How they used to spell
THERE, the class have read; but they have something else to do before they take their seats. "Shut your books," says he who has been hearing them read. What makes this row of little countenances brighten up so suddenly, especially the upper end of it? What wooden faces and leaden eyes, two minutes ago! The reading was nothing to them, those select sentences and maxims in Perry's spelling-book which are tucked in between the fables. It is all as dull as a dirge to those life-loving boys and girls. They almost drowsed while they stood up in their places. But they are fully awake now. They are going to spell. But this in itself is the driest exercise to prepare for, and the driest to perform, of the whole round. The child cares no more in his heart about the arrangement of vowels and consonants in the orthography of words, than he does how many chips lie one above another at the school-house wood-pile. But he does care whether he is at the head or foot of his class; whether the money dangles from his own neck or another's. This is the secret of the interest in spelling. Emulation is awakened, ambition roused. There is something like the tug of strength in the wrestle, something of the alternation of hope and fear in a game of chance. There has been a special preparation for the trial. Observe this class any day, half an hour before they are called up to read. What a flitting from top to bottom of the spelling column, and what a flutter of lips and hissing of utterance! Now the eye twinkles on the page to catch a word, and now it is fixed on the empty air, while the orthography is syllabled over and over again in mind, until at length it is syllabled on the memory. But the time of trial has come; they have only to read first. "The third class may come and read." "O dear, I haven't got my spelling lesson," mutters Charlotte to herself. She has just begun the art of writing this winter, and she lingered a little too long at her hooks and trammels. The lesson seems to her to have as many again hard words in it as common. What a flutter she is in! She got up above George in the forenoon, and she would not get down again for anything. She is as slow in coming from her seat as she possibly can be and keep moving. She makes a chink in her hook with her finger, and every now and then, during the reading exercise, steals a glance at a difficult word.
But the reading is over, and what a brightening up, as was said before, with the exception, perhaps, of two or three idle or stupid boys at that less honorable extremity of the class called the foot! That boy at the head no, it was a boy; but Harriet has at length got above him; and, when girls once get to the head, get them away from it if you can. Once put the "pride of place" into their hearts, and how they will queen it! Then they are more sensitive regarding anything that might lower them in the eyes of others, and seem the least like disgrace. I have known a little girl to cry the half of one day, and look melancholy the whole of the next, on losing her place at the head. Girls are more likely to arrive at and keep the first place in the class, in consequence of a little more help from mother nature than boys get. I believe that they generally have a memory more fitted for catching and holding words and other signs addressed to the eye, than the other sex. That girl at the head has studied her spelling lesson, until she is as confident of every word as the unerring Perry himself. She call spell every word in the column, in the order it stands, without the master's "putting it out," she has been over it so many times. "Now, Mr. James, get up again if you can," thinks Harriet. I pity you, poor girl; for James has an ally that will blow over your proud castle in the air. Old Boreas, the king of the winds, will order out a snow-storm by and by, to block up the roads, so that none but booted and weather-proof males can get to school; and you, Miss, must lose a day or two, and then find yourself at the foot with those blockhead boys who always abide there. But let it not be thought that all those foot lads are deficient in intellect. Look at them when the master's back is turned, and you will see mischievous ingenuity enough to convince you that they might surpass even James and Harriet, had some other faculties been called into exercise besides the mere memory of verbalities.
The most extraordinary spelling, and indeed reading machine, in our school, was a boy whom I shall call Memorus Wordwell. He was mighty and wonderful in the acquisition and remembrance of words, of signs without the ideas signified. The alphabet he acquired at home before he was two years old. What exultation of parents, what exclamation from admiring visitors! "There was never anything like it." He had almost accomplished his Abs before he was thought old enough for school. At an earlier age than usual, however, he was sent; and then he went from Ache to Abomination in half the summers and winters it took the rest of us to go over the same space. Astonishing how quickly he mastered column after column, section after section, of obstinate orthographies. Those martial terms I have just used, together with our hero's celerity, put me in mind of Cζsar. So I will quote him. Memorus might have said in respect to the host of the spelling-book, "I came, I saw, I conquered." He generally stood at the head of a class, each one of whom was two years his elder. Poor creatures! they studied hard, some of them, but it did no good Memorus Wordwell was born to be above them, as some men are said to have been "born to command." At the public examination of his first winter, the people of the district, and even the minister, thought it marvelous that such monstrous great words should be mastered by "such a leetle mite of a boy!" Memorus was mighty also in saying those after spelling matters the Key, the Abbreviations, the Punctuation, &c. These things were deemed of great account to be laid up in remembrance, although they were all very imperfectly understood, and some of them not understood at all.
