The District School

About April first, 1857, when I lacked three months of being four years old, we moved from Manningville to the little village of Centre Lisle, one mile to the west, at the junction of two narrow valleys. Here Father’s church centered and here we were destined to dwell for the next five years. Our home was the usual two-story structure with a wing, commodious and comfortable, called the Edwards House.

Father’s church was composed of a few residents of the little village and a score or more of farmers living within two or three miles. Our house was conveniently chosen nearly opposite the small church building. The town had two or three stores, a hotel with a well-patronized bar, a small factory or two with a water power, and a Congregational Church besides our Baptist Church. The little hamlet, besides its small water power, had for permanent support the rather unproductive dairy farms on the hills about, and for temporary business the remains of a formerly prosperous hemlock lumber industry, and a large sheepskin tannery, located there for the utilization of the declining supplies of hemlock bark. When we lived there Centre Lisle was a clean, white, smart little town, embracing within it and the country about it not a few intelligent families that would be interesting anywhere. The little hamlet is now in abject decay. The fate of Centre Lisle has been the fate of Maine Village also, and indeed of all the small villages in southern New York that sprang up a century ago in the Hemlock Forest areas. Lumber and tanneries gave them wealth and intelligence, and all the accessories of these up to the exhaustion of the timber and bark in the fifties and sixties. With that exhaustion they were left for support to a soil adapted only for scanty grazing, with resulting family impoverishment and decay—an impoverishment rendered acute by the development of railroads to the West, with their cheap freights and the competition in Eastern and foreign markets of the abundant farm produce of the West. The intelligence, enterprise, and wealth of these communities moved westwards. The value of farms in Broome County fell between 1870 and 1890 to about one-quarter their price in 1860. Farsighted men ought to have foreseen this decline in values, and perhaps a few did and went West early. In such a town and district, doomed and declining, Father’s ministry, from 1856 to 1862, was spent.

But it was here in the Edwards House at Centre Lisle, from my fourth to my ninth year, that I passed the happiest years of my boyhood. As we lived in one house during the whole period, I am unable to distinguish the years, as before and after, by the successive houses we occupied. But the years were, with minor griefs, happily spent. My earliest exploits were with the cat. I constructed a harness of string, and with immense labor and pains finally made a pair of little bobsleds about a foot long, which would actually go with a clean turn. My cat and bobsleds form my earliest recollections of life in the Edwards House. They taught me that I could plan and make things, and could rely, for entertainment, upon myself. It was an advantage, that I had to make my playthings.

During all those years I went to the local district school nine months annually, and I gave school the six best hours of every day but Saturday and Sunday. These school hours are supposed, quite erroneously, to be the most valuable, indeed the only valuable, hours of a child’s life. Yet, such was and still is the method and the program of instruction in the country school, that looking back and trying hard to recall those school days, I find those six hours more nearly blank than any other hours of my day. And even the little I can recall is not its instruction, but its episodes. I was once kept after school for not being able to give the capitals of the New England and Middle states, with the rivers on which such were located as were not “inland,” I knowing the meaning neither of Capital nor Inland. We were seated behind rough pine desks, two to a desk, and forbidden to whisper under penalties. Punishments of the little boys consisted mainly of standing on the floor, sitting between two big girls, and feruling. The ruler was a very beautiful ferule of curly bird’s-eye maple, which, with its fine finish and varnish, attracted my eye as a child and laid the foundation for the admiration I have ever since had for beautiful woods in their natural finish. Possibly that beautiful ruler of Cornelius Lusk accounts for the interior finish of our Montclair home, in the natural woods throughout, and particularly for the bird’s-eye maple of Alice’s room and of Auntie’s. For the boys of my age the worst punishment was to be seated between two big girls, on the girls’ side of the room. The poor little miserable victims were utterly consumed with mortification and shame. I think the big girls divined the source of this discomfiture and enjoyed it. To the little boys, particularly to those who, like me, had no sisters, the big girls were superior beings, in a world apart, and to be thrust in between two such mysterious and wonderful persons utterly overwhelmed us with confusion, not diminished by the merciless guying from the other boys that awaited us at recess. Cornelius Lusk was a good singer. He had one of those rare natural voices that seem to come perfect from the hand of God, and little in need of cultivation. He loved to sing and, more wisely than he knew, made the school sing a great deal every day. We all had singing books, and I can now as I write feel again the thrill of Cornelius Lusk’s rich, deep voice, so round, so full, so pure in its music, as he would lead the singing from the platform. No male singing voice has since made quite the same impression on me, not even Caruso’s, and I suppose that I owe my love of music more to that man than to any other source. So, these two things I owe to that school: my fondness for beautiful natural wood, got from the varnished, curly maple ruler, and my fondness for music, awakened and developed by a rich singing voice. This about sums up my recollections of these five years of school. I do recall faintly that at times we had other teachers, male and female. Their names and their features are too dim for recollection. I must have learned the multiplication table very early, so early that Sam Lusk, the local merchant, brother of the pedagogue, offered me a knife as a reward if I would say it through to him in the presence of several customers without an error. I did it to the end of the twelves with only the slight mischoice of a word instantly corrected: “Seven times eight are fifty-four, no, fifty-six.” He declined at the conclusion to give me the knife. I went home grieved to my indignant mother, and got the ineffaceable impression that Sam Lusk was a very small man. I remember that, but not how I learned the multiplication table.

