The Old Village Academy
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
MAY I not say a word for the village academy, an institution that, like the little red schoolhouse, is growing more and more a thing of the past ? I do not refer here to the large schools and seminaries in important towns, that draw their pupils from a wide range of country, and sometimes from half the States in the Union, but to the small academies, or “ select schools,” which used to be found in almost every moderately large township. These have been crowded out by the high school, with its corps of teachers, its costly apparatus, and all the paraphernalia of a modern institution of learning.
Far be it from me to say the change is not for the better. Very likely it is. Yet one thing is certain. The boys and girls of the old village academy were, in a certain sense, a picked set. They were fired with the love of learning. But the high school is a part of the system, the highest point in the grade. If the boy stays long enough, he gets hoisted up there at last, — sometimes by his own efforts, sometimes by those of his teachers.
I want to tell a little story of fifty years ago, when the red schoolhouse and the village academy divided the honors between them. Fifty years, did I say ? Fifty-four, if you please, for it was the winter of 1838-39. It so happened that, in a certain New England neighborhood, where the daily stagecoach to Troy and another “ over the mountain ” were the only avenues of communication with the outside world, there was a group of four young persons, — three girls and one boy, — who concocted among themselves (with the aid and coöperation of their parents, of course) a plan for attending the academy in a village two miles off. They must ride ; for winter pedestriauism was not to be thought of, through snow drifts and “ mighty, rushing winds,” with the thermometer far below zero. A real coöperative establishment was the result. Mr. A furnished the steady-going old gray mare. Mr. B provided a two-seated wagon, or sleigh, according to circumstances ; for, unfortunately, our snow was fickle-minded. It could not be depended upon to come in November and remain till March. Mr. C paid for the “ keeping ” of old Dolly, and Mr. D did something, — I forget what, The one boy of the party was the charioteer ; and, duly as the sun, he appeared at our respective gates every morning to gather up his merry comrades. Let me say here, by way of concession to the Goddess of Good Form, if there be such an one, that while I, who was the youngest of the quartette, was not quite fourteen, the eldest was a staid, womanly girl of twenty, who might have been forty as far as dignity of demeanor went. So our guardians, who were by no means forgetful of the proprieties in that far day, considered us sufficiently chaperoned.
Well muffled in hoods, cloaks, and shawls, and each with a lunch-basket and a satchel of books, off we went, up hill and down dale, in the clear, sparkling sunshine, or under lowering winter skies,— it did not matter which. What did we care for cold or dampness, in those days when rheumatism was not, and neuralgia had never been heard of ?
The academy was in the second story of the old town hall, just within the shadow of the tall church steeple. The stairs were rough, and, if the truth must be told, not always over-clean. The one large room, with its whitewashed walls and its many shadeless windows, was as plain as a flagstaff. Two or three blackboards, dingy with long use, faced the five rows of dullred desks that ran backward to the further wall. The teacher’s platform was at the right of the door. In the middle of the room was a great box stove, and there may have been a chair or two for visitors. That was all. There was not a globe, nor a map, nor a picture. It seems to me there was a big Webster’s Dictionary for the common weal, but I am not so sure of that.
As for the scholars, they were in appearance a motley group, — democratic to the last degree. As we crowded round the stove on a keen, frosty morning. when all the windows were like ground glass, and every nail in the heavy door was white, “cloth of frieze ” touched “cloth of gold,” and neither was disturbed by the contact.
