The Meditations of an Ex-School-Committee Woman


ONCE upon a time — that is the way good stories used always to begin — a certain Maine town electrified itself by choosing a woman to serve on its superintending school committee, and — to precipitate myself into the narrative as dramatically as possible — I was that woman.

Towns, as well as individuals, are subject to occasional lapses from sound judgment, and that I was the victim offered to the gods in this particular case was as fortuitous an occurrence as the aberration itself. It did not seem that I was thus distinguished above my peers on account of any especial fitness for the position, since the only reason I ever heard alleged for the choice was the statement offered by one of the members of the nominating committee that I “had nothing else to do.” I may add in passing that two years later, when the town became a city and the school committee was transformed into a school board, my name was dropped from the list on the ground that during my term of office I had “done nothing,” a result at which, as it seems to me, no one had a right to complain, since it was the only one to be expected from the given premises.

I was away from home at the time the election took place, and when I returned to find my unprepared feet suddenly planted upon the ladder of greatness, my earliest sensations were those of unmitigated dismay. In the first place, granting the alleged premises, namely, that I had nothing else to do, as a just reason for election to office, there seemed to be no limit to the surprises the future might have in store. I might awake on some melancholy morning to find myself President of the United States. Second, when I remembered with meekness the position I occupied in the voting — or non-voting — list, “ Women, Indians, idiots, and minors,” I asked myself how it happened that I was eligible for office. Was it possible to discriminate in this manner against the rest of my class, and might I not, by accepting the greatness thrust upon me, be opening the door to Indians and idiots also ?

When I mentioned these misgivings to my friends they unanimously advised me to resign myself, but not the office.

“As far as idiots are concerned,” A said cheerfully, “ the door has been open to them a long time.” “ And in regard to your feeling of unfitness for the position,” B suggested encouragingly, “you have only to remember the old story of the father’s advice to his boy on leaving home : ' Keep your mouth shut, and people won’t find out what a fool you are! ’ ”

Thus panoplied in the optimism of my friends, I examined my qualifications as they stood in my own mind, and found that they were mainly negative.

I had never taught school. My only relation toward public schools in the past had been one of those which the pupil naturally and inevitably assumes toward the teacher, — either that of active partisanship or armed neutrality. I had no prejudices to overcome, no theories to work out, no ideas that had any sufficient reason for being. I was conscious that I knew a great deal more about my neighbors’ affairs than I did about a common denominator, and that if an examination in elementary branches were proposed to me I should take to the woods. Indeed, I have a distinct recollection of one occasion early in my career as an office-holder, when an examination in arithmetic was pending in one of the grammar school grades, and I sought my young son, to whom mathematical studies presented comparatively few difficulties, for advice and assistance in preparing for the ordeal. He was engaged in some boyish avocation out of doors, and I sat beside him on a sunny bank while the business in hand was settled. When I rose to go, I left him soliloquizing as one more in sorrow than surprise, " And this is your schoolcommittee woman! ”

It will be perceived that I was very much in the position of a neophyte about to be initiated into mysteries. I sat down, as one may say, at the feet of The School System all ready to absorb it at every pore. Not being of sufficiently logical mind, I was never able to reduce The System to any definite form, or to approach it from any but an exoteric standpoint. My position in regard to this mysterious bulwark of our nation has always been that of George Sampson in Our Mutual Friend, when he says of Mrs. Wilfer’s under petticoat, — viewed only by the eye of faith, — “ After all, you know, ma’am, we know it’s there ! ” Now and then, at the full of the moon, when all the auspices seemed to favor, under the influence, let us say, of large doses of McGuffey’s Header, or when I heard the most infantile of all the physiology classes reciting,

“ My eyes, my ears, my nose,”

and so on to the triumphant finale of “ my toes,” — at such moments as these I almost caught the rustle of the advancing or retreating skirts of The System, but I was, I fear, never worthy to have full vision of it. It is impossible, however, for the most unimpressionable school-committee woman to sit forever, like a bump on a log, and learn nothing in an atmosphere where wisdom is as plenteous as dew. When a pupil bounded the United States “ On the north by Canada, on the east by Fairfield ” (Maine), “ on the south by the ‘ Artie ’ Ocean, and on the west by Van Dieman’s Land,” though I doubted his geographical accuracy, I learned something about the vagaries of which the human mind is capable.