Cornelius Lusk gave me my first lessons in penmanship. I was left-handed; my right hand was never used, except for secondary purposes, and I accordingly had very slight muscular control of the fingers. Of course, I seized the pen with my left hand and, against the admonitions of my teacher, kept automatically transferring it from right to left. At last Cornelius, not to be beaten, began the practice of rapping me over the knuckles with that beautiful ruler. That discipline cured me. I learned to write with my right hand and, with that, acquired better muscular control of it and have always since done many things right-handed. I have always been grateful to him for conquering me.

Old Rover was the finest dog
That ever ran a race,
His ear so quick, his foot so fleet,
And such an honest face.”

I shall never forget the terror with which I stood up on the platform and rushed through this doggerel with breathless haste, it having been drilled into me so thoroughly by my vigorous mother that it said itself.

I must have learned a good deal more of geography than the capitals of the states in those five years, and something of arithmetic, and I have a faint recollection of spelling lessons consisting of columns of words, and standing in line and trying to get to the head, by spelling correctly the word missed by the next one, or more, above and then taking the place of the derelicts—though often derelict myself. Under modern methods children do not learn to spell so well as we did in the old-fashioned way.

Towards the close of this period, when I was approaching eight years of age, the Civil War broke out. I had a slate at the time, and I used to while away the tedium of those slow hours in school by making pictures on it. My favorite picture was of a horse on the dead run, a cavalryman on him, leaning forward and firing a revolver between the horse’s ears, with deadly aim at an invisible enemy. Drawing was the first of the fine arts. Good lessons in drawing, as we now know, would have been more valuable training in several ways than any I got in my school days, and would have richly and delightfully filled many idle hours of school life. But few then knew the many highly educational values of drawing. Dr. Eliot did and gave credit for drawing in the Harvard entrance examination.

I never realized the torture to which all school children were then and are still subjected in being practically chained to a seat and forbidden to speak or whisper for six hours every day. Or, rather, I did realize it, but never thought of rebelling against it. It was a common lot of all children and had been the lot of their fathers and mothers, and their ancestors from time immemorial. To us and to our forebears for generations this torture was simply the order of Nature into which we were born. Individual teachers might be good, bad, or indifferent, but the unnatural system and the cruel method were fixed and unchangeable. So, we never rebelled. But I now know that it was torture and that I felt it to be so then, by the joy with which recess came, and noon, and four o’clock, and Friday night, and the ineffable bliss of the “last day of school.”

All normal boys and girls rightly hate the country district school. It is the protest of outraged Nature herself. Children do not grow in body or mind by that sort of discipline, but in spite of it. The system is not one of development, but of repression. What a child naturally chooses to do is Nature’s method of training him. We should seize his natural choices as our point of beginning and train him at first to do in the best way possible what he prefers to do, seeking meanwhile to elevate his preferences as best we may. How to accomplish that is the teacher’s problem. We are now doing much to guide his choices into the most helpful lines by watchfulness, tact, and knowledge of his adaptations. The art of teaching consists in following Nature’s ways by study of the child. This is not done even now in the district school. The opposite, quite precisely, is the thing usually done, and that is why the district school is hated and the time spent there is, in some ways, often worse than wasted. The redeeming feature of an utterly mistaken system is the association of the children with each other and the hours daily spent in the freedom of play.

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Part One: The Early Years, Childhood’s Joys and Sorrows