So many school traditions from the past are now passÃ©. No longer do freshman wear beanies and use a tooth brush to clean the senior steps at Pinkerton Academy. Where are the corn roasts and senior howls of yesteryears? I guess they're now gone, forgotten and never to be resurrected.
One school tradition that died more than a century ago is the custom of "barring out the schoolmaster." This youthful rite of passage usually occurred right before Christmas and required considerable clandestine conspiratorial planning. The boys would sneak to their school house very early in the morning and slip into the building through a conveniently unlocked window. Next they secured all the school's doors and windows to make it into a fortress. When the teacher did arrive, he would find there was no way to enter the building.
The stand-off at the school would continue for hours with the teacher demanding the students let him in so he could "learn" them. Finally the kids would agree to un-bar the door if the teacher agreed to let them have a holiday between Christmas and New Year's Day. Sometimes the kids would also demand a treat of a peppermint stick. At least at Christmas—a holiday in celebration of the birth of a child—the kids would win a victory over the tyranny of the teacher. There have been reports of one teacher winning the stand-off by climbing on the school house roof and blocking the chimney to "smoke-out" the students.
In England references to the custom goes back to the middle ages. "Barring out" was brought to America from Europe over 300 years ago. In 1702 the students at William and Mary College in Virginia locked out their teacher. The tradition continued in England until at least 1938 and throughout America until the 1920's.
The only reference I've found to the practice in Derry occurred in 1831. Before dawn the local kids had gathered to seize control of their one-room school. What they didn't know was that the teacher had somehow got wind of their plot. Around midnight the school master had snuck to his school and hid in the classroom closet where he made his bed for the night. By 7 a.m. the "jubilant urchins" were fully in control of the building. A pile of desks were heaped against the door and the windows were locked tight. The youngsters were dancing around the classroom, thrilled at the prospect of winning one over on the teacher. The silent schoolmaster remained patiently in the closet while he eavesdropped on the student's jollification.
At the normal time for school to begin the students kept their eyes glued to the windows, watching for the school master to come walking down the dirt road. Silently the teacher opened the door of the closet. When he saw no one was watching, he snuck out and went to his desk. Then while everybody was looking out the windows, he hit the top of his desk with a terrific thump of his sledge hammer hand. And with a loud "stentorian voice he sternly called them to order."
The kids were dumbfounded.
Without warning, their victory had been turned into defeat. Their egos had been shattered as they had no choice but to accept the obvious fact that they had been bested by the school master. In panic the students all scurried to return their desks back into rows and within a couple of minutes the classroom was back to normal. For the next few hours the kids sat in their places with less than sunshiney faces while the teacher taught the three R's. Around 10 a.m. the teacher paused from his teaching and with a bow wished them all "Merry Christmas." He then announced that he was dismissing the school early for a holiday vacation. He closed his speech by adding "boys would be boys" and reminded them that he had once been one himself.
Rick Holmes is Derry's Town Historian and author of "Nutfield Rambles," which is available for purchase at the town hall, local libraries and many local stores.