Hal Roth - September 2007

Old News from Delmarva:

School Days


Hal Roth

     In Will Cobb’s and Gus Edwards’ popular 1907 song “School Days,” a man and woman sentimentally remi-nisce about their lifelong friendship and particularly their time in elemen-tary school.Lots of old dudes like me can still recite the chorus:

    School days, school days

    Dear old Golden Rule days

    Reading and writing and ’rithmetic

   Taught to the tune of the hickory stick

   You were my queen in calicoI was your bashful, barefoot beau

   You wrote on my slate, “I loveyou, Joe”

   When we were a couple of kids

   It was not uncommon for teach-ers to have a hickory stick or a willow switch within easy reach and to use it to punish unruly children or even those who simply made mistakes in performance. Corporal punishment was a “learning technique” that last-ed far into the twentieth century. I well remember an English teach-er in high school who kept a rack of variously dimensioned paddles in a closet at the rear of our class-room. Each day he would walk the isles, carefully checking our written assignment. If he had specified a three-quarter-inch margin on the right side of the papers, for example, and a single line was off a sixteenth of an inch, he would gesture toward the closet, to which point you then proceeded to join a line of your class-mates who had also been guilty of some grievous violation of grammar or error in format. When all homework papers had been checked, Mr. Bennick would open the closet door and, one by one, order offenders to select the weapon of their choice and bend over. Three or four whacks sent you back to your seat to contemplate your crime… or to hate the thought of ever having to write anything again for the rest of your life.

   Several years ago I came across the rough draft of what appears to be an autobiography written in the third person by John S. Hill (1860-1937) shortly before he died. In it the author delineates techniques for teaching language skills in Delmarva schools during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Mr. Hill was a public school teacher and admin-istrator from the Snow Hill area in Worcester County.

   It may be of interest to young readers to know how schools were conducted here sixty years ago. Mr. Jones’ first class in the morning was the spelling class, in which all pupils above the three lowest grades took part.When called into class, the pupils took places standing in line as “counted out” on the preceding day. That is, the one standing at the head counted “one” and sat down; the next counted “two” and sat down; the next counted “three,” and so on down the class.

   Sometimes a pupil in this class would try learning only his own words. For instance, if he were counted out third in a class of ten, he would learn the third word, the thirteenth, twenty-third, and so on to the end of the lesson assigned. This plan rarely worked out well, as someone might be absent next day, one or more might miss words, the teacher might not begin with the first word, and other changes might occur to upset the plan––and usually did.

   In hearing a spelling lesson, which was always oral, the teacher first pronounced the word (according to the best of his ability); then the pupil pro-nounced it aloud as the teacher did, and next spelled it aloud by syllables. For illustration, suppose the teacher pronounced the word “an-te-di-lu-vi-an.” The pupil pronounced it and proceeded to spell it thus: “a-n, an; t-e, te, an-te; d-i, di, an-te-di; l-u, lu, an-te-di-lu; v-i, vi, an-te-di-lu-vi; a-n, an, an-te-di-lu-vi-an; and the word was spelled. Should the pupil make a mistake in spelling any part of the word, or a slip in pronouncing any part of it in proper order, the teacher called sharply, “Next!” So the word went on down the line until it was spelled and pronounced satisfacto-rily.

   After the first day that John [Hill is apparently referring to himself] entered Mr. Jones’ school, he was put in the spelling class, though he was in only third grade and smaller than any other member of the class. Soon John proved this was no empty honor to him; for in a short time he took first place in the class and rarely lost it.

   The a, b, c method was strictly followed in teaching beginners to read in all schools throughout the county. By this method the child must first learn to recognize at sight each letter, small and capital, and to call them by heart correctly in order, forward and backward. It generally took weeks or even months for this. When the letters were satisfactorily learned, the child began his a-b, ab’s [sic]. Sometimes he was taught to sing them in a sing-song tone thus: “b-a, ba; b-e, be; ba-be; b-i, bi, ba-be-bi; b-o, bo, ba-be-bi-bo; b-u, bu, ba-be-bi-bo-bu.” Then it was c-a, ca; next it was d-a, da and on through the alphabet.[If you haven’t had your morning coffee stimulation and are confused at this point, what Hill is describing is an antiquated and grueling tech-nique of learning the sounds pro-duced by connecting each conso-nant in the alphabet to each of the vowels.]

