There is something to be said for teaching everything to somebody, as compared with the modern notion of teaching nothing, and the same sort of nothing, to everybody. — G. K. Chesterton

Stories of American Life and Adventure - Edward Eggleston




A School of Long Ago

A hundred and fifty years ago there was a famous teacher among the German settlers in Pennsylvania who was known as "The Good Schoolmaster." His name was Christopher Dock. He had two little country schools. For three days he would teach at a little place called Skippack, and then for the next three days he would teach at Salford.

People said that the good schoolmaster never lost his temper. There was a man who thought he would try to make him angry. He said many harsh and abusive words to the teacher, and even cursed him. But the only reply the teacher made was, "Friend, may the Lord have mercy on you."

Other schoolmasters used to beat their scholars severely with whips and long switches. But Schoolmaster Dock had found out a better way.

When a child came to school for the first time, the other scholars were made to give the new scholar a welcome by shaking hands with him, one after another. Then the new boy or girl was told that this was not a harsh school, but a place for those who would behave. And if a scholar were lazy, disobedient, or stubborn, the master would in the presence of the whole school pronounce him not fit for this school, but only for a school where children were flogged. The new scholar was asked to promise to obey and to be diligent. When he had made this promise, he was shown to a seat.

[Illustration] from American Life and Adventure by Edward Eggleston

"Now," the good master would say, when this was done, "who will take this new scholar and help him to learn?"

[Illustration] from American Life and Adventure by Edward Eggleston

When the new boy or girl was clean and bright looking, many would be willing to take charge of him or her. But there were few ready to teach a dirty, ragged little child. Sometimes no one would wish to do it. In such a case the master would offer to the one who would take such a child a reward of one of the beautiful texts of scripture which the schoolmasters of that time used to write and decorate for the children. Or he would give him one of the pictures of birds which he was accustomed to paint with his own hands.

The old Pennsylvania teachers were fond of making these tickets with pictures and writing on them. The pictures which we have here will show you what they looked like. The writing is in German, as you will see.

Whenever one of the younger scholars succeeded in learning his A, B, C, Christopher Dock would send word to the father of the child to give him a penny, and he would ask his mother to cook two eggs for him as a treat. These were fine rewards for poor children in a new country.

At certain stages in his studies, the industrious child in one of Dock's schools would receive a penny from his father, and eat two eggs cooked by his mother. But all this time he was not counted a member of the school. He was only on trial. The day on which a boy or girl began to read was a great day. If the pupil had been diligent in spelling, the morning after the first reading day, the master would give him a ticket carefully written with his own hand. This ticket read "Industrious—One Penny." This showed that the scholar was now really received into the school. But if he afterward became idle or disobedient, Schoolmaster Dock would take away his token.

There were no clocks or watches in the country. The children came to school, one after another taking their places near the master, who sat writing. They spent their time reading until all were there. But every one who succeeded in reading his passage without mistake stopped reading, and came and sat at the writing table to write. The poor fellow who remained last on the bench was called the Lazy Scholar.

Every Lazy Scholar had his name written on the blackboard. If a child at any time failed to read correctly, he was sent back to study his passage, and called again after a while. If he failed a second or a third time, all the scholars cried out, "Lazy!" Then his name was written on the blackboard. Then all the poor Lazy Scholar's friends went to work to teach him to read his lesson correctly. And if his name should not be rubbed off the board before school was dismissed, all the scholars might write it down, and take it home with them. But if he could read well before school was out, the scholars, at the bidding of the master, called out, "Industrious!" and then his name was rubbed off the board.

The funniest of Dock's rewards was that which he gave to those who made no mistake in their lessons. He marked a large O with chalk on the hand of the perfect scholar. Fancy what a time the boys and girls must have had, trying to go home without rubbing out this O.

If you had gone into this school some day, you might have seen a boy sitting on a punishment bench all alone. This was a fellow who had told a lie or used bad language. He was put there as not fit to sit near anybody else. If he committed the offense often, a yoke would be put round his neck, as if he were a brute. Sometimes, however, the teacher would give the scholars their choice of a blow on the hand or a seat on the punishment bench. They usually preferred the blow.

At certain times the scholars were permitted to study aloud, but at other times they were obliged to keep still. And a boy or girl was put as a watcher, to set down the names of those who talked in this time of quiet.

The old schoolmaster in Skippack wrote one hundred rules of good behavior for his scholars. This is perhaps the first book on good manners written in America. But rules of behavior for people living in houses of one or two rooms, as they did in that day, were very different from those needed in our time. Here are some of the rules:

"When you comb your hair, do not go out in the middle of the room," says the schoolmaster. This was because families were accustomed to eat and sleep in the same room.

"Do not eat your morning bread on the road or in school," he tells them, "but ask your parents to give it to you at home." From this we see that the common breakfast was bread alone, and that the children often ate it as they walked to school.

The table manners of that day were very good for the time, but they seem very curious to us. He says, "Do not wabble with your stool," because rough home-made stools were the common chairs then, and the floors, made of boards that were split and not sawed, were so uneven that a noisy child could easily rock his stool to and fro.

"Put your knife upon the right and your bread on the left side," he says. Forks were little used in those days, and the people in the country did not have any. He also tells them not to throw bones under the table. It was a common practice among some people of that time to throw bones and scraps under the table, where the dogs ate them.

The child is not told to wait for others when he has finished eating, or to ask to be excused. "Get up quietly," says the schoolmaster, "and take your stool with you. Wish a pleasant mealtime, and go to one side." The child is told not to put the remaining bread into his pocket.

As time passed on, Christopher Dock had many friends, for all his scholars of former years loved him greatly. He lived to be very old, and taught his schools to the last. One evening he did not come home, and the people went to look for the beloved old man. They found their dear old master on his knees in the schoolhouse. He had died while praying alone.