The continuous, wearying routine of school life, the endless monotony combined with endless variation, the limitless demands on patience, the iteration and reiteration necessary to impress a single idea on the mind of the average pupil, — all these I marked, and gained from them some conception of the difficulty of the problem with which educators are confronted, — a problem rendered the more discouraging by the fact that in its solution it continually demands the impossible.

Early in my career as a school-committee woman I began to make discoveries — disheartening discoveries — like the following: The educational problem is one whose workings can never be fully accounted for by the accepted laws of nature ; the only principle which can be relied upon as of universal application being the one which sets forth that the introduction of a new element will always produce perturbations. Moreover, to an ordinary mind like my own, the constant contemplation of this problem had the effect of upsetting my previous theological convictions, and even of rendering the consolations of religion a doubtful quantity, since, after studying “ the tricks and manners ” of the aggregated youth of the community intimately, the claim that they all possessed souls seemed absolutely untenable. If it was sometimes possible to believe of the children of the lower grades that

“ Heaven lies about us in our infancy,”

it also seemed true beyond a doubt that

“ Shades of the prison house begin to close
Upon the growing boy,”

and whether his soul should be introduced to him — or he be introduced to his soul — by methods of outside or inside application became one of the most serious questions to be answered.

My experiences as a school official ushered me into a new world, — a world of hitherto undreamed of difficulties and responsibilities. At first I was disposed to dwell on the possibilities of the situation under ideal conditions, but I speedily came down to earth, and began to ask myself what could be done with the materials at hazid. I grew to love the bright faces of the children even at their naughtiest — and that was sometimes very naughty — but when, at the end of my two years’ apprenticeship, I retired from my undeserved eminence, I carried with me into the obscurity of private life the conviction — which has been growing ever since — that it is not the children, but the teachers, who stand in need of a champion. Indeed, my only reason for dragging my ancient honors with such a flourish of trumpets into public gaze is to give myself some apparent claim to hurl my glove into the arena in the teacher’s behalf, and to hurl it so violently that somebody will know it is there, and so rise up and call me blessed — or the contrary !

A teacher is in the nature of things a creature sui generis ; his world is not our world. Even Charles Lamb — even the gentle Elia — has his gibe at " the schoolmaster ” in the midst of his pity for him because he is compelled in the very nature of things to regard the universe itself as an eternal lesson book. “ The least part of what is to be expected of him ” (the schoolmaster), Lamb tells us, “ is to be done in school hours. He must insinuate knowledge at the mollia tempora fandi. He must seize every occasion — the season of the year, the time of day, a passing cloud, a rainbow, a wagon of hay, a regiment of soldiers going by — to inculcate something useful. Nothing comes to him not spoiled by the sophisticating medium of moral uses.” A clergyman’s profession offers the nearest parallel to that of a teacher, but the former is supposed to be under the direct guidance and protection of the higher powers, whereas the teacher, with most of the clergyman’s responsibilities, is obliged to accept as his immediate Providence a school board of whom it is not always possible to say, “ Of such is the kingdom of heaven.” It is true that we, as parents, have more far-reaching duties toward our children than their teachers can have ; but if we do not choose to perform these duties, there is, unless we transgress the law of the land, no one who is entitled to call us to account. There are, however, periods when we exist simply for the purpose of calling the teacher to account. Is he not paid out of the public treasury ? Go to, then! if our children are not models, is it not his duty to make them so ?

