“Much and Nothing”: Notes from the Normal School #3, Late October

By Nicole O’Connell

Nicole 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 aptly, a multitude of days.

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

In late October, most of us can’t help but think of Halloween. While I wish this article was filled with 120-year old Halloween happenings, we are unfortunately deprived of any accounts like these in the diaries.

Late October entries do bring us mentions of the spooky-sounding plant of witch-hazel. Students Katherine L. Power and Margaret V. Seahy both write of witch-hazel being brought into their classrooms and the engaging lessons that sprung off of these seasonal sprigs. However, I disappoint readers with another “unfortunately” as the “witch” in witch-hazel doesn’t actually refer to the witches we associate with Halloween.

Despite the lack of holiday merriments, we are gifted with a week’s worth of entries from the previously mentioned Katherine Power. During October 1903, Katherine was apprenticing at Canterbury Street School. She shares tales of a highly successful nature show-and-tell (wherefore the aforementioned witch-hazel was so exhilarating it cut into the time of other lessons) and of a spoiled child named Anna who Katherine seemed a bit fed up with.

But the real gold in this treasure trove of entries is the October 15 entry. In this day’s account, Katherine provides perhaps one of the most sensational writing samples in any of the class diaries. The subject of contemplation is a child in her class, a fourth-grader named James. From the start of her entry, I knew Katherine was going to provide us with an intriguing anecdote.

In her crouched but coherent calligraphy she writes James is “pale and ill-looking with small listless eyes which never seem to look at one frankly in the face.” Anyone feeling an aspect of unfairness at this seemingly harsh description of a child should be aware that Katherine does not let up on her scathing sentiments: “he appears so listless that only yesterday I asked him if he did any work outside of school.” As it turns out James sold newspapers in the evenings, but as much as I enjoy the musical Newsies, James’s newsie-status is not what makes this entry so enticing.

Katherine then intrigues us readers even more: “Something happened today which…not only made him interesting to Miss – and I, but he became attractive to the entire school, although in a different way, I imagine.” What could this fourth-grader have done?

A classmate of James revealed not only had she seen him light a match in class, but he had more matches hidden away. It seems that Katherine took out her metaphorical magnifying glass to investigate and she reveals, “upon investigating we found a card of matches in his pocket.” Katherine probably felt satisfied at this discovery for her suspicions of this boy were certainly more justified now.

However, she seemed to put away her magnifying glass too soon as she wrote, “I must confess that I did not connect the matches with anything else, but Miss – evidently did, for she immediately told James to take everything out of his pockets.” James seems to have obeyed this request until he reached his coat pockets where, “his evident hesitation aroused suspicions.”

After more questions and provocations about the contents of his coat pockets, “very reluctantly James took from a coat pocket a package of tobacco.” This would definitely be surprising nowadays, but through Katherine, we can also tell is was awfully indecent back then. After some probable interrogation and, “finally amid many tears James confessed that he had smoked some of the tobacco and had given some of it away to other boys.” To add another outrage to the top of this scandalous affair, James also admitted to smoking cigarettes.

Though ending the story at the bawling break down of a young delinquent would be quite sensational, Katherine does not end there. James fiercely protested against his parents’ knowing of his actions. But they were informed. His parents, “were entirely ignorant of what was going on, and could scarcely believe that it was true.” This leaves Katherine pondering about what goes unknown in those we think we know all about. Though not a tale filled with ghosts, candy, or jack-o-lanterns, Katherine’s final sentiments leave a vibe that may be perhaps more unsettling than the Halloween archetypes I was originally searching for.

I thoroughly appreciated reading through Katherine’s words and she has truly been a valuable correspondent form the past. At the conclusion of Katherine’s week of chronicles, a note was written, presumably by a teacher as it is in different handwriting and in pencil instead of ink. “An unusually good diary.” It is a simple message, but one I wholeheartedly agree with.

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