Punctuation how many hours, days, and even weeks, have I tugged away to lift, as it were, to roll up into the store-house of my memory, the many long, heavy sentences comprehended under this title Only survey (we use this word when speaking of considerable space and bulk) only survey the first sentence, a transcript of which I will endeavor to locate in these narrow bounds. I would have my readers of the rising generation know what mighty labors we little creatures of five, six, and seven years old were set to perform:
"Punctuation is the art of pointing, or of dividing a discourse into periods by points, expressing the pauses to be made in the reading thereof, and regulating the cadence or elevation of the voice."
There, I have labored weeks on that; for I always had the lamentable defect of mind not to be able to commit to memory what I did not understand. My teachers never aided me with the least explanation of the above-copied sentence, nor of other reading of a similar character, which was likewise to be committed to memory. But this and all was nothing, as it were, to Memorus Wordwell. He was a very Hercules in this wilderness of words.
Master Wordwell was a remarkable reader too. He could rattle off a word as extensive as the name of a Russian noble, when he was but five years old, as easily as the schoolmaster himself. "He can read in the hardest chapters of the Testament as fast agin as I can," said his mother. "I never did see nothin beat it," exclaimed his father; "he speaks up as loud as a minister." But I have said enough about this prodigy. I have said thus much, because, although he was thought so surpassingly bright, he was the most decided ninny in the school. The fact is, he did not know what the sounds he uttered meant. It never entered his head, nor the heads of his parents and most of his teachers, that words and sentences were written, and should be read, only to be understood. He lost some of his reputation, however, when he grew up towards twenty-one, and it was found that numbers, in more senses than one, were far above him in arithmetic.
One little anecdote about Memorus Word-well before we let him go, and this long chapter shall be no longer.
It happened one day that the "cut and split " for the fire fell short, and Jonas Patch was out wielding the ax in school time. He had been at work about half an hour, when Memorus, who was perceived to have less to do than the rest, was sent out to take his place. He was about ten years old, and four years younger than Jonas. "Memorus, you may go out and spell Jonas." Our hero did not think of the Yankee sense in which the master used the word spell: indeed he had never attached but one meaning to it, whenever it was used with reference to himself. He supposed the master was granting him a ride extraordinary on his favorite hobby. So he put his spelling-book under his arm, and was out at the wood-pile with the speed of a boy rushing to play.
"Ye got yer spellin lesson, Jonas?" was his first salutation. "Haven't looked at it yit," was the reply. "I mean to cut up this plaguy great log, spellin or no spellin, before I go in. I had as lieve keep warm here choppin wood, as freeze up there in that tarnal cold back seat." "Well, the master sent ine out to hear you spell." "Did he? well, put out the words, and I'll spell." Memorus being so distinguished a speller, Jonas did not doubt but that he was really sent out cm this errand. So our deputy spelling-master mounted the top of the woodpile, just in front of Jonas, to put out words to his temporary pupil, who still kept on putting out chips.
"Do you know where the lesson begins, Jonas?" "No, I don't; but I 'spose I shall find out now." "Well, here 'tis." (They both belonged to the same class.) "Spell A-bom-i-na-tion." Jonas spells. A-b-o-m bom a-bom (in the mean time up goes the ax high in air), i a-bom-i (down it goes again chuck into the wood) n-a na a-bom-i-na (up it goes again) t-i-o-n tion, a-bom-i-na-tion; chuck the ax goes again, and at the same time out flies a furious chip, and hits Memorus on the nose. At this moment the master appeared just at the corner of the school-house, with one foot still on the threshold. "Jonas, why don't you come in? didn't I send Memorus out to spell you?" "Yes, sir, and he has been spelling me; how could I come in if he spelt me here?" At this the master's eye caught Memorus perched up on the top-stick, with his book open upon his lap, rubbing his nose, and just in the act of putting out the next word of the column. Accom-mo-da-tion, pronounced Memorus in a broken but louder voice than before; for he had caught a glimpse of the master, and he wished to let him know that he was doing his duty. This was too much for the master's gravity.
He perceived the mistake, and, without saying more, wheeled back into the school-room, almost bursting with the most tumultuous laughter he ever tried to suppress. The scholars wondered at his looks, and grinned in sympathy. But in a few minutes Jonas came in, followed by Memorus with his spelling-book, who exclaimed, "I have heard him spell clean through the whole lesson, and he didn't spell hardly none of 'em right." The master could hold in no longer, and the scholars perceived the blunder, and there was one simultaneous roar from pedagogue and pupils; the scholars laughing twice as loud and uproariously in consequence of being permitted to laugh in school time, and to do it with the accompaniment of the master.