“Much and Nothing”: Notes from the Normal School #5, Late 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.

As November nears to an end and the holiday season approaches, stories seem to rise in appearance. Families and friends gather together to share stories about what’s been happening recently or to reminisce about tales from long ago. Histories behind holidays are retold in abundance when that holiday comes around. Even in the few days before holiday breaks, there is often a laxity of schoolwork, especially for younger students, and perhaps the class time is spent watching stories on television screens instead of solving math problems. Furthermore, vacations from school and work give us time to catch up on stories, through screen or page.

With this timely eminence of stories, we now turn to stories being told in November of 1903 by the students of the Normal School. While their entries themselves act as stories, they also write of stories within their entries.

In 1903, Estella M. Gates was apprenticing in the third grade at Oxford Street School. Her November 3 entry reveals the seasonal activities of schoolchildren. It seems that these activities were an annual tradition in Estella’s time, and they have endured to the present time.

The students in Estella’s class learned and sang a Thanksgiving song and held a class discussion about pilgrims and Thanksgiving. They also read from the 1894 book, Stories of Colonial Children, by Mara Pratt. If you are interested in reading the exact words these children read, Worcester State’s library has the full text of this book online. The Thanksgiving chapter contains an extremely saccharine description of the first Thanksgiving. It is filled with many inclusions of food and fun involved in the feast. Unfortunately, it also contains a narrow colonial narrative of the Wampanoag.

The next day, Estella’s account is less apt to the season, but still a worthwhile tale. Her class was tasked with drawing the myth of “Clytie and the Sunflower.” I had never heard of this story before, and it is perhaps an odd choice for third-graders. As with other myths, there are variations in the story, but the main points are Clytie was a water nymph in love with Helios (sometimes Apollo), the sun god. However, Helios was in love with Clytie’s sister. Unable to obtain his affections, Clytie then rested on a rock, naked and without food or drink, for nine days, until she turned into a sunflower (sometimes heliotrope).

The children must have produced an array of artistic interpretations of this story as Estella wrote, “I think it is interesting to note how far children’s imaginations go some-times.” And thus, we are presented with a very charming description of some of these drawings which must have been entertaining for the children to create as well as to Estella when reviewing them.

“They pictured Clytie as riding in the sea-shell with fishes for horses. Some of the children drew the gold-fish so that they had four legs and looked more like pigs than fishes. I think they all remembered to put on Clytie’s golden locks, and one girl surely meant to have Clytie in fashion and placed on her head a very large hat with a great pompom on the front.”

It seems a shame that we don’t have the actual drawings of Clytie, her goldfish-pig-horses, and her pompom hat, but Estella’s description still provides us with entertainment of the event.

Clara E. Green was another apprentice in November of 1903; she was working at Elizabeth Street School. On November 20, her seventh-grade class read some of Grimm’s “Fairy Tales.” Students passed around the book and took turns reading sections out loud. Just as “Clytie and the Sunflower” captivated Estella’s class, Clara wrote, “With such a lesson as this, it is not very hard to keep the interest and attention of the whole school.”

While the stories you tell or listen to this holiday season may not have anything to do with tragic myths, fairy tales, or sugar-coated history lessons, it really is a time for stories to be told.

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