“Much and Nothing”: Notes from the Normal School #10, Late March

Two accounts of a stormy day in 1876

By Nicole O’Connell

In this column, Nicole deciphers Victorian cursive and explores old class diaries to see what students were up to in the early days of Worcester State. “Much and Nothing” refers one diarist’s account of a day’s happenings in 1877, but perhaps the sentiment applies more aptly to a multitude of entries.

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

There are six diaries for the years 1875-1880. You may assume that means one diary per year, but that is not the case. While we are presented with the mystery of the missing diary of 1879, we are graced with two diaries for 1876. One diary appears to have been kept by at least two writers, probably instructors, while the other diary was authored by the students of the Normal School.

Comparing the entries of the two diaries side by side allows us to see the priorities of recording between the dual sets of writers. For instance, let’s take a look at March 21 of 1876.

On this date the instructor-kept diary states:

A severe storm of snow and rain so that but a third of less of the pupils present.

Prof. Krüsi came but his lecture was deferred a day.

Programme put upon the black boards.

Based on this entry, the day does not seem an especially remarkable one. We can see it was stormy, but there doesn’t seem to be much feeling behind the words.

On March 21 of the student-kept diary, the author wrote so much she had to backtrack to the previous page to continue her saga of the day’s events. Needless to say, this entry certainly includes more details than the now minuscule-looking three-line entry of the other diary.

Let’s see how the student wrote about the “severe storm of snow and rain.”

A fearfully stormy day! The rain has poured in torrents nearly all day, until late this afternoon, when it cleared off and the sun came out. Not more than half the scholars were present. Those of us who did go, had to wade almost, for the snow and water together made the walking simply horrible.

We don’t just get an extended description about the weather in this account; we also learn how it affected the students. But their murky wading is not all this student wrote about the tumultuous conditions.

When we got to school a process of drying was in order, so all day the registers and chairs down-stairs have been covered with garments of every description, in all stages of the process. It has seemed so odd in the lunch-room today to see so few faces and – dinner baskets. The school seemed smaller there than any where else. Many of the girls were late in class this morning on account of drying, and as they came in having completed the operation, were hailed as “dry specimens.”

This diarist certainly paints one of the most interesting pictures of life at the Normal School. Even if you aren’t familiar with the Normal School setting, you can visualize the unusual scene.

But, you may ask, what about the two other points made by the instructor-kept diary, about Prof. Krüsi and the programme? The student entry continues:

The programme for the school day has been put on the board. We spend all our recess in studying it to find what the next recitation is to be. We were to have had a lecture today by Prof. Krüsi, on Pestalozzi; but as we were so few in numbers. He is to stay over and give it to us tomorrow. He was in school during the speaking this afternoon; he looks just as I imagine Pestalozzi to have looked; indeed it seems to me first – as if it were Pestalozzi himself going to talk to us, in his own person, about his methods of teaching.

The student author has now addressed every point from the three-line entry, but she has added so much more. And she’s not done yet! We also get to read another activity of the day not even mentioned in the other diary:

After school we had dancing instead of the study-hour; after asking Mr. Russell’s permission to dance, we wanted very much to ask him to dance too, so two of us started for that purpose but after making two or three ineffectual attempts, our courage failed us and we gave it up. I’m sorry to say that some of the gentlemen in our set did not conduct themselves with that gravity of demeanor that is pleasant to see.

Another fascinating account of activities at the Worcester Normal School. This is also one of the rarer entries that acknowledges the young men who attended the school.

While the instructor-kept diary gives us the bare bones of the day, the student-kept diary absolutely eclipses it. There is so much more expression behind the student’s words and we get a much clearer picture of the individuals at the Normal School. Even the exclamation point following “fearfully stormy day” and the underlining of “gentlemen” show us the voice of the writer, something more difficult to find in the instructor-kept diary.

If the Worcester State Archives only held the instructor-kept diary for 1876, we would be bereft of many charming stories the students provide us in their diary. And yet, we should be grateful for the instructor-kept diary, for while it seems a no-frills version, it helps us to appreciate the students’s words to an even greater extent.

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