   In geography, too, the capital cities and some other lessons were “sung.” This process of learning (?) was supposed to be easier and was thought to be better retained.

   After learning all this, there came real reading. Reading in shortest words was supposed to be easiest, so lessons in the primer for reading began with words of only one or two letters like this:Is he in? He is in.Is he on? He is on.Is it an ox? It is an ox.Ox, I am on it. I am on an ox.After learning several such lessons as this, until the child could “read” them about as well with the book closed as with it open, the child was promoted to some equally interest-ing reading in words of not more than three letters.

   Gradually the lessons advanced to include words of four letters, then words of five let-ters, and finally to longer words. The length of the words was considered of more importance in this plan than the meaning of thought in the lesson.  It was frequently the case in these days that the teacher lacked adequate scholastic preparation for teaching even the elementary subjects, and it was still more often that the teacher lacked the moral and administrative qualities necessary for successful teaching and proper training of the young people placed under his charge.

   Too often the men who taught school in those days were lazy, dissipated and indifferent to their duties. They usually remained as teacher in any school only one or two years at the most. To teach the “Three R’s”––readin’, ’ri-tin’ and ’rithmetic––was usually the extent of their scholastic ability, and that was as much as was required. Often the teacher needed a key to enable the teacher to “work the sums” of an elementary arithmetic.

   Frequently the chief consideration in choosing the teacher was his ability to “handle” the big boys, rather than his scholastic, moral or professional fitness. A good switch, a stout paddle, or sometimes his heavy fist was the teacher’s chief reliance for “learnin’ the boys their manners and their lessons,” as well as maintain-ing order and discipline. Sometimes the teacher and a big boy had a real try-out with their fists to find who was able to knock the other out, and therefore should be “boss,” and sometimes it was the teacher who was knocked out.

   Such conditions, methods and teachers as just described for the most part were the kind with which John first came in contact at school. Is it any wonder that at the beginning he formed an unfavorable opinion of schools and teachers in general?

   John was fond of reading both prose and poetry. He learned by heart the poems in his readers and many others that he found elsewhere. He learned and loved many grand old hymns he found in the church hymnal.  Altercations between teachers and students were not uncommon in our public schools during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

   Consider the following report from the Denton Journal, dated February 17, 1872.A School Difficulty––A young man named Geo. Melvin, a short time since, secured the position as teacher of the district school in Tuckahoe Neck and teaches at what is known as Long’s School House. He has among his scholars several young men who are about full-grown and near man’s estate.

   On Tuesday last they became rebellious and de-manded a holiday, stating it was pancake day, and they were entitled to it. They threatened to put the teacher out of the house. He told them he would go out peaceably, but he was opposed to being forcibly ejected. This peaceable yielding to their wishes did not suit their views, and they determined to expel him by force. They then seized him, when a scuffle ensued in which two or three of them were cut with a pocketknife in the hands of the teacher, but none were seriously injured.

   This trouble, like most others, we are told, origi-nated from the too free use of alcoholic stimulants. These refractory young men had supplied themselves with whiskey, and having drank too freely, caused this trouble. If they are minors, of whom they purchased the whiskey should be known and the of-fender against the law should suffer its penalties. Mr. Melvin, the teacher, is a young man of good moral character, and, we believe, free from the vices that are quite numerous with our young men. The School Board should investigate this matter and apply a remedy to prevent a recurrence of such scenes in the future.

   What importance did our ancestors place on reading and libraries? An editorial dated May 2, 1891 pro-vides some interesting insights.

   Just think: For the cost of filling your car with gas today, you could then have matched the annual government support for four or five school libraries.We ask the attention of our teachers to the following, taken from the school law:

   “For the further encouragement of education, district libraries ought to be established in each school-house district, under the care of the teacher as librarian. For this purpose the sum of ten dollars per annum is ordered to be paid by the Board of County School Commissioners out of the State school fund to any school-house district as library money, as long as the people of the district raise the same amount annually.”