It is, to the initiated, a self-evident fact that for the thoroughly successful teacher there is but one standard : he must be an angel for temper, a demon for discipline, a chameleon for adaptation, a diplomatist for tact, an optimist for hope, and a hero for courage. To these common and easily developed qualities of mind and heart, he should add india-rubber nerves, and a cheerful willingness to trust a large portion of his reward to some other world than this. One of the most difficult phases of the teacher’s profession is the fact that he, more than almost any other man, is at the mercy of theorists. Nearly every educational dignitary who enters into the subject with any energy of purpose brings his pet theories into the work with him, and who but the long-suffering teacher shall put those theories into action, and discover whether they have any practical basis ? Oftentimes, unfortunately, the theories go on operating long after it has been sufficiently demonstrated that their basis is untenable. Take, for instance, the “ development ” theory, which is intended, as far as one can judge, to develop the child at the expense of the teacher. This theory dispenses largely with the use of textbooks, being based on the idea that the child, if cut off from other sources of supply, can go on indefinitely spinning a thread out of his own inner consciousness. The teacher soon finds out that there is an inherent difference between a child and a silkworm, and that the latter is much better fitted by nature to furnish cocoons on a business basis. As a matter of fact, it is the teacher who does most of the spinning. One teacher writes me : “ I am very much dissatisfied with the work in grammar, or ‘ language ’ as it is now called. The pupils do not have books ; we write from year to year the lessons for the classes on the board. The pupils copy into blank books what is necessary. It seems to me drudgery for the teacher to be required to do so much unnecessary work. The pupils need some technical grammar, — need to know how to use books. One reason why Latin is so hard for them during their first year in the high school is that they do not know how to use an English grammar.”

It is tolerably obvious that when the pupil who is living from hand to mouth on the contents of a grammar book or a “ sum book” of his own construction desires to know anything not contained in these invaluable classics, he must, unless he has become thoroughly versed in the cocoon process, ask his teacher, who thus becomes the final authority in these branches. I once heard of a young man who, when teaching a country school, was much disturbed by an unpleasant tendency on the part of his pupils to ask him the definitions of words with which he was not familiar. One day, resorting in his exasperation to the vernacular of his youth, which seemed to him to make the statement doubly emphatic, he put an end to these inquiries. “ I want you to remember,” he said with decision, “ that I ain’t no dictionary ! ” I imagine that the teacher referred to and others similarly situated have long desired to proclaim freely and to all whom it may concern, “ I ain’t no grammar ! ”

Another comment upon the workings of the cocoon theory is that which I have many times heard from high school teachers who complain that pupils coming from the grammar grades are so accustomed to being carried along by the teacher that the work of teaching them methods of independent thought is an exceedingly difficult one. The same complaint is made by grammar school teachers whose graduates — as is the custom in some schools — are admitted to the high school on probation for two months, at the end of which time, if unable or unwilling ” to keep up with the class, they can be sent back to the grammar school. “ I contend that it is not fair,” says one teacher. “ The pupils cannot in two months’ time get used to the change from grammar to high school methods, inasmuch as in the high they are thrown on their own resources, while in the grammar they are spurred on by the teacher.” There is one gleam of hope in regard to these methods of child development. The people who are making a specialty of child study with a view to being able eventually to take the dear little victims apart like dissected maps, and, by combining Tommy’s superior abilities with Willie’s unresting energy and Samuel’s moral virtues, construct a model for the species, — these wise philosophers, it seems to me, must sooner or later discover that the amount of spinning material in a child’s interior has been overestimated, and that the dreamed of cocoon process is only another instance of

“ The desire of the moth for the star ! ”

Another modern notion which helps to make the path of the school-teacher a thorny one is the theory that a child ought to be putting out simultaneously and in every direction as many feelers as a centipede has legs. As a matter of fact, a pupil who has learned thoroughness and application has acquired something, even if he cannot explain the precession of the equinoxes or tell how many feathei’s there are in a hen. There used, in the former days, to be a good many poetic similes in which the unfolding of a child’s mind was likened to the gradual opening of a flower, leaf by leaf. The revised plan admits of no such sentimental and slowmoving processes. A child’s mind is now opened like an umbrella, expanding equally and instantaneously at all points, and, fortunately for the child, it also resembles the umbrella in that it sheds a good deal more than it retains.

Perhaps I can best illustrate what is attempted in this expansive process by giving an actual schedule of work, furnished me by a teacher in grammar grades. The teacher in question has had long experience, and is deeply interested in her work, in which she has been most successful. It is, in fact, because she has an exalted ideal of what a teacher’s work should be that she complains of the constantly increasing demands which make it impossible for her to do work satisfactory to herself in any department.

I give her details of regular classes and “ extras,” with some of the comments added by herself : —

“ Two classes reading; try to study author’s meaning, give expression to same ; tell about author ; phonics in lower grades. Two classes spelling; definitions ; use of words in sentences. Two classes geography. The geography taught is mostly physical. The pupil learns very little of his own country, does n’t even know the names and capitals of states. I asked one of mine to point out Boston on the map, and, to my surprise, she hunted in the woods of Maine!

