How they used to read in the Old School-house in District No. V
IN this description of the District School, as it was, that frequent and important exercise, Reading, must not be omitted, — Reading as it was. Advance, then, ye readers of the Old School-house, and let us witness your performances.
We will suppose it is the first day of the school. "Come and read," says the mistress to a little flaxen-headed creature of doubtful gender; for the child is in petticoats, and sits on the female side, as close as possible to a guardian sister. But then those coarser features, tanned complexion, and close-clipped hair, with other minutić of aspect, are somewhat contradictory to the feminine dress. "Come and read." It is the first time that this he or she was ever inside of a school-house, and in the presence of a school-ma'am, according to recollection, and the order is heard with shrinking timidity. But the sister whispers an encouraging word, and helps "tot" down from the seat, who creeps out into the aisle, and hesitates along down to the teacher, biting his fingers, or scratching his head, perhaps both, to relieve the embarrassment of the novel situation. "What is your name, dear?" "Tholomon Icherthon," lisps the now-discovered he, in a phlegm-choked voice, scarce above a whisper. "Put your hands down by your side, Solomon, and make a bow." He obeys, if a short and hasty jerk of the head is a bow. The alphabetical page of the spelling-book is presented, and he is asked, "What's that? " But he cannot tell. He is but two years and a half old, and has been sent to school to relieve his mother from trouble, rather than to learn. No one at home has yet shown or named a letter to him. He has never had even that celebrated character, round O, pointed out to his notice. It was an older beginner, most probably, who, being asked a similar question about the first letter of the alphabet, replied, "I know him by sight, but can't tell him by name." But our namesake of the wise man does not know the gentleman even by sight, nor any of his twenty-five companions.
Solomon Richardson has at length said A, B, C, for the first time in his life. He has read.
"That's a nice boy; make another bow, and go to your seat." He gives another jerk of the head, and whirls on his heel, and trots back to his seat, meeting the congratulatory smile of his sister with a satisfied grin, which, put into language, would be, "There, I've read, ha'nt I?"
The little chit, at first so timid, and almost inaudible in enunciation, in a few days becomes accustomed to the place and the exercise; and, in obedience to the "Speak up loud, that's a good boy," he soon pipes off er, B-er, C-er, &c., with a far-ringing shrillness, that vies even with chanticleer himself. Solomon went all the pleasant days of the first summer, and nearly every day of the next, before he knew all the letters by sight, or could call them by name. Strange that it should take so long to become acquainted with these twenty-six characters, when, in a month's time, the same child becomes familiar with the forms and the names of hundreds of objects in nature around, or in use about his father's house, shop, or farm! Not so very strange either, if we only reflect a moment. Take a child into a party of twenty-six persons, all strangers, and lead him from one to the other as fast as his little feet can patter, telling him their respective names, all in less than ten minutes; do this four times a day even, and you would not be surprised if he should be weeks at least, if not months, in learning to designate them all by their names. Is it any matter of surprise, then, that the child should be so long in becoming acquainted with the alphabetical party, when he is introduced to them precisely in the manner above described? Then, these are not of different heights, complexions, dresses, motions, and tones of voice, as a living company have. But there they stand in an unalterable line, all in the same complexions and dress; all just so tall, just so motionless and mute and uninteresting, and, of course, the most unrememberable figures in the world. No wonder that some should go to school, and "sit on a bench, and say A B C," as a little girl said, for a whole year, and still find themselves strangers to some of the sable company, even then. Our little reader is permitted at length to turn a leaf, and he finds himself in the region of the Abs, — an expanse of little syllables, making me, who am given to comparisons, think of an extensive plain whereon there is no tree or shrub or plant, or anything else inviting to the eye, and nothing but little stones, stones, stones, all about the same size. And what must the poor little learner do here? Why, he must hop from cobble to cobble, if I may so call ab, eb, ib, as fast as he possibly can, naming each one, after the voice of the teacher, as he hurries along. And this must be kept up until he can denominate each lifeless and uninteresting object on the face of the desert.
