, Derry, New Hampshire

May 9, 2013

A young teacher's letter

Rick Holmes
Derry News

---- — I recently bought from eBay a very interesting letter that was written in Derry in 1881. It cost me $10.70, which is about half my weekly allowance. To make up for this expenditure, I’ll have to skip a few morning cuppas at Dunkin’.

I bought the letter because it reminded me of the pride I felt when I got my first job as a teacher back in 1968. It also speaks of the frustration every first-year teacher experiences.

It was written by Miss Jennie Susan Hill to Miss Amanda Leach (1841-1904) who had been Jennie’s teacher only a year or so before.

The 16-year-old Jennie was living at her uncle’s farm at 108 Chester Road — now G.R.’s Trading Post.

In 1881 Jennie had just started to teach at the one-room school house in District #12 — usually called the Waterman District after the largest landowner in the area.

This tiny school stood near today’s Hidden Valley Camp Grounds and had been built in 1858 and was closed in 1893. It has long since been torn down.

The school year in this district was only 17 weeks long and Jennie’s salary was $20 a month. Jennie taught without benefit of a chalk board, globe, library, clock or even a dictionary. The age of her students ranged from 6 to 14.

Here is the text of her 1881 letter:

“Dear Teacher, I suppose that you know I am a school marm. I have got ten scholars. Some of them are good and some are awful, sometimes. My most advanced scholar is in decimal fractions. He wants very much to finish the book this term and I guess he will. The scholar’s are all mischievous and I have to twist their ears once in a while….”

Jennie signed it, “Your loving schoolmarm.”

Jennie’s school was ungraded; there was no first, second, third or any other grade. The students were taught some of their lessons together and then at other times the children were divided into small groups determined by age or skill level, with the teacher moving between the groups.

The Derry curriculum back then required that teachers be prepared to instruct classes in: reading, spelling, penmanship, arithmetic, geography, grammar, history, composition, bookkeeping, algebra, physiology, drawing, and vocal music.

Some students would never be taught anything beyond the first few curriculum categories — the 3 R’s. These children would likely drop out of school as soon as they legally could to work on farms, in local shoe factories, or to become housewives. A small minority of the students mastered the entire curriculum and a few — very few —eventually entered Pinkerton Academy.

The school superintendent’s report in that year’s town report complained about nepotism in hiring teachers without their qualifications being examined by him. Jennie had been hired by her Uncle Silas Hill. Jennie had never taught before, had probably no education beyond the district school, had likely no training to be a teacher and was only a couple of years older then her students. She did have excellent penmanship.

The superintendent also complained that teachers needed to “strenuously insist” on the use of “The King’s English.” He particularly complained about students saying “I done,” “you be,” I hain’t got none,” “his’n,” “her’n,” and “them books.” True then. True today.

Despite her enthusiasm, Jennie Hill was not rehired to teach another year and it seems she left the profession. Perhaps she twisted the ear of too many students — or twisted the ear of the wrong “little darling.” The use of corporal punishment was frowned upon even in 1881.

It is known she did have a somewhat difficult time walking because of a childhood injury to her spine, so perhaps she found teaching too strenuous. Or maybe by the end of the school year she decided the classroom was just not for her.

I’ve known many first-year teachers who quit teaching because of their inability to control “mischievous” students or to stand up to overly critical parents. Some rookies leave because they found out they actually lacked the necessary pedagogic skills to teach.

Some people are natural born teachers; some are not. I guess we’ll never know why Jennie gave up teaching.

Within a few years Jennie was hiring herself out as a practical nurse and living with her parents at the corner of Chester and Auburn roads.

After her father’s death in 1904, the farm was taken over by her brother Henry. She and her sister Edith served as Henry’s housekeepers. In 1918 Jennie and Edith were listed as “poultriers,” which means, I guess, that they raised chickens.

After the brother’s death in 1923, they moved to Londonderry, where they ran a store on Mammoth Road. Both ladies never married. Edith died in 1933, and Jennie moved to Manchester, where she died in 1939 at 74 years old.

Miss Jennie Hill was the last surviving member of her family. She was buried in the family lot in Forest Hill Cemetery in East Derry.

Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.