“ Two classes history. Two classes grammar. Two classes arithmetic.

“ These classes constitute the regular programme. Add to these the following extras : —

“ On Mondays we have the American Citizen. Write Greek stories each week. Twice each week, writing. Once a week physiology, including hygiene and temperance. Twice a term study some poem and send result to superintendent.

“ Our music teacher comes once in two weeks. He selects one or two pieces of music, and we teach the pupils. In two weeks more he comes to see the results of our work. Pupils must sing every day. The special teacher in gymnastics comes once in two weeks and takes the class herself, after which we give lessons each day until she comes again. Our next extra teacher is in mechanical drawing. He teaches only in the high school and highest grammar grade. We have had no instruction in geometry. He went to the board and drew an equilateral triangle, tried to get the name from pupils. I finally told him that I doubted if they had ever heard the word. He said they would have to do most of the figures by copying them. I question the advantage gained.

“We have also questions in physics, copied on cards and sent to the principals of each grammar grade. These have been given to the pupils to try at home and afterwards at school. Have not yet had time to test results.

“ Instead of examinations at the end of the term, as formerly, we now give tests each month, so that I always have sets of papers to be corrected and ranked. We get the total average of all, the average of each study, the class standing, our estimate of each pupil, — which we guess at, — and then the general average. If you add to our course some of the requirements of the larger cities, manual training, sewing, cooking, algebra, Latin, science, and geometry, you can see how the grammar school course has been overcrowded, — ‘ enriched,’ they call it, — and why it is so hard for us to do thorough work, with so many things to cram into the poor children’s brains.”

I confess that, as far as I am personally concerned, when I reached this point in the narrative I positively declined to “ add ” anything more. I was already mentally black and blue, and felt that one more extra would be more than flesh could bear. Indeed, when the writer of the schedule went on to state that she was at that moment suffering from an illness one of the manifestations of which was the inflammation of every particle of mucous membrane in her body, I felt, in the midst of my compassion, the sort of elation which comes from seeing the logical sequence of events carried out to its legitimate conclusion. Why should not her mucous membrane be inflamed, and all her microbes get out on the warpath ? It seems the only natural result to be expected from the successful working of an enriched grammar school course.


It may, perhaps, have been observed, in my exposition of the sufferings of the teacher in the preceding pages, that the authorities quoted have been mostly taken from my own sex, and if, when I go on to propose my long-meditated scheme for organizing a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Teachers, I assume that this society would be predominantly female in its membership, which would presumably be largely recruited from the ranks of the teachers themselves, the reasons for such an assumption would not all be drawn from an offensive partisanship on my part.

There are probably three times as many women as men engaged in teaching in the United States ; moreover, so far as I have been able to observe, the men teachers have fewer wrongs that cry aloud for redress. The man who is a good disciplinarian, who can “ govern a school,” is practically his own man everywhere. He may be inexperienced, liable to mistakes, not wholly up to par in intellectual acquirements, but if he has that in him which enables him to control and stimulate pupils, the average school board does not greatly interfere with him. As for the reverse of the picture, the man who, as the phrase is, “ has no government,” the sooner he seeks some other avocation the better for all concerned. He was not born for school-teaching. With the woman teacher, however, the case is always and innately different. She may have taught for years, may fill her position admirably as one who is mistress of it, but she can never acquire so large a stock of knowledge, discretion, tact, or experience, but that a man, any man, because he is a man, can teach her something about her duties.

In the smaller cities and towns the superintendents of common schools and principals of high schools are very likely to be bright young fellows, who have just been graduated from college, and wish to fill these positions for a few years in order to lay up money for studying a profession. They come to their work fresh-hearted, filled with confidence and theories, and the woman teacher who has seen the same theories rise and flourish and decay under previous régimes is expected to greet each new appearance with perennial ardor, and manifest the same surprise when they disappear into the eternal framework of things. She no sooner accustoms herself to the amiable vagaries of one superintendent of schools than another and different sun rises on her horizon, and she is obliged to learn a new and varied style of genuflections toward the East. Meanwhile, the school board, excellent men who frequently understand their own business much better than that of other people, are at perfect liberty, when they find a moment’s leisure to attend to it, to move her about as if she were a pawn on a chessboard.

