the corners at an obtuse angle, like the corner of a rail fence, and meeting in the middle. It was built up thus to the square, then the logs went straight across, forming the end for the roof to rest on; consequently this fifth corner was open, and this was the fire-place. Stones laid with mud mortar were built in this corner, extending several feet each way, and wood nearly as long as the breadth of the house would be filled in. The seats were split logs smoothed on the flat side, and supported on legs put in with an auger. From these the feet of the children dangled early and late. There was no support for the back. The house had a dirt floor and a clap-board roof. Light was let in by cutting away part of two logs in the end. A wide puncheon was fastened just below this for the writers, with a seat to correspond. During winter they pasted paper over these openings, and light for the rest of the school came down the chimney.
The first teacher we had was an old man by the name of Ballou. He lived on our place, not far from the school-house, and taught for several years. He was very poor, did poor teaching, and got poor pay. He was master of only reading, writing and ciphering.
There were no classes in the school, and each one went it independently, studying what suited his taste and ability. Some read in the Testament, and others in any book they happened to have. In those days the rule was that those who got to school first "said first" -- that is, they recited in the order in which they got to the house. This would sometimes get up a great rivalry, and I have known young men living two miles away to be at school before daylight. The whole day, except an hour at noon, was spent in saying lessons. The old teacher sat in his chair, and the pupils went to him one by one, in the order in which they got to the house, and said their lessons. When they got around, the same process was repeated. Sometimes between turns the old man would take a little nap, and then we all would have some fun. One more bold than the rest would tickle his bald head or his nose, and to see him scratching would afford us much amusement.
Each Friday afternoon was spent in a spelling-match. Captains were chosen, and they would "choose up" till the school was divided into two classes. Beginning at the head, one of each class would stand up and spell, till one was "turned down;" then another took his place, and so on until all on one side were down. I began at this school in the alphabet, and the second winter I could spell almost every word in Webster's old Elementary Speller. If provided with a sharp knife, and a stick on which to whittle, which the kind old man would allow, I could generally stand most of an afternoon without missing. Strange to say, after a few years, when I had given myself to the study of other things, it all went from me, and I have been a poor speller ever since.
In this school I had my first sweetheart -- a buxom, jolly good girl, about six years my senior. To her I wrote my first love letter, and when it was done its chirography looked as if it had been struck by lightning; and I had to get an old bachelor friend to help me read it. Here I am reminded of an early tendency to extremes in my likes and dislikes. I had a race one morning with a girl whom I saw coming to school from an opposite direction, each striving to get into the house first. I clearly went in ahead, but she claimed the race and beat me out of it. From this on I had an extreme dislike for her. The spring to which we all had to go for a drink, was about a hundred yards from the house. The path to it passed through a broken place in a large log that lay across this path. In this I would never walk, nor would I pass through the gap, but would always climb over that big log.
These school days were only during winter, after the crop was all gathered in and before spring work began. After I got large enough to help in winter work, my attendance was only "semi-occasional." After a while a better school-house was built, a mile further away, and it was every way more comfortable, save that we had still the backless slab seats. Here I went at odd times in winter for several years. I had acquired a great fondness for reading, devouring everything in the way of books I could lay my hands upon. Especially I had a great passion for history, biography, geography, natural philosophy, and the like, and I let nothing escape me that the country afforded. I had no money to buy books, and had to depend on borrowing them. I soon went through arithmetic, grammar, and the history of the United States. This was more than my paterfamilias recognized as essential to a practical education, and hence he was not disposed to let me go to school as much as the other children, who gave themselves no concern about books out of school. The idea of one's going through grammar, philosophy, or more than half the arithmetic, "unless he was going to teach," he regarded as a waste of time. His conception of life and mine were so different that there was frequently more or less friction. It was decidedly unpleasant from youth to manhood to be discouraged and opposed in my one absorbing passion for obtaining an education. My mother sympathized with me, but could not help me. The first dollar I ever made I spent for a book, and for this purpose I saved my hard-earned pennies. Midnight often found me poring over this book by the light of kindling prepared for the purpose. This was opposed; and thus the struggle went on during my minority.
I can not forbear, before closing this short chapter upon my school life, to allude to the great improvement in the matter of common schools since I was a boy. My native State, though sadly behind many of her younger sisters, has made some progress in this direction, and I can but hope this is only an earnest of what is to come. In a few favored localities, chiefly the cities, there is ample provision made for the education of the children of the people, but in the country districts much remains to be done before we are up with the demands of the age in regard to the comfort of the pupils as well as the facilities for the prosecution of their studies. We need more and better school-houses, better furniture, and more attractive surroundings. Well qualified and earnest teachers are not yet as thick as blackberries in Kentucky. When as much attention is bestowed on these as on jockeys, and on our boys as on our horses, we shall be both richer and better.