« PreviousContinue »
history." Think of it, you word-mongering, gerund-grinding teachers who delight in signs and symbols, and figures and "facts," and feed little children's souls on the dry, innutritious husks of knowledge; and think of it, you play-abhorring, fiction-forbidding parents! Awaken the interest in learning, and the thirst for knowledge, and there is no predicting what may or what may not result from it. Scarcely a man, distinguished for the supremacy or the beauty of his immortal part, has written the history of his childhood without recording the fact that the celestial fire was first kindled in his soul by means similar to those which awakened an "interest in learning" and a "thirst for knowledge" in the mind of Horace Greeley.
Horace learned to read before he had learned to talk; that is, before he could pronounce the longer words. No one regularly taught him. When he was little more than two years old, he began to pore over the Bible, opened for his entertainment on the floor, and examine with curiosity the newspaper given him to play with. He cannot remember a time when he could not read, nor can any one give an account of the process by which he learned, except that he asked questions incessantly, first about the pictures in the newspaper, then about the capital letters, then about the smaller ones, and finally about the words and sentences. At three years of age he could read easily and correctly any or the books prepared for children; and at four, any book whatever. But he was not satisfied with overcoming the ordinary difficulties of reading. Allowing that nature gives to every child a certain amount of mental force to be used in acquiring the art of reading, Horace had an overplus of that force, which he employed in learning to read with his book in positions which increased the difficulty of the feat. All the friends and neighbors of his early childhood, in reporting him a prodigy unexampled, adduce as the unanswerable and clinching proof of the fact, that, at the age of four years, he could read any book in whatever position it might be placed,―right-side up, up-side down, or sidewise.
His third winter Horace spent at the house of his grandfather, David Woodburn, in Londonderry, attended the district school there, and distinguished himself greatly. He had no right to attend the Londonderry school, and the people of the rural districts
are apt to be strenuous upon the point of not admitting to their school pupils from other towns; but Horace was an engaging child; " every one liked the little, white-headed fellow," says a surviving member of the school committee, "and so we favored him."
A district school-and what was a district school forty years ago? Horace Greeley never attended any but a district school, and it concerns us to know what manner of place it was, and what was its routine of exercises.
The school-house stood in an open place, formed (usually) by the crossing of roads. It was very small, and of one story; contained one apartment, had two windows on each side, a small door in the gable end that faced the road, and a low door-step before it. It was the thing called HOUSE, in its simplest form. But for its roof, windows, and door, it had been a BOX, large, rough, and unpainted. Within and without, it was destitute of anything ornamental. It was not enclosed by a fence; it was not shaded by a tree. The sun in summer, the winds in winter, had their will of it: there was nothing to avert the fury of either. The log school-houses of the previous generation were picturesque and comfortable; those of the present time are as prim, neat, and orderly (and as elegant sometimes) as the cottage of an old maid who enjoys an annuity; but the school-house of forty years ago had an aspect singularly forlorn and uninviting. It was built for an average of thirty pupils, but it frequently contained fifty; and then the little school-room was a compact inass of young humanity: the teacher had to dispense with his table, and was lucky if he could find room for his chair. The side of the apartment opposite the door was occupied, chiefly, by a vast fireplace, four or five feet wide, where a carman's load of wood could burn in one prodigious fire. Along the sides of the room was a low, slanting shelf, which served for a desk to those who wrote, and against the sharp edge of which the elder pupils leaned when they were not writing. The seats were made of "slabs," inverted, supported on sticks, and without backs. The elder pupils sat along the sides of the room, the girls on one side, the boys on the other; the youngest sat nearest the fire, where they were as much too warm as those who sat near the door were too cold. In a school of forty pupils, there would be a dozen who were grown up, mar.
riageable young men and women. Not unfrequently married men. and occasionally married women, attended school in the winter. Among the younger pupils, there were usually a dozen who could not read, and half as many who did not know the alphabet. The teacher was, perhaps, one of the farmer's sons of the district, whe knew a little more than his elder pupils, and only a little; or he was a student who was working his way through college. His wages were those of a farm-laborer, ten or twelve dollars a month and his board. He boarded "round," i. e. he lived a few days at each of the houses of the district, stopping longest at the most agreeable place. The grand qualification of a teacher was the ability "to do" any sum in the arithmetic. To know arithmetic was to be a learned man. Generally, the teacher was very young, sometimes not more than sixteen years old; but, if he possessed the due expertness at figures, if he could read the Bible without stumbling over the long words, and without mispronouncing more than two thirds of the proper names, if he could write well enough to set a decent copy, if he could mend a pen, if he had vigor enough of character to assert his authority, and strength enough of arm to maintain it, he would do. The school began at nine in the morning, and the arrival of that hour was announced by the teacher's rapping upon the window frame with a ruler. The boys, and the girls too, came tumbling in, rosy and glowing, from their snowballing and sledding. The first thing done in school was reading. The "first class," consisting of that third of the pupils who could read best, stood on the floor and read round once, each individual reading about half a page of the English Reader. Then the second class. Then the third. Last of all, the youngest children said their letters. By that time, a third of the morning was over; and then the reading began again; for public opinion demanded of the teacher that he should hear every pupil read four times a day, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. Those who were not in the class reading, were employed, or were supposed to be employed, in ciphering or writing. When they wanted to write, they went to the teacher with their writing-book and pen, and he set a copy,"Procrastination is the thief of time,' ""Contentment is a virtue," or some other wise saw,-and mended the pen. When they were puzzled with a "sum," they went to the teacher to have it elucidat