During her official working hours the teacher is responsible for the health, manners, and morals, as well as the intellectual progress, of her pupils. She is equally at fault in regard to the bright ones who are kept back and the stupid ones who are not brought forward. On the days when rank is announced she is to expect to be greeted with tears and innuendoes on the part of those pupils who habitually expeet rewards they have not worked for. All the loss of time and mental energy brought about by practice in athletics, by dancing schools, evening gayeties, and the like, lies, of course, at her door. As a rule, parents know that these things must be the teacher’s fault. When, after dismissing those victims who are unjustly kept after school, the teacher goes home at night, she is accompanied by lessons to study, papers of different kinds to correct, work to lay out, and wasted tissues to renew.

But does the teacher have no recreations ? Certainly, — her recreations are many, but not varied. Not infrequently the school superintendent has a hobby, in which case he forms classes in psychology, history, pedagogy, or what not, and the teacher may find recreation by joining in these intellectual revels. If she does not join, it may be suspected that the root of the matter is not in her. There are teachers’ meetings also, sometimes for conference and for conveying information of real benefit, and sometimes for the purpose of telling the teacher something she has heard before, or that she knows has no practical truth in it. If she is too weary to go out when her tasks are ended she may refresh herself at her home by reading educational publications, for one or more of which she is recommended to subscribe. Almost every term there are teachers’ institutes or conventions, where she can hear papers read all day, and attend a lecture in the evening. She would better not attend whist or dancing parties, lest she should be quoted as setting a bad example to her pupils, but she is at perfect liberty to “ prepare a paper ” for a woman’s club, study American history with the Daughters of the Revolution, plunge into the wild dissipation of church socials, or join in the revels at a “ pronunciation picnic,” a form of entertainment which I have seen gravely recommended by authorities on educational matters.

In the summer, during the long vacation, there are summer schools. These begin in July, and continue through August. They are not compulsory, but it is a politic measure for the woman teacher to attend one or more of them. Here she may meet other superintendents and other teachers, hear more papers read, and attend more lectures. Or she may join a Traveler’s Club, provide herself with a bag and a hammer, and go to and fro over the earth, chipping off the face of nature, and taking in instruction at the pores. In short, she may do what she pleases, provided there are papers and lectures and tediousness connected with it, and provided she never, never, allows herself — or anybody else — to forget that she is a schoolma’am.

There is a hue and cry raised sometimes that the higher education for women diminishes the ratio of marriages. A large number of college-educated women become school-teachers because it is necessary for them to be self-supporting, and when they have once plunged into the vortex, opportunities for marriage must be either accidental or miraculous. The masculine superintendents and principals are usually men already married, or, if of callow years, they are apt to be “ engaged ” to some giddy girl whose knowledge of psychology has been mainly acquired by sitting under white umbrellas at the seashore, or on the stairs at evening parties. The young men who show themselves at the summer schools either bring their wives with them, or appear for a brief period in order to “ read a paper,” or deliver a lecture on an abstruse subject, before retiring in good order to some spot where there is more fun and less wisdom. Occasionally it occurs to two educators to wed each other, but this is sometimes more objectionable than the marriage of cousins.

When the society of which I have dreamed has been organized, it will involve the sending of female teachers during each vacation period to some frivolous place of resort where the labels will be taken off their backs, and they will be forbidden under penalty of law to listen to papers or lectures, to talk shop, or “ take a course ” in anything but hilarity. They will be encouraged to ride and row, play golf and tennis, to climb mountains for the fun of it, without making the least effort to find out what ingredients enter into the composition of the everlasting hills. They will also be allowed to dance, to talk with young men on subjects distinctly uninstructive, to sit on the sea sand, and ask no questions about what the wild waves are saying, and to wake in the night without utilizing the time by repeating the multiplication table or giving the parts of speech.

What effect this society will have remains to be seen, but I believe the experiment is worth trying.


When I had progressed thus far in my “ Meditations ” A came in, and I read to him what I had written. A is always a good target at which to fire one’s mental ammunition, because he is willing to comment, and has no scruple about saying disagreeable things if he considers that the occasion calls for them.

“ There is some French writer, — I’ve forgotten which one,” he began with his usual cheerful readiness when I had finished, — “ who says there are three sexes, — ' men, women, and clergymen.’ I see you divide them into men, women, and teachers.”