After more or less months, the weary novice ceases to be an Ab-ite. He is next put into whole words of one syllable, arranged in columns. The first word we read in Perry that conveyed anything like an idea, was the first one in the first column, — the word ache: ay, we did not easily forget what this meant, when once informed; the corresponding idea, or rather feeling, was so often in our consciousness. Ache, — a very appropriate term with which to begin a course of education so abounding in pains of body and of mind.
After five pages of this perpendicular reading, if I may so call it, we entered on the horizontal, that is, on words arranged in sentences and paragraphs. This was reading in good earnest, as grown-up folks did, and something with which tiny childhood would be very naturally puffed up. "Easy Lessons" was the title of about a dozen separate chapters, scattered at intervals among the numerous spelling columns, like brambly openings here and there amid the tall forest. Easy lessons, because they consisted mostly of little monosyllabic words, easy to be pronounced. But they were not easy as it regards being understood. They were made up of abstract moral sentences, presenting but a very faint meaning to the child, if any at all. Their particular application to his own conduct he would not perceive, of course, without help; and this it scarcely ever entered the head or the heart of the teacher to afford.
In the course of summers, how many I forget, we arrived at the most manly and dignified reading the illustrious Perry had prepared for us. It was entitled "Moral Tales and Fables." In these latter, beasts and birds talked like men; and strange sorts of folks, called Jupiter, Mercury, and Juno, were pictured as sitting up in the clouds, and talking with men and animals on earth, or as down among them doing very unearthly things. To quote language in common use, we kind o' believed it all to be true, and yet we kind o' didn't. As for the "moral" at the end, teachers never dreamed of attracting our attention to it. Indeed, we had no other idea of all these Easy Lessons, Tales, and Fables, than that they were to be syllabled from the tongue in the task of reading. That they were to sink into the heart, and make us better in life, never occurred to our simple understandings.
Among all the rest were five pieces of poetry, — charming stuff to read; the words would come along one after another so easily, and the lines would jingle so pleasantly together at the end, tickling the car like two beads in a rattle. "Oh! give us poetry to read, of all things," we thought.
We generally passed directly from the spelling-book to the reading-book of the first class, although we were ranked the second class still. Or perhaps we took a book which had been formerly used by the first class; for a new reading-book was generally introduced once in a few years in compliance with the earnest recommendation of the temporary teacher. While the first. class were in Scott's Lessons, we of the second were pursuing their tracks, not altogether understandingly, through Adams' Understanding Reader. When a new master persuaded them into Murray, then we were admitted into Scott.
The principal requisites in reading, in these days, were to read fast, mind the "stops and marks," and speak up loud. As for suiting the tone to the meaning, no such thing was dreamed of, in our school at least. As much emphasis was laid on an insignificant of or and as on the most important word in the piece. But no wonder we did not know how to vary our tones, for we did not always know the meaning of the words, or enter into the general spirit of the composition. This was very frequently, indeed almost always, the case with the majority even of the first class. Parliamentary prose and Mil-tonic verse were just about as good as Greek for the purpose of modulating the voice according to meaning. It scarcely ever entered the heads of our teachers to question us about the ideas hidden in the great, long words and spacious sentences. It is possible that they did not always discover it themselves. "Speak up there, and not read like a mouse in a cheese; and mind your stops," — such were the principal directions respecting the important art of elocution. Important it was most certainly considered; for each class must read twice in the forenoon, and the same in the afternoon, from a quarter to half an hour each time, according to the size of the class. Had they read but once or twice, and but little at a time, and this with nice and very profitable attention to tone and sense, parents would have thought the master most miserably deficient in duty, and their children cheated out of their rights, notwithstanding the time thus saved should be most assiduously devoted to other all-important branches of education.
It ought not to be omitted, that the Bible, particularly the New Testament, was the reading twice a day, generally, for all the classes adequate to words of more than one syllable. It was the only reading of several of the younger classes under some teachers. On this practice I shall make but a single remark. As far as my own experience and observation extended, reverence for the sacred volume was not deepened by this constant but exceedingly careless use.