Reminiscences of School-life in Ohio Over Fifty Years Ago
By S. Webster
The sketch of early schools in Indiana, by Hon. B. C. Hobbs, published in The Indianian a year or so ago, brought vividly to my recollection the schools I attended in Knox and Richland counties in Ohio over fifty years ago, when that region was yet mainly a dense forest with settlers scattered so widely apart that, for many years, it was only at wide intervals that children enough could be brought together to warrant employing a teacher, and than many of the pupils had so far to go--frequently two or three miles--that attendance at all was at all times laborious, and frequently attended with no little danger to life and limb.
Young people who are acquiring an education nowadays in the palatial school-houses one meets every where, with their pleasant surroundings and improved furniture, have but little idea of what it cost to get a little education in those old days. Those were the days of the old log school-house, with the clapboard roof, and its immense fire-place, with its huge fire of logs, six or eight feet long, and great wide chimney built of sticks and mud, up which the fire and smoke went roaring and cracking. For windows on three sides of the house a log was cut out, leaving a space of a foot or so in width, in which upright sticks were fastened at intervals of eight or ten inches, on which paper was pasted, which was then saturated with grease of some kind to render the paper not transparent but translucent, through which a dim light was transmitted.
Around three sides of the room was a standing side board, frequently as rough as when it came from the saw-mill, to write on; seats were rude benches, without backs, made of rough slabs from the nearest sawmill, and often made of logs split in two, and I had almost forgotten to mention the rude "puncheon" floor made of thick slabs split out of some nice straight grained wood, usually of chestnut or white ash when they could be had, and the roof made of clapboards held to their places by "weight poles." Except the little cleared patch where the school house stood, all around was usually a dense forest, which afforded an unlimited supply of whips to punish unruly urchins, a mode of punishment quite common in those days, when the teacher was "monarch of all he surveyed."
Nearby was the playground, where we played "blackman," and three-cornered cat" and "town ball" and "bull-pen" and "mumble-the-peg," wrestled and run foot races, and tried who could go the farthest at "hop-step-and-jump," and when the fun got so exciting some times that we didn't hear when called to "books" and got a switching as a punishment for our delinquency. These were the kind of colleges which graduated many a good fellow who has since that time been heard of in the United State senate, the halls of congress, the pulpit or the forum.
There is one thing to be said of the education of those old times, and that is, if pupils were not taught a vast amount of "highfalutin" nonsense, that is thought to be essential to a good education nowadays, the education of those rude times developed a large amount of good common sense and self-reliance, some thing in which it seems to me modern education is woefully deficient. But these old times notwithstanding their hardships and discomforts, had their bright side. What fun we used to have at school in those good old times, and with what zest we enjoyed it, and what droll and ludicrous incidents often occurred.
At the first school I ever attended--which was near Mount Vernon, Ohio--the teacher made a practice, after the classes had finished spelling, of asking the scholars various questions, generally on the subject of geography. On one of these occasions I remember that he put this question to a great, fat, robust young woman, of about twenty five years of age. "Where is the state of Ohio?" She answered, after some hesitation, that "she believed it was some where in Pennsylvania." The absurdity of her answer was too much for the gravity of the school; the scholars fairly roared with laughter, which the teacher joined with evident relish. It was cruel to laugh at the poor girl's ignorance, but school children don't stop to consult Chesterfield on good breeding when a good joke is to be enjoyed, even if they are sure of being laughed at themselves the next minute.
Teaching in these old times was a most terribly laborious business. There were almost as many different kinds of textbooks as there were scholars, rendering any thing like classification out of the question, and teaching had to be done, as it were, by "main strength. To be able to spell well was the height of every scholar's ambition in those days, and for a spelling-book, we had the "old Webster speller," not the "elementary," but the old original "easy standard of pronunciation," with baker, brier, cider, elecampane and superinduce, and "the pictures," and the everlasting long string of proper names of persons and places in the back part of the book, and winding up with "the grammar," as it used to be called. What an exciting time we used to have when the "first class" would stand up to spell. We used to spell for "head" then, and the one who could get up head and stay there the longest was the champion speller; and we had spellers then that could tell the difference between a stalk of corn and a stock of corn, which some people can't do nowadays with all the advantages of our "gilt-edged" schools; and we had spelling schools in those days that were spelling schools.