“On the contrary,” I asserted, “I have taken especial pains to discriminate between the men and women teachers, and to call attention to the fact that ‘male and female created he them.’ ”

“ Oh yes ; you’ve discriminated as one discriminates between Methodist and Baptist, or as a man does if you ask him, ' What’s the difference ? ’ and he answers, ‘ Oh, the difference is the odds ! ’ You say the male of the species is more independent than the female, and has a better time ; but, in general, you’ve lumped them together as a set of poor devils, just a little outside the pale of common humanity, who can never allow themselves to he moved by the sweet influences of the Pleiades, or feel their hearts leap up when they behold a rainbow in the sky without remarking, —

‘ Thanks for the lesson of this spot ! ’ ”

“ I have tried to describe them,” I answered with that immediate personal application of the subject for which my sex is noted, " as beings of like passions as ourselves, and doing a great deal more for the uplifting of society than you and I are ever likely to do. They would be overworked if they had only their own legitimate burdens to carry, but, in addition, we — you and I and the rest of the world — are always shoving off our responsibilities on to them, and every educator who has a new theory is asking them to embody it in their work.”

“ Now, see here,” A said comfortably ; “just remain calm! A woman always gets so excited over everything. I had an idea that the modern school-teacher — and I ’ll call him a her since you seem to prefer it — had a good deal done for her. Are n’t we building schoolhouses for her full of light and air, and ventilation and sanitation, and all the rest of it? Don’t we give her school libraries, and pictures on the walls, and plants in the windows ? Are n’t we talking now,” he went on with a grin, “ of letting her add menageries to the other attractions, — cats and dogs, and hencoops under the windows, and sheepfolds pretty soon, where the kids can observe the whole evolution of the Duchess Trousers, ' from the sheep to the man ’ ? What more do you want ? ”

“ I don’t want any more ; I want a good deal less. As a rule, every added ‘ attraction,’ as you call it, means more work for the teacher.”

“ And you don’t think you have overstated the case — just for the sake of making out a good story, you know ? ”

“ I think,” I affirmed, with just that degree of increased warmth which this question was intended to call forth, “ that I have understated it. I have said nothing about the extra work at graduation and exhibition seasons, neither have I mentioned the subject of school fairs and debates, nor the parties and rides where the teacher is expected to officiate as ‘ guide, philosopher, and friend.’ Why,” — casting all moderation to the winds, and prepared to nail my colors to the mast, — “ from the time a child first enters school until he departs from it, the teacher seems to be expected to do everything for him but put him to bed.”

“ The teacher does sometimes hear him say his prayers,” A remarked gravely. " I can testify to that.”

“ This state of things is n’t confined to any one place either,” I went on, plunging once more into unqualified assertion. " I have a friend who teaches in one of the Boston schools, the last person in the world who would ever voluntarily be found marching in processions, or engaging in hand-to-hand encounters with mobs. Yet on Dewey Day she spent hours in helping to marshal a host of school children through crowded streets, picking them from under the feet of trampling hordes, and protecting them from utter destruction when they were overrun by mob violence.”

“Well, what then? Would you have had the poor little chaps all left at home ? That’s the way we teach ’em patriotism, — rub it in, you see.”

“ Every one of those children,” I said severely, " was legally entitled to two parents. There must be some use for parents in the everlasting economy of things, though many of them don’t seem to suspect it. If the time ever comes when the enriched natural history courses demand that the pupil shall be sent into wild beasts’ cages in order to observe their habits, it is the teacher who will be doomed to accompany him. And if during the visit the lion begins to lick his chaps and demand food, it is the teacher who will he expected to come cheerfully to the front and say, ' Eat me! When I accepted my present munificent salary, I prepared myself, of course, not to falter at little sacrifices like this.’ In the meantime the child will have retired in good order, and the parent — the female parent — will be safely at home embroidering a doily, or writing a paper for the Woman’s Club. What the male parent will be doing is one of the things ‘ no fellow could be expected to know ’! ” “What I admire about you,” A said, with his hand upon the door knob, “ is the restraint you put upon your imagination.” He stepped outside, then reappeared for an instant to inquire, “ Well, what are you going to do about it ? ” and with this Parthian shot he kindly closed the door, — kindly, because he was well aware that I did not know the answer to his question.

Martha Baker Dunn.