Stories Worth Rereading: Only A Jack-Knife

When the lamented James A. Garfield was struggling to obtain an education, he supported himself for several years by teaching. His first school was in Muskingum County, Ohio, and the little frame house where he began his work as a teacher, is still standing, while some of the boys and girls who received instruction from him that term are yet alive to testify to his faithfulness as a common-school teacher. He was quite a young man at that time, in fact, he was still in his teens, and it must have been rather embarrassing for him to attempt to teach young men and women, some of them older than himself; but he was honest in his efforts to try to do his best, and, as is always the case under such circumstances, he succeeded admirably.

One day, after repeatedly cautioning a little chap not to hack his desk with the new Barlow in his possession, the young teacher transferred the offending knife to his own pocket, quietly informing the culprit that it should be returned at the close of the afternoon session.

During the afternoon two of the committeemen called to examine the school, and young Garfield was so interested in the special recitations conducted that he let the boy go home in the evening without even mentioning the knife. The subject did not recur to him again until after supper, and perhaps would not have been recalled to him then had not he chanced to put his hand into his pocket for a pencil.

“Look there!” he exclaimed, holding up the knife. “I took it from Sandy Williams, with the promise that it should be returned in the evening, and I have let him go home without it. I must carry it to him at once.”

“Never mind, man! Let it stand till morning,” urged Mrs. Ross, the motherly woman with whom he boarded.

“I cannot do that,” replied Garfield; “the little fellow will think I am a thief.”

“No danger of that, James,” insisted the well-meaning woman. “He will know that you forgot it, and all will be well in the morning.”

“But, you see, I promised, Mrs. Ross, and a promise is always binding. I must go tonight, and carry it to him,” urged the young man, drawing on his coat.

“It is all of two miles to his father’s, and just look how dark it is, and raining, too,” said the woman, opening the door to convince her boarder that things were as bad as she had represented them.

“I am young and strong, and can make my way quite easily,” insisted Garfield. “It is always better to right a wrong as soon as you discover it, and I would rather walk the four miles in the mud and rain than disappoint one of my scholars. Sometimes example is more powerful than precept, and if I am not careful to live an honest life before my pupils, they will not give much heed to what I say on such subjects. There is no rule like the golden rule, but he who teaches it must also live it, if he expects others to follow his teaching.”

Mrs. Ross said no more, and James went on, as he had proposed; and before the little boy went to sleep, he was happy again in the possession of his treasure, over which he had been lamenting all the evening. The young teacher declined the hospitality of the family for the night, and walked back in the darkness to his boarding-house, and, as he afterward said, felt all the better for standing up to his principles.