American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

The Story of Mary Lyon

Mary lyon lived with her widowed mother on a rocky farm among the Berkshire Hills. She had five sisters and a brother, and all but one were older than she.

The place was so high up among the hills that it was known as the Mountain Farm. With much hard labor and the best of management, such a farm could be made to produce only a very little—so little that it was but a slender living, indeed, for six growing girls and a boy.

But Mrs. Lyon was courageous and hopeful, and the children were willing to work. Hence, with so many little hands doing their part, the wolf was kept from the door and each day brought a round of humble joys to the struggling family.

There was no school near the Mountain Farm, and the children were obliged to walk to Ashfield, two miles away. It was there that Mary distinguished herself. There was no better speller in the school. She learned all the rules of grammar in a wonderfully short time. No boy could see through a problem in arithmetic as quickly as she, and no one was more accurate with figures. She was soon known as the pride and the prodigy of the school.

But, whatever may have been her distinction, she won it honestly by hard work. "It's wrong to waste time," she said; and so she was always busy, reading, studying, doing chores on the farm, or helping her mother in the house.

"She'll be the scholar of the family," said her elder sisters. But while she was anxious to be a scholar, she was far more anxious to be helpful to other people.

When she was thirteen there came great changes to the family. Mrs. Lyon married again and went to live in a distant town with her husband. The elder girls were already gone. Only Mary and her brother remained. The brother took care of the farm and paid Mary a dollar a week to keep the house in order.

Soon the brother married, but Mary still helped with the housework. She did spinning and weaving for the neighbors and thus earned money for her own support.

The people of Shelburne Falls wanted some one to teach a summer school in their village. Mary Lyon offered herself for the position. She was only sixteen years old, but she was a woman in looks and behavior.

The school term would last twenty weeks and she was to receive seventy-five cents a week and board. Fifteen dollars for five months' work was not much; but the thrifty Yankees at Shelburne Falls said it was enough for a girl. Mary put every cent of it aside and saved it till it would be of the greatest use to her.

When she was twenty, she counted her money and found that by living very carefully she had enough to pay her expenses for a few months at a boarding school. To be a good scholar, to be a good teacher, was the dream of her life. Everything was bent to make that dream come true.

The Sanderson Academy at Ashfield was a good school for girls, as such schools went at that time. Mary Lyon became enrolled as one of its students. Oh, the labor, the weariness, the anxiety of the few months she was able to spend there!

She knew that her money would not last long. Hence, she wasted no time. She denied herself of needed rest. She taxed her strength to its utmost.

Her energy soon made itself felt. She advanced so rapidly that it was not long until she stood at the head of all her classes. Everybody said that she was the finest scholar that was ever enrolled in Sanderson Academy.

The next summer she taught another brief term of school, earned a little more money, and then hastened back to the academy. Thus for five years she worked her way in spite of every discouragement, and at the end of that time she was chosen as assistant in the academy. Young persons of ability who are willing to do honest work seldom have to go begging for places. Mary Lyon was offered more positions than she could accept.

Then she did a thing unheard of. She went to a professor at Amherst College and induced him to give her special lessons in chemistry, in order that she might instruct her own pupils in that branch.

Many good people held up their hands in wonder. "What business has a girl to learn about such things?" they asked.

Now, I should explain that in Mary Lyon's time—which was not so very long ago—there was not a girls' college in all the world. There was no school in the United States in which a young lady could be educated as thoroughly and as well as a young man. There were many female academies, as they were called, where the daughters of the rich were taught fashionable accomplishments,—a little history, a little poetry, a little French, and perhaps a little Greek and Latin. But that was all. The bare idea of a girl studying the sciences or trying to qualify herself for any useful occupation was thought not only ridiculous, but wrong.

It was right here that Mary Lyon began to make her work and her influence felt. "Why may not young women have the same educational opportunities as their brothers?" she said. And the rest of her life was given to the working out of that problem.

She went back to her native town. She rented a small room and gave notice that she would open a school for girls.

To her surprise she enrolled twenty-five pupils. Within a week the number was doubled and the school was removed to the village hall. This place, too, was soon filled to overflowing, and many of the classes were obliged to meet in private houses.

The tuition fees were very small, just enough to pay running expenses. But Mary Lyon was not teaching for money. She was teaching to establish a principle and to benefit humanity.

Her school was continued for six years. It was the first school of its class in America to which the daughters of people in humble circumstances could afford to go.

I need not tell of the struggles that followed. Mary Lyon had made up her mind to establish a great school for the education of girls, and she labored steadfastly to that end. Through all sorts of discouragements she persevered, feeling sure that she would succeed in the end.

At length, when she had completed her thirty-seventh year, she was able to see her dearest wishes realized. With the aid of sympathizing friends, she had secured money enough to purchase land and erect buildings for the beginning of her school. It was called Mount Holyoke Seminary. On the first day there were three times as many students as could be accommodated. More than two hundred were turned away because there was no room for them.

For twelve years Mary Lyon lived to conduct this school which was to illustrate her idea of the proper education of young women. Nearly twenty-four hundred pupils came to her, and were influenced by her enthusiasm, by her self-denial, and by her untiring devotion to duty.

The school at Mount Holyoke was the fore-runner of scores of noble institutions all over our country that have since been founded in order to give to American girls the same opportunities for culture that are given to their brothers.

"There is nothing in the universe that I fear," said Mary Lyon, "but that I shall not know all my duty, or that I shall fail to do it."