“Much and Nothing”: Notes from the Normal School #1, September

By Nicole O’Connell

Nicole, an English and History major, looks into history right here at Worcester State. She deciphers old class diaries to explore the lives of students from the early days of Worcester State, back when it was known as the Worcester Normal School. “Much and Nothing” refers to how one diarist summed up a day’s happenings in 1877 and, more eloquently, a multitude of days. 

The class diaries are part of the Apprenticeship Materials in the WSU Archives.


As Worcester State students return to school at the end of the summer, they spend the September days adjusting to new schedules, acquiring required texts, and attending events such as the Club Kickoff and Homecoming. But what were Worcester State students doing before Worcester State was Worcester State? Worcester State only became Worcester State in 1932; before that, it was the Worcester Normal School, a teacher-training school.

Looking at the curriculum of the Normal School students, we know they took classes such as geography, history, drawing, singing, and various math classes among others, but we also know some interesting topics of the day that students deemed noteworthy enough to write down. On September 28, 1877, the students learned about the recent discoveries of Mars’s moons, Phobos and Deimos. One day later, an array of topics is mentioned: “something was told us of Titian, the painter, music and rhythm, and also something about fossils.” On September 23, 1880, one of the students wrote in a seemingly amused manner, “In the speaking hour, lectures were given upon eels, sardines & skates so that some of the girls thought it fish-day.”

Spiels on fossils, fish, and objects of the cosmos could be lectures that students would sit through today, but some lessons of the past may seem a bit more odd to our modern minds. On September 17, 1880, “the last recitation of the day was interrupted for a few minutes for a lesson upon the use of separate stalls in the dressing room.” More details of this lesson are lacking, which leaves one wondering exactly what its take away points were.

An entry from September 29, 1875 caught my eye, but, again, deprives us of details I desperately wish to know: “Mr. Russell absent—gone to Boston to get the chemicals through the Customs House.” Mr. Russell was the president of the school (though he was referred to as the principal), but the lack of context surrounding this passage leaves readers wondering what sort of chemicals were sought and what was done to them.

In 1880, a couple entries take hold of the possibility of a new globe for the school. Perhaps the students felt the same kind of excitement we would have nowadays for receiving a new laptop; these tools expand the limits of our knowledge. On September 17, 1880, it is written, “An agent for a new globe took the time of Mr. Russell before school time.” Students probably believed a new globe for their classrooms was imminent, but, alas, two weeks later, on September 29, 1880, we discover, “A beautiful compass instead of a globe was bought for the school of the case-agent who have all the term been trying to sell a globe to the school.” Though these happenings may not seem entirely exhilarating to us, the writers evidently considered them important enough to share.

Returning to classes and schoolwork can be a difficult adjustment. However, a Normal School student leaves us with some words of wisdom. A writer who initialed her entry “HWA” wrote on return from summer break, “I have been thinking lately, that if we…set ourselves resolutely about doing something, that will be worthy of our age and capacities, we shall have gained the key to success.” These words were written on September 27, 1877, but their meaning stays relevant. If you are having trouble with this semester, let the 141-year-old writings of this student shine some light upon your outlook.

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