School Days of Yore

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 34, No. 5, September 1998

 This article is an excerpt from “As the Twig is Bent”, a talk given by Edwina Whitney at the dedication of the Buchanan School, December 18, 1942.

Edwina Whitney was born in Mansfield in 1868.  She attended the Storrs District School which was located on Willowbrook Road and later (1885) taught at the Merrow District School at the age of 17.  After graduating from Oberlin College, she became librarian of the Connecticut Agricultural College in 1900 and continued in this position for 34 years. She died in 1970 at the age of 102.

In most schools of early days a man was chosen [as teacher] for the winter term, a woman for the summer.  The man was supposed to have better discipline over the big boys who were not always what they should be, and the women would do very well for the small children in the summer…  I did my first teaching at the age of seventeen (needless to say in the summer) in the district of Merrow.  The first day of school one of the children came up to me and said “Do you think you can lick us?”  I replied valiantly that I could try, and to my confusion be it said I did that very thing once.  Probably to try me out one noon they all refused to come in at the ringing of the bell.  About half an hour late they filed sheepishly in.  I called each one up to my desk and gave him a few smart strokes with the ferule.  Nobody resisted or complained, and I had no further trouble.  Later I learned that there were other ways of governing children but it seemed the only way at the time.

It was the custom in the early days to open the school by reading a chapter from the New Testament, verse by verse, the children reading in turn.  This was generally followed by the Lord’s Prayer in unison, and perhaps a song if the teacher was musical.  Of course there was no “instrument” to lead.  The singing was however often left till just before recess when the school was becoming restless.  I remember two of these gems, “O Have You Heard Geography Sung” and “Climbing Up the Hill of Knowledge”.  The catechism was not memorized in my day though it was in my mother’s who could tell very glibly what was the difference between justification, adoption, and sanctification.  We had a number of Catholics in our school and they read their own version of the Testament.  Always some would be wit (when we came to the verse “The wind fell and there was a great calm”, would read it as a great clam, which pleased the children but not the teacher).  

After the opening exercises the children were called up in front to recite.  Of course only a few minutes could be devoted to each class.  The last recitations were spelling which was always oral.  This was quite exciting.  We had to toe a line and had regular places.  If one missed a word he must go “down” and the one who spelled it correctly “went up”.  Sometimes a child would go from the foot to the head in one “lucky strike”.  It was almost like playing backgammon.  The one at the head at the end of the class had a “headmark”, though he must go down to the foot the next day.  The one who had the most headmarks at the end of the term had a prize.  It was a crude method but the children did learn to spell.  Of course we used Webster’s Spelling Book which had all the commonly used words and foreign words at the end, which were sometimes fearfully and wonderfully pronounced by the teachers.  We spelled by syllables and how children would roll out words of seven syllables accented on the fifth.

Mansfield Depot School, 1908
Interior of the Mansfield Depot School, 1908

 “Discipline” was the word most often used by the Committee, and whispering was the bete noire of the teacher.  It could hardly be otherwise considering the crowded conditions of the room, the poor ventilation, and the lack of interesting material to hold the children’s attention.  The younger teachers sometimes resorted to strange threats and punishments to stop it and too many times it was the innocent who suffered the penalty.  My mother [Minerva Whitney] used to tell the following story of one such experience of her school days.  The teacher, a young man, had threatened to hang up to the stove pipe (which ran the length of the schoolroom) the first child he found whispering.  Of course it was the little five-year-old Minerva who was caught.  Probably someone “told on her.”  He called her to him and repeated his threat.  “If you do I’ll bite you” was her reply.  Mumbling something about hanging being too good for her he let her go.  Later as Frederick Barrows he became one of the best loved and successful teachers in the Hartford Public Schools.  But I imagine he learned to be careful not to make threats which he could not carry out.  Anyway it is a good story and I always felt proud of the spirit which my mother manifested…

The usual punishments were standing in a corner, staying in at recess, and sitting with a boy or girl as the case might be.  In the latter case the boy would look silly and the girl angry.  It was tried on me once and my sobs so rent the air — he was a very dirty little boy and I didn’t like him — that the teacher was obliged to let me go back to my seat.  I don’t know how we ever learned anything but we did.

Of course the sanitary conditions were terrible.  One would suppose that only the strongest could survive.  We all drank not only out of one pail, but one dipper.  It was a privilege to “pass the water” given usually as a measure of safety to some pretty little girl.  The big boys went for the water to some neighbor’s well, from which they were often chased away.  We did our sums on slates.  The girls had slate rags or sponges to wash their slates, but the boys were not so particular.  I remember still how we used to enjoy a squeaking slate pencil and how we always told teacher we couldn’t help it.

We learned much of our geography by pointing to places on the wall maps, calling by names rivers, lakes, capes, capitals and so forth and bounding the State of the “Union” as we called our country.  We did not learn so much about social conditions in foreign lands as children do today, but we did know — for instance — that the Congo River was in Africa, and the Po in Italy, plain facts which are often lacking in the school children of the present.

Mansfield Depot School 1898
Students at the Mansfield Depot School, Crowning of the May Queen, 1898

The same “pieces” in our readers were read over and over till most of them were memorized.  They were mostly good “pieces” and it wasn’t too bad.  Some teachers would allow members of the class to choose the “piece” of the day.  I think we must have been reading in succession however, when Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break on thy solid stones O sea” was the order of the day.  Certainly no child in his senses would came to a big fellow who was in the language of the day “hard to learn”.  He read the last two lines as follows:  

“O for the touch of a varnished hand

And the sound of a voice that is still!”

The teacher was not amused, but the poor lad was not to be blamed.

The pay of the teachers was very small but was supposedly helped out by “Boarding ‘Round”.  This was sometimes a trying experience.  The custom was done away with before my day.  My mother, however, in her first school in 1846 “Boarded ‘Round” and contacted typhoid fever as a result.  To return to salaries, in 1883 the teachers in Mansfield were given less than three hundred dollars for a term of thirty-four weeks.  Not quite two dollars a day.  From this they paid their board.  At this same time $1750 was appropriated by the town for running the schools, exclusive of other sources.

Someone may wonder what children did for recreation since there was no supervised play.  They were, as I remember them, mostly old English games that we played.  “Little Sally Waters, London Bridge, Duck on the Rock, Bull in the Ring, Van Diemans Land” were some of the favorites and “Hale e over” when one of the boys was fortunate enough to have a rubber ball.  The Irish children brought in a new one of which I know only the refrain:

“He courts her, he kisses her,

He gives her gold rings

He says that he’ll marry her-

But never tells when.”

A good lesson that.

There was always it would seem, providentially, a brook by the schoolhouse, which offered an endless source of amusement.  These things would sound pretty tame to the modern child.  But I am convinced that these conditions helped to develop resourcefulness and independence.  It might not do now, but it was what was needed then.

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