“Much and Nothing”: Notes from the Normal School #6, Early December

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 the December 1880 entries of the diaries, there are a multitude of passages which feel expected for the season. Entering winter, days of flurrying blizzards become common. The descriptions of days’ weather include: “A great snow storm all day,” “Great snow storm,” and the delightfully simple “Squally.” There is also the mention of Miss Jones, the head of the apprenticeship program, venturing out on a horse-and-sleigh ride. It was truly a different world; Worcester with horses milling and clomping about.  Although, with the Worcester police bringing back their mounted patrol, perhaps the scene is not wholly unrecognizable. Though too late, the snowy and antiquated depictions of Worcester paint a rather Dickensian landscape.

As well as the coming wintry weather, Normal School students share another experience with the students of today; getting restless for classes to break. These sentiments can be especially seen in the 1880 class diary. But of course you can see them just about anywhere on campus as well. Whether you are waiting for a class to start in Sullivan or hanging out in the student center, you’ve probably overheard, or been part of a conversation centered on the last final before one is done with classes and their winter break begins. While the schedule for the early Normal School had its break between terms in February and not starting in December like us, these students still felt like they needed a break.

Due to multiple entries, Normal School students in 1880 seemed to be growing querulous of their principal, Mr. Russell. On December 9, it appears that Mr. Russell had tried to engage some students in a classroom discussion, but, “when given a chance to say something to Mr. Russell upon any subject…they had nothing to say.’” Mr. Russell then, in a move that seems a tad histrionic, gave a lecture to the class titled, “Starving in the midst of Plenty,” directed toward those reticent students.

If you turn the dial on your memory back to November, you may remember the committee on tardiness and absences which was formed by Mr. Russell. Well, this committee was brought up a few more times within the December entries. In one of them, we can clearly see Mr. Russell’s rationale for establishing the committee. He believed that there were two groups of people in every school, “those who could and those who could not be trusted.” It is not difficult to guess which category the tardy and absent students fall into.

On the 16th, students took action. They presented a petition to Mr. Russell, requesting a change in schedule. The way the schedule had been planned, students had to go to school on Friday, December 24, but they would receive the next day off, as well as a day earlier in the week. Students preferred to attend classes earlier in the week and be able to stay home on Friday. While this seems a reasonable request, as the next day’s entry reveals, their petition was denied. Perhaps in response to this unfortunate turn of events for the students, the following day it was written that Mr. Russell was ruining the holiday with school work.

In continuing with this theme of petty animosity toward school, one diarist writes about something the students were doing and added, “the teachers used the same time considering how the school could be given a more attractive, less dreadful aspect.” It surprises me that this unkind description was written down in a school record. I also find it highly unlikely the meeting was officially convened to reduce the dreadfulness of school and it makes me wonder where this writer got her information. Maybe the teachers did meet for this reason, although its purpose was, in actuality, probably much more eloquently stated. Or, maybe the unattractive and dreadful aspects are straight from the writer’s own thoughts. Either way, it is nice to see these blunt words as they mix things up a bit among the usual flowery and mellifluous entries.

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