My Face to the Wind Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Sarah Jane Price has a problem. She is fourteen and alone in Broken Bow, Nebraska in 1881. Her beloved father, the town's school teacher, is dead from black diphtheria fever and concerned elders in the town believe Sarah should be sent to live in the Orphan Girls Asylum eighty miles away. Negative stories about the asylum convince Sarah Jane that going there is not an option. She needs money and decides her father has taught her enough so that she could take his place as the new teacher. Young Sarah Jane faces many obstacles in her quest to take over her father's position. Several of the school board members are against her; she must lie about her age; and when she is reluctantly given the job, her sod school is not much more than a earthen cave devoid of books, furniture, and even an outhouse.
Award-winning author Jim Murphy uses his highly praised skills as a researcher to weave Sarah Jane Price's tapestry showing a child forced to mature quickly, take on the responsibility of teaching, and heroically shoulder the safety of her students. Jim Murphy manages to show readers what education was like on the American prairie from the McGuffey Readers to the necessity of students teaching each other in a one room sod schoolhouse that housed students at all grade levels.
My Face to the Wind: The Diary of Sarah Jane Price, a Prairie Teacher is also a story of courage and determination. Sarah Jane learns to face challenges from powerful elders as well as from an often hostile prairie environment. Jim Murphy says that he was inspired to write this book after seeing a photograph of a determined teacher and her class in front of their sod schoolhouse. He remembers thinking, "Wow, going to school must have been an adventure back then." From that inspiration, he succeeds in telling Sarah Jane's adventure while also shining a light on America's westward expansion, daily life on the prairie, and public education in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
"Father says if I write in this diary I will see the world differently. But with Father gone my world is nothing but wind and dry grass, more wind and more dry grass. And an empty feeling inside." As fourteen-year-old Sarah Jane Price writes these words, she feels truly alone. It is 1881 in Nebraska. Sarah Jane and her father have come to the remote settlement of Broken Bow when he was given the job of teaching school there. For as long as she can remember, Sarah Jane has traveled with her father as they moved from town to town, "always staying for a school term or two, then moving west for one reason or another." But her father has died of black diphtheria fever, and Sarah is now an orphan. For two months since his death, Sarah Jane has been living at Miss Kizer's boarding house, but the money her father left her is running out, and she won't be able to live there much longer. Miss Kizer, who "'is nice, but is always worrying," promises to find Sarah Jane a home, but it turns out to be the Orphan Girls Asylum eighty miles away in Grand Island. Sarah Jane writes, "I'd have to leave (Father) in that tiny cemetery with nobody to visit him." When Sarah Jane's friend, Ida, tells her that the girls at the Asylum are forced to work six days a week in cloth factories and all their wages go to the Asylum, Sarah Jane is convinced she must somehow stay in Broken Bow.
One evening, when members of the school board are meeting, Sarah Jane boldly proposes that they consider her to be the new teacher in Broken Bow. At first the board is shocked and unreceptive to the idea of a fourteen-year-old teaching school. But as Sarah Jane states her qualifications and her desire, the school board decides to give her a chance. Sarah Jane's confidence is shaken slightly when she views her school a few days later. She writes, "I almost did leave when we came over another hill and I saw my school. There at the bottom of a tiny hollow was the most forlorn excuse for a soddy I have ever seen." With Ida's help, however, Sarah Jane cleans up the "dank dark interior." Using discarded beer crates for seats and borrowing books and supplies from townsfolk, Sarah Jane gets her school ready for opening day. Since she is being paid according to the number of pupils she'll teach, Sarah Jane must visit the homes around Broken Bow to recruit her students. Finally, the big day arrives and Sarah Jane has "fifteen scholars so far. Three were absent and probably would never show up—as long as I was the teacher. But fifteen meant I would make enough to pay Miss Kizer."