   Our purpose is not merely to bestow knowledge upon the pupil but to create in his mind a desire for reading, for when he learns to read and at the same time has acquired a taste for reading, we have put him in a fair way to become educated. We believe the time has come when a carefully selected school library should adorn every schoolhouse in the county and bless every school district. There is not an earnest and industrious teacher among us who could not raise ten dollars if he would try. There are many ways in which it can be done, and each teacher could adopt some plan best suited to that school.

   First of all, try and create an enthusiasm for reading, and not only will you establish your library but you will excite a spirit of intellectual inquiry, which will relieve your school work of much of its tediousness. It is not the work that is so tiresome to the teacher, but the uncongenial intellectual atmosphere in which he so often finds himself placed. From want of general culture there springs up no intellectual sympathy between teacher and pupils, and he soon de-generates into a mere hearer of lessons. When we get our pupils interested in good library books by which they can increase their fund of information, they at once appreciate better our work, for they are in a better frame of mind to receive instruction.

   Finally, many will say this letter to the editor has as much validity today as it did when it was first published on May 2, 1891.

   We love our children with a strong love, yet I am afraid we do not assume our share of the responsibility of educating them, but look upon this great work as belonging entirely to the teacher. What a sad mistake for a parent to make. And while many of us may make this mistake to some extent, are there not a few who not only fail to give the teacher any help, not even an encouraging word, but allow themselves to become hindrances by listening to the foolish complaining of their children about the teacher, and in some cases indulging in uncomplimentary and criticizing remarks about the teacher in the children’s presence? Is not this being done continually to the detriment of the schools of the community?

   It is only by a very careful consideration of the situation that we have the faintest idea of the bearing a single word of criticism from our lips will have on the deportment of our children in the schoolroom. Let us ask ourselves how long would we be able to manage our own children successfully were they frequently allowed to hear uncomplimentary remarks about us? How long would a community stand were the teacher to talk about the father and mother as the teacher is talked about at home?

   I am afraid that many of the mistakes made by our children at school, either from inattention to study or misdemeanor, are attributable to our negligence or to our mistakes in their presence. How much better might be the results of teachers’ work were we to give them our aid and sympathy. Some of us may be under the impression that because we are unable to solve the difficult problems and analyze the complicated sentences, we are unable to take any part in our children’s education.

   We must remember that to educate does not consist entirely in explaining a few principles of the textbook; nor should our children’s education consist entirely of intellectual development, but the heart and hand should also be educated. Then, does not this give parents, and mothers especially, a broad field of action, even though they may be unable to explain the textbooks? How carefully the nurseryman watches over his young trees to rid them of all imperfections while they are easily bent, and giving each tree the assistance needed in order to have a stock of perfect trees for the market; then how much more carefully should each parent watch over his children and endeavor to correct their mistakes before they have relapsed into confirmed habits.

   No parent should relegate this part of his children’s education to the teacher, nor should any teacher look upon it as not being connected with her work, for as a tree cannot make rapid growth while it is encumbered with weeds and briers, neither can a teacher see the proper result of her work unless the child has been properly trained by the parents, for the child’s progress depends upon its conceptive condition. How can we expect our children to advance rapidly at school unless we have first prepared them for cultivation? We should see to it that our children are obedient and respectful to their teachers, for without perfect obedi-ence and due respect to the teacher, a child’s time in the schoolroom is worse than wasted. Parents are re-sponsible for every temporal matter that influences their children’s future, and children require constant personal supervision if one hopes to nullify forward tendencies and have them grow up as models of intelli-gence and integrity.

   As many of our great men and women of the day will exclaim that all they are they owe to their mothers, so there may be many who have led unexemplary lives that feel in their inmost soul that many of their mistakes in life are due to a lack of early parental training. Let us see to it that we give the teacher due aid and sympathy, and that we do not hold her responsible for more than is her share. ––A Parent

   You can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com