It's craft time at Scout's house, and I'm taking part old school books. I have my mother's fourth-grade math book and her science book from an elementary year—these would have been used in the 1930s—and I have my grandmother's English book from her fifth grade—it's copyrighted 1906, and it looks like this:
The pages of all of these books are cracking, and the spines and covers are wearing thin, so I have decided to take them apart and reassemble them into shadow boxes. I have no idea what I'm doing, but I'm using as inspiration a vague memory of a large shadow box I saw at a home decor store back in the spring. This massive thing was filled with crumbled sheets of old books, or maybe they were folded or maybe they were rolled. Either way, they made an interesting display.
I'll show you the results a little bit later, but for now, let's talk about the kinds of things kids learned in English class at the beginning of the 1900s. My grandmother was a little girl in rural Alabama not far from the Tennessee River (not far from the town where I was born, in fact). Here she is, in the front as the youngest of her siblings.
When she was in school, veterans of the Civil War were abundant, and signs of Reconstruction were evident if you looked close enough. She was aware that the KKK marched at night, and she was growing up before cars and electricity, but according to her memoirs and stories, my Memaw's childhood was a pleasant one. In reading through her English book, I wonder how much of her bliss could be attributed to her pleasant education.
Besides the grammar, the punctuation and the rules of sentence structure, her little book is filled with delightful tales and exercises in learning. Children were encouraged to write letters as follows:
1. Write a note that you would be willing to put under your mother's plate before breakfast on her birthday. Tell her how much you love her, and how truly you wish to grow up to be what she wishes you to become.
2. Write a note expressing your Christmas greetings to your grandparents. The note is to go with a present.
3. Write a note to be sent with some flowers to your Aunt Emily who has been very ill, but she is getting better.
Etc. through to 8. You are invited to a children's party. Write that it will give you pleasure to go. Thanks for the invitation.
Was this not a completely different time? My grandmother checked off this list as if she had written all the notes.
As a reading exercise, the children were given a story about General Robert E. Lee and then asked details about it. The story goes this way:
General Lee was once a passenger in a crowded railway train. Presently an aged woman, poorly dressed and carrying a heavy basket, boarded the train. She walked from one car to another without finding a seat, and no one offered her one. At last she came to the place where General Lee was sitting. He rose at once. Lifting his hat politely, he said, "Madam, pray take this seat." In an instant a dozen men offered to give their seats to the General, but he refused them all, saying, "If there was no seat for this lady, there is none for me."
And here is my favorite as an exercise in silent reading, a story I have never heard before:
Do you know where Egypt is? Have you ever seen a picture of that grim monster, the Sphinx? She was the most famous riddle-maker in the world. Half-lion and half-woman, she sat speechless except when there fell from her cruel lips this question, "What is that animal which walks on four legs in the morning, on two at noon, and on three at night?" Woe to the person who had no correct answer to give her! The Sphinx at him alive. One day a very wise man came her way. The Sphinx asked him the usual question. She was already thinking what a fine tidbit he would make, when, to her surprise, he gave the right answer! "Man," he said. "When he is a child, he crawls on hands and feet; that is the morning of life; when he becomes a man, he walks erect on two feet; that is the noon of his life; when he is old, he leans on a cane, and that is the evening of life." It made the Sphinx so angry to have her riddle guessed that she killed herself, and so the world was rid of a terrible monster.
What an education my grandmother had, with this book of poetry, pictures of paintings, character sketches and wild tales of the Sphinx, so far removed from her small world in Alabama. I have never been one to long for the Good Old Days because I think those days are fiction, but I do hope our current fifth graders find inspiration in their English books, stories and fanciful words that make their minds wander to a place on the map far from home, tales that make them daydream about ancient monuments, ideas they wouldn't hear inside the small confines of their own home.
Now, let's see if I can do this great little book justice.