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The District School As It Was
THE New England schools of the early part of the century had a primitive picturesqueness that makes them seem of a much more remote past than they really are. The wood-pile in the yard, the open fire-place, the backless benches on which the smaller scholars sat, and the two terms — one in winter under a master, and one in summer ruled by a mistress — have the flavor of pioneer days. In this seeming remoteness, coupled with its actual nearness, lies the chief reason for the charm that this period has for us. The intervening seventy or eighty years have destroyed every vestige of the old school sights and customs. We have only fragmentary reminiscences left. But the more the facts fade, the more they allure us. We are bringing the old furniture down from the garrets, and setting it forth in the places of honor in our best rooms; and the same feeling that prompts this love for an ancient chair or "chest of drawers" makes us prize the reminiscences of bygone times as age gives them an increasing rarity.
Here, then, is "The District School As It Was." I know of no brighter, more graphic impressions of the school-days of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The descriptions have an unusual degree of simplicity and charm, and at the same time are spiced with a sparkle of humor that makes them good reading, apart from any historic attraction.
The book was first published in Boston, in 1833, where it was received "with unqualified favor." A little later it was brought out in New York, with equal success, and a few years afterward a London edition was issued as giving a faithful description of one of the institutions of New England.
In 1852 "The District School," with several lesser works by the same writer, was published in a twelvemo volume of 364 pages, "to be disposed of to subscribers for the benefit of the Author." The longest of the additional writings had been previously published as a separate book entitled "The Scenery Shower." But it was found that to the mystified mind of the average reader this title was understood to mean "The Scenery Rainfall," and a change was made in the reissue to "Scenery Showing." Aside from "The District School" and the ingenious "Supplication to the People of the United States," which makes a supplementary chapter in the present volume, the author's works in this twelvemo are mild, contemplative essays of no particular value. The idea of the "Supplication," just referred to, is so odd and the list of mispronounced words is so characteristic of the country folk of fifty or seventy-five years ago, that it is well worth preserving. These words can be heard even now among the old people of out-of-the-way villages, and they repeat them with the same nasal twang that was familiar to the ears of our grandparents.
The author of "The District School," Rev. Warren Burton, was born in Wilton, N. H., in 1800, and died at Salem, Mass., in 1866. The school he describes is the one he himself went to as a youth in his native town. His attendance began at the age of three-and-one-half in the summer of 1804 and ended with the winter term of 1817-1818, when he had arrived at the dignity of being one of the big boys on the back seat. Sixteen years later his book was published, describing the school "as it was," and the reader is given to understand that the shortcomings he pictured were no longer characteristic, so far as New England was concerned. It gives an odd impression to see the school viewed across this narrow space, as if in contrast with the enlightenment of 1833 and the improvements by then accomplished, the teaching methods and school environment of the earlier period were a part of the dark ages.
After he left the district school Mr. Burton prepared himself for Harvard College, where he graduated in 1821. Then followed several years of teaching. Next we find him taking the Harvard Theological Course, and in 1828 he was ordained as a Unitarian minister at East Cambridge. As a preacher he served in Washington, Keene and Nashua in New Hampshire, and in Hingham, Waltham, Worcester, and Boston in Massachusetts. But as time went on he preached less and devoted himself more and more to objects of reform. He was a frequent contributor to periodicals, and in both writing and lecturing he labored to promote home culture and to improve the conditions of the schools. Friends speak of him as being rather tall, with a most benevolent countenance and gentle manners. His published works include several volumes on religion and education, and, in lighter vein, these recollections of his school-days and a little book printed anonymously entitled "The Village Choir" — a humorous description of the ways and manners, quarrels and jealousies of an old-time choir in a country church.
The text in the present edition of "The District School" is practically what it was in the original. Nothing is changed, and the editing consists in a slight condensation, effected by cutting out unnecessary asides and digressions.
With the exception of a few special drawings, the illustrations are cuts from old spellers and other books of the period. I have a number of these books before me as I write. The arithmetics, grammars, and readers are sober volumes bound in full sheep. The stiff bindings are warped and battered now, the pages yellow and spotty, and they have a musty odor of age and of long years spent in dusty garret corners.
The old spellers are not much gayer. 'They have thin sides of light, splintery wood pasted over with dull gray paper. But inside there is a good deal of variety, — words from one syllable up to ponderous sixes, wise maxims, religious instruction, and many little stories with never-failing morals under their sugar coats. Lastly, there is a sprinkling of curious pictures. Both pictures and text have an unconscious humor that would put a professional wit to shame. No one by forethought could make more quaint distortions of fact and human nature. It gives the same feeling as if one were looking out on the world through the flaws of an old-time window-pane.
In the body of the book are various facsimile reproductions from the old spellers; but in closing my introduction I would like to reprint a few more bits here. For instance, take this, which is from a speller lesson for beginners.
Pigs can dig in the side of a hill.
A pig drinks swill.
Let him drink his fill of swill and milk.
The lesson following the above is this: —
Ships sail on the sea.
A ship will hold ten nags, ten hens, for-ty cats and pigs, six beds, six-ty men, and much more.
A dozen pages farther on we come to something more serious — the "Story of a Bad Boy."
Jack lov-ed to play more than he lov-ed to go to school. So he stop-ped by the way to slide on a pond. He had not slid long when he slipt into a hole cut in the ice. There he was left to hang by his hands on the cold ice, and his feet and legs in the cold water. O how sorry that he ran a-way from school! How glad and yet how sha-med, when his pa came and took him home in his arms!
Then here is a lesson designed to teach the child in an agreeable way something of natural history.
OF SHEEP, HORSES, AND BIRDS.
What has Charles got to keep him warm?
Charles has got a frock and warm petticoats.
And what have the poor sheep got; have they petticoats?
The sheep have got wool, thick, warm wool. Feel it. Oh, it is very comfortable!
That is their clothing.
And what have horses got?
Horses have got long hair; and cows have hair.
And what have pigs got?
Pigs have got bristles and hair.
And what have birds got?
Birds have got feathers; soft, clean, shining feathers.
Birds build nests in trees; that is their house. Can you climb a tree?
No. I am afraid I should fall and break my bones.
Ask puss to teach you; she can climb. See how fast she climbs! She is at the top. She wants to catch birds. Pray, puss, do not take the little birds that sing so merrily! She has got a sparrow in her mouth. She has eaten it all up. No, here are two or three feathers on the ground, all bloody. Poor sparrow!
Finally, here are a few sentences from the latter part of the spellers, apparently put in to fill a blank space at the bottom of a page.
A wise child will not learn to chew tobacco, smoke the pipe, or cigars, or take snuff, for the four following reasons : —
They are dirty habits; useless habits; costly habits; slavish habits. It is pitiful to see a strong, healthy looking man a slave to a quid of tobacco, or a puff of smoke; or a beautiful, sensible lady stuffed up or bedaubed with snuff.