But as I look backward to those busy, shining hours, my first thought is, “ How we all studied ! How eager we were ! How joyfully we worked ! What keen delight we took in construing an intricate sentence, or in solving a hard problem ! ” There were about fifty scholars, — possibly there were seventy-five, — and among them was a group of eight or ten bright young fellows who were fitting for college ; preparing to enter as sophomores the ensuing autumn. What an ambitious lot we were, to be sure ! I was the only girl in the “advanced Latin,” and had the honor of occupying a seat on one end of the long, narrow recitation bench, a little withdrawn, as was proper, from those stars of the first magnitude. The problem of coeducation had not come up then. If a girl wanted to study with her brothers, cousins, or friends, she did it, and that was all there was of it. How we sought for the derivation of words ! How we reveled in the classical dictionary, brought by one of us, and thrown into the common stock, passing from hand to hand, from desk to desk ! The first word of greeting in the morning was a question about the coming lesson ; the latest word at night was a reminder of the last one.
How many teachers did we have ? Just one. At this distant day, I doubt very much if he was a marvel of learning, though I thought he was then. He was a young man, barely out of college himself ; and he certainly could not have had very wide experience of books or men. But he had the rare gift of stimulating and inspiring his scholars, and of kindling every latent spark of enthusiasm in their natures. “ Enthusiasm ” is a better word than “ ambition ” in this connection. Study was a joyful labor, done for the pure love of it. It was its own end ; not simply a means to some other end.
The village academy taught concentration and command of one’s self, if it taught nothing else. Study and recitation went on in the same room and at the same time. We had but few ironclad rules of conduct. Whispering inordinately was, of course, not allowable. But if there seemed real occasion for speaking, we spoke, and no one was the worse for it. No one in that schoolroom had ever heard the expression “ good form.” It was not in vogue then. But if it had been, we should have announced with one voice that it was not good form to distur b others. A good deal of latitude was allowed, also, as to morning tardiness, and the hours of coming and going. This had to be. Probably there were not a dozen of the boys who had not “ chores ” to do for somebody. And chores were very indefinite ; they had a way of spinning out, now and then, of a short, dark winter morning, that was very exasperating.
In one important respect the village academy of half a century ago differed widely from the schools of to-day. Greek and Latin, algebra and geometry, the prescribed studies of the day, whatever they might be, were well taught, and possibly after a sturdier fashion than they are now. But in most cases — naturally there were exceptions to all general rules then as now — the wide, enchanting fields of English literature and history were left untilled. The average rural student could tell you the story of the Iliad, but not that of Hamlet and Macbeth. He knew all about Helen of Troy and Dido of Carthage ; but the chances were that he had seldom so much as heard of Portia and Juliet, Rowena or Jeanie Deans. He had a parsing (not passing) acquaintance with Paradise Lost, and also with Pollock’s Course of Time and Young’s Night Thoughts. The loftiest passages in Milton were associated in his mind solely with the grammarian’s dissecting table. As for the names of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley, they were to him sounds, and nothing more.
Of art he knew absolutely nothing, — nothing of its birth, its growth, its history, its aspirations ; hardly even of its great names. Very likely his whole idea of art centred in the fact that his sister “ took ” drawing lessons, or dabbled in pale watercolors, or perhaps, if she were very fortunate, had learned to paint velvet bags and cushions in stencil.
He knew the history of Greece and Rome fairly well, and could give you the dates of the Punic wars ; but ten to one he did not know the date of the Norman Conquest, nor when nor where John signed Magna Charta.
All this, and much more that is taught the children of this day and generation almost before they are out of swaddling clothes, we older folk who were in school fifty years ago have had to pick up as we best could, — pick up in crumbs by the wayside, as it were.
And yet — and yet — I have sometimes wondered if half the joy of life had not been in that very picking up ! Our appetites were not satiated at the start. They were only whetted.
I suppose we had some sort of an examination, or exhibition, at the close of that winter term, but I have no recollection of it. I only know that it all came to an end at last : that old Dolly carried us over the winding road for the last time, and was turned out to graze in the spring pastures ; that the coöperative quartette disbanded ; that most of us have never met one another from that day to this ; and that by far the greater part of the boys and girls who studied together that winter can never be seen again anywhere by mortal eye. Let us sing Auld Lang Syne by way of doxology, and pronounce the benediction over the old village academy.