People then taught their children to have some kind of regard for good manners, and young people felt that they were on their good behavior, and conducted themselves with some reference to propriety and decorum. Young men had not then got it into their heads that, in order to show their good breeding, they must make blackguards of themselves. And we had another class then that has now nearly disappeared from the face of the earth--girls; not your Flora M'Flimsies, made of wire springs, padding, and whalebone, but real, flesh-and-blood, live, bouncing girls, that could spell or spin or look you in the face and talk English if they had any thing to say, and if you were guilty of any rudeness towards them, would box your ears until you would see stars of the first magnitude for a week afterwards. When we met together then for a spelling school, we would appoint two "captains," who would "toss up" for first choice in turn until the number present was exhausted, and then we would spell and mark the words misspelled by each side on a slate, and when that got tiresome we would have a new divide or "choose-up" again, as it was commonly called and then stand up and "spell down" until that got old.
But we had another way of spelling at such times to get as much fun out of it as possible. We would "choose up" and when a word was misspelled the scholar who spelled it correctly could select any speller of the opposite side he or she chose, and add to his or her own, which process was kept up until one side or the other was eventually broken up. That sport of spelling match suited me to a dot; there was fun in it that I enjoyed hugely. I invariably made choice of the pretty girls on the other side, and if I could retain my place a few minutes I would be surrounded by a bevy of girls, who enjoyed my mischievous pranks with quite as much zest as I did.
But the grand event, the crowning glory of my school-boy days, was my last spelling match, and I ask the reader's pardon for indulging in a little egotism in thus making myself the hero of the occasion. At the time spoken of, I was only a little past thirteen years of age, but at that age I had made a reputation as a speller that I felt I couldn't afford to have discounted, and consequently spent a great deal of time and hard study in memorizing the orthography of difficult words. I was, in fact, the champion speller of the school I attended. We had had spelling matches with nearly every school in our vicinity and had vanquished them all. One school several miles away sent us a challenge for a spelling match, which we promptly accepted and in the meantime I was informed that our antagonists had imported a scholar expressly to beat me, and that, if their school was beaten in the contest, they were going to challenge me to spell single-handed against the young lady they had imported, who was a lady of great personal beauty, but a little inclined to "putting on airs." She had prepared herself with especial reference to my case by carefully studying some very difficult spelling in the old United States spelling-book.
A friend apprised me of this, and before the match came off I had studied it until I had it nearly by heart, and as the result proved, beat her with her own weapons and on her own ground. The match came off according to programme, and our school was victorious as usual, when the expected challenge of a picked scholar of their school against a picked scholar of ours, was made and promptly accepted. The arrangement was that each in turn should choose a place to spell and continue to spell until one or the other should miss a word. I had first choice and chose to commense about the middle of the old Webster spelling book. We had spelled but a few pages until she missed a word, which I promptly spelled without waiting for it to be pronounced. It was then her choice of a place to spell, and just as I expected, she chose that sort of dictionary in the old United States spelling-book. We rattled the words off rapidly but had spelled only two or three pages when she missed again, and as before, I spelt the word without waiting to have it re-pronounced, and was declared the champion accordingly to their own programme.
Our pupils were, somewhat boisterous in their joy over the results and, of course, I felt greatly elated. I was literally overwhelmed with congratulations by my school-mates; but although I was the victor, I couldn't help feeling sorry for my antagonist, she was so terribly mortified over the result that she cried for vexation, but she married soon after that an eminent physician of Dayton, Ohio, and I presume has long ago forgotten the little ragged boy that beat her spelling that night.
Northern Indianian Mammoth Holiday Number, Saturday, Dec. 28, 1878 page 1
Back to YesterYear in Print