“Much and Nothing”: Notes from the Normal School #4, Early November

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.

The old class diaries really do feel like a mixed bag of “much and nothing.” But does the “nothing” refer to the laconic entries lacking sensation or simply the white space of pages left empty during school vacations? Everything written down on these fragile pages has some kind of value, even if entries solely consisting of “stormy” or “sunny” feel minuscule compared to the more vibrant writings of a day’s events.

In the November entries, we read many of these sparse summaries with their one-word weather descriptions and brief mentions of absent instructors. However, the following selected phrases and passages from this month stand out in one way or another. As some terse authors generally seemed like they did not want to waste any ink, it is interesting what they chose to share with us.

On November 30 of 1875 it was written, “Mercury fire below zero. School did not meet until half past eleven because the building was cold.” Around here schools rarely close due just to freezing temperatures, but we are familiar with delays and closings caused by snow. The night before a big snowstorm students constantly check their phones or watch the bottom of the news channel, wondering if Worcester State University will pop up as closed tomorrow. But of course these telephone and television technologies did not exist for Normal School students, and since students at this time did not live on campus, I wonder how they discovered their school was delayed.

Did courageous students shiver through the cold, trekking to school at its usual opening time and grow dismayed that their frigid journey was for naught? Did some perhaps more practical students not venture out of their homes at all until the weather warmed up, then finally arriving at school, grow relieved that they had not missed any vital lessons? Whichever events actually occurred, let us hope our school temperatures stay above freezing!

In the 1876 diary, we read another entry where the absent technologies of today influence our perception of these simple entries. The November 7 entry states, “Clock stopped in the Hall”. Considering the number of classrooms on our modern campus, and the clocks within them, chances are at least one isn’t working. More are running too early or too late. But these don’t have much of an impact on our lives due to our trusty cell phones and perhaps the becoming-more-rare wrist watches. Deprived of our current apparatuses, some members of the Normal School may have had pocket watches, but a hall clock seems significant to the school community. With this timepiece out of commission, who knows what mayhem might have ensued.

Concerning time again, on November 6, 1880, an entry was written which I am sure some readers will relate to: “Mr. Brown forgot his last recitation or thought it was 3:30 at 3 and left the building.” While we could chalk this up to a lack of watches and cell phones, I think we all know someone, or maybe it is us ourselves, who has forgotten about a class. Less than two weeks after this forgetful incident of Mr. Brown’s, the Normal School Principal, Mr. Russell, proposed a committee to fight tardiness and absences. While influenced by Mr. Brown’s absence or not, the committee seemed to come to fruition soon after.

While these bits of entries may not seem worthy of note at first, masses of meaning can be found within them. Chilly classrooms and a delayed school day may have created a confused group of students, wondering when the Normal School doors would finally open for them. A broken clock could have completely disrupted a well-planned out itinerary. As for Mr. Brown, perhaps the diarist just desired to mercilessly immortalize his mistake. While we don’t have all the details on why the diarists considered these passages important enough to write down, we can have fun making inferences to find some sense in them.

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