As the days go by, Sarah Jane has to deal with the unruly boys, truant students, and unannounced visits from a school board member who is still not convinced she can do the job. Still, Sarah Jane grows more comfortable as a teacher, always remembering her father's practices and advice. One cold March day, a sudden blizzard strikes as the children are in school. Classes stop, and Sarah Jane gathers her students around the stove for a read aloud session. Suddenly, the storm tears the roof off the school and destroys the stove. Sarah Jane knows they must "leave before the place caught fire or we choked to death." Before venturing out in the snow, Sarah Jane ties all her student and herself together with a rope, and they begin the journey home. Struggling against the howling wind, singing hymns to bolster their spirits, they head toward town. Sarah Jane writes, "and they plodded on, my parade of scholars did, lurching forward on wobbly legs, sometimes stopping altogether because they couldn't beat the wind. It was hard for me to tell who was who. The wet snow had covered them head to foot. But on we went, a white staggering column."
Finally, after delivering all her students to their homes, Sarah Jane arrives at Miss Kizer's and is welcomed with warm food and a warm bed. The townspeople, grateful to Sarah Jane for saving the children, agree to find her a place to hold classes until they can build her a new wooden school with real desks, a blackboard, a proper out house, and a big bell "so everyone for miles around can hear that school is in session." Sarah Jane thinks about her father, knowing now he is at peace and would be proud of her. She tells Miss Kizer, "I'll be fine," and writes in her diary, "You know what, Little Book,? I knew I would be."
Thinking About the Book
- Why is Sarah Jane living with Miss Kizer? Sarah Jane does not want to go to live at the Orphan Girls Asylum even though Miss Kizer and Reverend Lauter praise the institution. Why won't she go?
- If you only could use three words to describe the following characters, what would those words be? Why?
- Why do you think Mr. Gaddis was so reluctant to have Sarah Jane be the new schoolteacher?
- By the end of Sarah Jane's story, she has discovered both good things and not so good things about being a teacher. See if you can list four positive things about being a teacher and four negative things. Compare your list with those of others in your group.
- How has Sarah Jane Price changed from the start of her diary to the end of it?
- Write three or four sentences that describe each of the following terms. Why is each important in Sarah Jane's story?
- Why is Sarah Jane's diary called My Face to the Wind?
- Read the Epilogue. Are you surprised at what happened to Sarah Jane when she was 25 years old? Why or why not?
- Have you ever eaten cornbread that had dates and sunflower seeds in it? People living on the prairie in the 1880s "...combined simple ingredients to make hearty foods." Try making a batch of prairie cornbread using the recipe in the back of My Face to the Wind. Share the cornbread and your reactions to it with members of your discussion group.
- During the terrible storm, Sarah Jane keeps her students quiet and interested as she reads aloud a "true-life story of a nine-year-old boy who was captured by the Indians in 1789." That book was A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner. One of the other Dear America books tells the fictional story of a young girl who was also captured by the Indians. Read Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catharine Carey Logan by Mary Pope Osborne. Share your reactions to this book with other members of your discussion group. What did you learn that surprised you most in Carey Logan's story?
- Though we are told not to judge a book by its cover, most of us do it all the time. Take a look at the cover of My Face to the Wind. Create a cover for this book that you think is true to the story and will attract readers to pick up Sarah Jane's diary.
- Sarah Jane didn't have any books or supplies to start the school year, but one parent gave her part of a McGuffey Eclectic Reader. How would you describe this reading book? How is it different from your schoolbooks?
- In Sarah Jane's time it was not unusual for girls to become teachers at 15. Another young teacher was Laura Ingalls Wilder who writes about her first teaching experience in These Happy Golden Years. Read this book. How is Laura's experience similar to Sarah Jane's? How is it different? Who had the more challenging class? Tell why you think so.
- As a reward, Sarah Jane reads aloud to her class from a book called Camp-Fires. What kinds of stories do you like to listen to? What book is your favorite read aloud and why?
Discussion guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Houston, Texas.