A College Master again — his Character in School and out — our First Attempts at Composition — Brief Sketch of Another Teacher
MY twelfth winter has arrived. It was thought best to try a teacher from college again, as the committee had been assured that there were teachers to be found there of the first order, and well worth the high price they demanded for their services. A Mr. Ellis was engaged at twenty dollars per month, from the same institution mentioned before. Particular pains were taken to ascertain the college character, and the school-keeping experience of the gentleman, before his engagement, and they were such as to warrant the highest expectations.
The instructor was to board round in the several families of the district, who gave the board an order to lengthen the school to the usual term. It happened that he was to be at our house the first week. On Saturday Mr. Ellis arrived. It was a great event to us children for the master to stop at our house, and one from college too. We were smitten with bashfulness, and stiffened into an awkwardness unusual with us, even among strangers. But this did not last long. Our guest put us all at ease very soon. He seemed just like one of us, or like some unpuffed-up uncle from genteeler life, who had dropped in upon us for a night, with cordial heart, chatty tongue, and merry laugh. He seemed perfectly acquainted with our prevailing thoughts and feelings, and let his conversation slide into the current they flowed in, as easily as if he had never been nearer college than we ourselves. With my father he talked about the price of produce, the various processes and improvements in agriculture, and the politics of the day, and such other topics as would be likely to interest a farmer so far in the country. And those topics, indeed, were not a few. Some students would have sat in dignified or rather dumpish silence, and have gone to bed by mid-evening, simply because those who sat with them could not discourse on those deep things of science, and lofty matters of literature, which were particularly interesting to themselves. With my mother Mr. Ellis talked at first about her children. He patted a little brother on his cheek, took a sister on his knee, and inquired the baby's name. Then he drew forth a housewifely strain concerning various matters in country domestic life. Of me he inquired respecting my studies at school years past; and even condescended to speak of his own boyhood and youth, and of the sports as well as the duties of school. The fact is, that Mr. Ellis had always lived in the country till three years past; his mind was full of rural remembrances; and he knew just how to take us to be agreeable himself, and to elicit entertainment in return.
Mr. Ellis showed himself at home in school, as well as at the domestic fireside. He was perfectly familiar with his duties, as custom had prescribed them, but he did not abide altogether by the old usages. He spent much time in explaining those rules in arithmetic and grammar, and those passages in the spelling-book, with which we had hitherto lumbered our memories.
This teacher introduced a new exercise into our school, that we had never thought of before as being possible to ourselves. It was composition. We hardly knew what to make of it. To write — to put sentence after sentence like a newspaper, a hook, or a sermon — oh! we could not do this; we could not think of such a thing; indeed, it was an impossibility. But we must try, at any rate. The subject given out for this novel use of thought and pen was friendship. Friendship — what had we to say on this subject? We could feel on it, perhaps, especially those of us who had read a novel or two, and had dreamed of eternal friendship. But we had not a single idea. Friendship! oh! it is a delightful thing! This, or something similar, was about all we poor creatures could think of. What a spectacle of wretchedness did we present! A stranger would have supposed us all smitten with the toothache, by the agony expressed in the face. One poor girl put her head down into a corner, and cried till the master excused her. And, finally, finding that neither smiles nor frowns would put ideas into our heads, he let us go for that week.
In about a fortnight, to our horror, the exercise was proposed again. But it was only to write a letter. Any one could do as much as this, the master said; for almost every one had occasion to do it in the course of life. Indeed, we thought, on the whole, that we could write a letter, so at it we went with considerable alacrity.
But our attempts at the epistolary were nothing like those spirited, and even witty, products of thought which used ever to be flying from seat to seat in the shape of billets. The sprightly fancy and the gushing heart seemed to have been chilled and deadened by the reflection that a letter must be written, and the master must see it. These epistolary compositions generally began, continued, and closed all in the same way, as if all had got the same receipt from their grandmothers for letter writing. They mostly commenced in this manner: "Dear friend, I take my pen in hand to inform you that I am well, and hope you are enjoying the same blessing." Then there would be added, perhaps, "We have a very good schoolmaster; have you a good one? How long has your school got to keep? We have had a terribly stormy time on't," &c. Mark Martin addressed the master in his epistle. What its contents were I could not find out; but I saw Mr. Ellis read it. At first he looked grave, as at the assurance of the youth; then a little severe, as if his dignity was outraged; but in a moment he smiled, and finally he almost burst out with laughter at some closing witticism.
Mark's was the only composition that had any nature and soul in it. He wrote what he thought, instead of thinking what to write, like the rest of us, who, in the effort, thought just nothing at all; for we wrote words which we had seen written a hundred times before.
Mr. Ellis succeeded in delivering us from our stale and flat formalities before he had done. He gave us no more such abstract and lack-idea subjects as friendship. He learned better how to accommodate the theme to the youthful mind. We were set to describe what we had seen with our eyes, heard with our ears, and what had particularly interested our feelings at one time and another. One boy described the process of cider-making. Another gave an account of a squirrel-hunt; another of a great husking; each of which had been witnessed the autumn before. The girls described certain domestic operations. One, I remember, gave quite an amusing account of the coming and going, and final tarrying, of her mother's soap. Another penned a sprightly dialogue, supposed to have taken place between two sisters on the question, which should go a visiting with mother, and which should stay at home and "take care of the things."
The second winter (for he taught two), Mr. Ellis occasionally proposed more abstract subjects, and such as required more thinking and reasoning, but still, such as were likely to be interesting, and on which he knew his scholars to possess at least a few ideas.
I need not say how popular Mr. Ellis was in the district. He was decidedly the best schoolmaster I ever went to, and he was the last.
I have given him a place here, not because he is to be classed with his predecessors who taught the district school as it was, but because he closed the series of my own instructors there, and was the last, moreover, who occupied the old school-house. He commenced a new era in our district.
Before closing, I must give one necessary hint. Let it not be inferred from this narrative of my own particular experience, that the best teachers of district schools are to be found in college only. The very next winter, the school was blessed with an instructor even superior to Mr. Ellis, although he was not a collegian. Mr. Henry, however, had well disciplined and informed his mind, and was, moreover, an experienced teacher. I was not one of his pupils; but I was in the neighborhood, and knew of his methods, his faithfulness, and success. His tall, spare, stooping, and dyspeptic form is now distinctly before my mind's eye. I see him wearied with incessant exertion, taking his way homeward at the close of the afternoon school. His pockets are filled with compositions, to he looked over in private. There are school-papers in his hat too. A large bundle of writing-books is under his arm. Through the long evening, and in the little leisure of the morning, I see him still hard at work for the good of his pupils. Perhaps he is surrounded by a circle of the larger scholars, whom he has invited to spend the evening with him, to receive a more thorough explanation of some branch or item of study than there was time for in school. But stop — Mr. Henry did not keep the district school as it was — why, then, am I describing him?