Any one whom the railway bears rapidly through one American village after another, between eight and nine o'clock on some stormy winter morning, is sure to see occasionally through the windows a figure so typical that it seems to recur in every hamlet or suburb.
It is that of a woman, usually young and slender, clad in water-proof cloak and India-rubber boots, and pressing on with rapid steps through the storm.
She may or may not be fresh and fair, but she seldom fails to have a firm and resolute expression, as of one whose business admits of no delay.
She is one of the great omnipresent army of teachers, or, in other words, a single shuttle in that vast weaving-machine out of which is being woven the Young America
of the future.
There is perhaps no figure, not even the mail — carrier, so ubiquitous, or on the whole so uniform.
Local organizations may vary; a State may be divided into townships or into counties, into boroughs or into “hundreds;” the little communities may be governed by mayors or by selectmen — it makes no difference;
the “teacher” is the same.
Originally a Northern institution, she is becoming naturalized in the Southern States
; first recognized along the Atlantic coast
, she has spread to the Pacific
; and Bret Harte
has described her again and again in the wild mining towns, always emphasizing her immaculate starched skirts and her equally spotless demeanor.
And wherever she goes, she stands for the entrance, during the last fifty years, of a finer force into our civilization.
It fell to the writer's lot, on his very earliest entrance on the work of the school-committee man, to encounter a sort of object-lesson in this finer force.
There was an out-of-town school, in a farming district, where the “winter boys” lad long been a terror to teachers and committee.
In summer it was always governed by a woman; for the rest of the year a man had hitherto been held essential.
Yet, in spite of masculine authority, the boys lad for. two successive winters broken up the school, accompanying the act the last time by throwing the teacher out of the window into a snow-bank.
It was disheartening.
Tweedledum in “Alice in Wonderland” points out that nothing more inconvenient can possibly happen to a man in battle than to have his head taken off. Nothing can embarrass strict school discipline more than when the head of the school is taken off and thrown out of the window;
nor is it easy to fancy the dignity of a pedagogue more completely collapsed than when he lies on his back in a snow-drift, and gazes upward on a triumphant windowful of grinning boys.
This was the final situation in that school; and there was a summer of hopeless doubt as to what teacher to put in for the winter season again approaching.
At last a veteran member, who rarely opened his lips, parted them for this brief proposition, “Let's appoint Miss Blank” --naming a well-known teacher of the centre district.
“Can she manage that school?”
asked some one. “She can manage any
school,” was the brief and decisive response.
Miss Blank was accordingly put in, and in a few weeks the very boys who had ejected her predecessor were searching the woods for ground-pine with which to deck her school-room.
She had applied a finer force.
And this finer force has the interest of being in a manner an American patent.
, Mr. Matthew Arnold
's reports tell us, the school-mistress is a rare phenomenon, and is never assigned to a school for both sexes, except for the very youngest children.
, under the recent school laws, she is becoming more abundant; but even there, not long since, her social position was so humble that Miss Jean Ingelow
, in her “Studies for stories,” seriously blames an ambitious young woman with not being content with
her modest lot as teacher, but indulging dreams of rising to the career of a milliner.
Indeed, so far are European
countries from yet accepting this finer force that American educators who have stayed in Europe
a little too long are apt to come back regretting our extensive employment of women, and assuming that because Germany
does not pursue this practice it is not the best thing for us. But Horace Mann
, who knew the German schools thoroughly, was the man through whom this change in America
was chiefly made ; he found but little more than half the Massachusetts
teachers women, and left them five-sixths of that sex. This he urged, not primarily on the ground of economy-though there is no doubt that it is the extensive employment of women which alone males possible the vast spread of our common-school system-but for the sake of what he called “the more congenial influences of female teaching.”
“I believe there will soon be an entire unanimity in public sentiment,” he wrote in 1837, “in regarding female as superior to male teaching for young children.”
The influence of women in the school, as in the family, is all the greater because it substitutes affection for physical strength, and must accomplish its results by tact and not by brute strength.
The class of forces thus represented, has, moreover, its weight in the community as a whole, and reaches
far beyond the school.
In every village the schoolteacher is the natural ally of all civilizing agencies — of the librarian, the lecturer, the clergyman.
That which is claimed for the established church in any country, that it secures the presence of at least one cultivated person in each small precinct, is in a quiet way accomplished by the presence of the teacher in every school district.
And if it be claimed that she does not make a life-work of this pursuit, as a man would do, the answer is that men usually pass as rapidly through teaching to some other profession as do women to matrimony; and that statistics taken in several different towns have shown that there is no great average difference in this respect between the sexes.
It is also to be noticed that when a man leaves this vocation for some other, he often quits teaching altogether; but that when a woman leaves it for marriage she soon resumes it in another form, and applies her finer force in the nursery instead of the school-room.