Lesson XVII, McGuffey’s Eclectic Fourth Reader
- “I was a dull boy,” said Judge B , in answer to some remarks of Mrs. Wentworth, referring to the usual precocity of genius, and hinting at the display which the learned and celebrated Judge must have made in his juvenile studies, “I was a very dull boy. Till I was full nine years old, I dreaded the name of book and school.
- “It is true, I had made some progress in the rudiments of English, and had begun the Latin Grammar; but this was wholly owing to the constant instruction and personal influence of my mother. It was only in obedience to her, that I attended school. I would have preferred a severe whipping every day of my life, if by that means I might have been exempted from the task of study. I was the drone of the school.
- “My mother began my education very early; I was her only child, and she a widow; you may easily imagine, therefore, how eager she must have been for my improvement. She tried every means that love, faith, and patience could suggest, to instruct me in my lessons and my duties. In the latter she was not disappointed. I may say, without boasting, that I was an obedient boy, for I loved my mother so well, that it was a pleasure to do her bidding.
- “But I could not learn my book; the fountain of knowledge was, to my taste, bitter waters, and all the devices which ingenuity has invented to make learning easy, failed in my case. I had to wear the duncecap at school, and so sluggish was my mind, that I did not care a straw for the disgrace, till I found it made my mother weep when she heard of it. Indeed I preferred to be at the foot of my class, for then I had no trouble about trying to keep my station; and even at the opening of the school, I always took my place at the foot: it seemed to fall naturally to me. I was as contented as Diogenes in his tub.
- “Thus the time passed’, till the winter I entered my tenth year’. The schoolmaster was preparing for a famous exhibition’; and as he knew how solicitous my mother was for my improvement, he called on her to ascertain if she thought it possible that / could take a part’. She did’ think it possible; what mother would despair of her only child? She undertook to teach me the piece I was to speak.
- “The teacher had selected that pithy little poem, so appropriate for the young tyro, beginning—
“‘ You’d scarce expect one of my age
To speak in public on the stage,
And if I chance to fall below
Demosthenes or Cicero,
Don’t view me with a critic’s eye,
But pass my imperfections by. &c.’
- “These six lines were my first lesson; and after tea, my mother sat down to the task of teaching it, telling me that I must learn to recite those six lines, during that and the following evening. You smile’, ladies’, but it seemed an Herculean task to me and it was only my strong affection for my mother’, that would have induced me to undertake’ it.
- “The teacher had promised me, that, if I spoke my piece well, he would give me a silver medal. I cared nothing for that, till my mother drew me to her, and, as she put back my hair and kissed my forehead in her loving manner, said, “Oh, Robert! how happy I shall be to see you come home with the medal on!” I thought then that I would try to obtain it. So I sat down cheerfully to my task.
- “I recollect the scene as though it were but yesterday. My mother read the six lines to me a number of times over, and then she explained the meaning of the words. She told me of Demosthenes, and the efforts he made to overcome his natural defects. I remember asking her if I should get some pebbles to hold in my’ mouth; whether it would do me’ any good; and how happy her laugh rang out at my witticism. Then she told me of Cicero, and of the great services he rendered his ‘country, by his oratory and learning, thus endeavoring to awaken my mind to some effort of imitation.
- “I like to listen to stories, and it was in this manner that I had been taught what little I knew; for I could not comprehend words. I wanted images, and these, my mother, by her manner, and the comparisons she would draw from familiar things, could succeed in picturing to my imagination. In books, I found nothing but words, and those I could not remember. But I am growing tedious, I fear, as that evening was to my mother and myself.
- “For two long hours she patiently taught’ me. I read over the lines a hundred times’; I recited them after her’; sometimes, I would repeat two or three consecutive words’; and I could see her face brighten with hope’; but when she took the book for the last recitation’, and after I had been studying most intently for some minutes’, I could not repeat a single word’. I can recollect now my sensation at that time. It seemed to me, that I knew all that my mother wished me to say; but a kind of wavering shadow would come between me and my lesson, and make all the words indistinct, and my will had no power to control these fancies.
- “When my mother had vainly tried every possible method to make me recollect the first two lines, she was quite overcome. I believe her hope of my intellect was extinguished, and that she felt, for the first time, what all who knew me had predicted, that I should be a dunce. It must be a terrible trial for a sensible mother to think, that her only child is a fool. She burst into a passion of tears; covered her face with her hands, and sunk on her knees beside the sofa where we were sitting.
- “I started up in amazement at her grief, for I had never before seen her so moved: she was habitually calm as a summer’s morning; but now her sobs and groans seemed bursting her heart. My knees trembled, and a burning heat rushed over my frame. At that moment, something seemed to open in my head, and a light—I can compare it to nothing else—seemed to be let into my brain.
- “I saw, or felt,—that perhaps would be more proper,— every word of the lesson I had been learning, as though it were graven with a pen of fire. I knew that I could repeat my lesson; and many other lessons that I had vainly tried to learn, now all were present to my memory in perfect arrangement. I stood in a state of enhancement, almost, as these new and clear ideas came thronging on my mind, till my dear mother arose from her kneeling posture, and stretched out her hand to draw me to her.
- “Her face was deadly pale, but perfectly calm and resigned. I have her countenance now before me, mild and beautiful as an angel’s. She had given up her hope of my mind, but her love was deeper and more tender, perhaps, because her pride in me had been utterly humbled. Oh, there is no earthly passion so disinterested as a mother’s love! She thought, from my countenance, that I was frightened; and drawing me to her, she caressed me, and murmured, ‘my son’, my dear son’.’
- “‘ I can say my lesson, mother, I can say my lesson now’,’ I broke out, and instantly repeated not only the six lines, but the whole poem which I had heard her read, but had never read myself. She was astonished; but when I went on to repeat hymns and poems which she had in vain tried to teach me for months and years, her joyful exclamations were raised in thanks to God; and her tears again flowed like rain.
- “I do not think she retired’ that night at all’; for she was kneeling by my bedside when I went to sleep’, and when I opened my eyes in the morning’, she was bending over’ me. Probably’, she feared I might lose my memory’, and watched my first awaking to confirm her hopes’. She was gratified. I recollected more clearly that morning than the previous evening. My whole being seemed changed. Every object looked brighter’, every word sounded with a new meaning’.”
- “Do you believe, that any new faculty of mind was given you?” asked Mrs. Wentworth.
“No’, surely not’, but my intellect was aroused and enlightened. How this was effected’, I do not pretend to say. I have never since found any difficulty in literary pursuits’; the exercise of my mind is my most pleasurable employment’. I gained the medal with great applause; and was sweetly rewarded by the praises and kisses of my mother.
- “How happy she was’! too happy for this world. I fear the alternations of grief and joy, had an injurious effect on her health. She passed away in a few months, and left me an orphan indeed. But her memory can never pass from me, while my reason remains. To her I am indebted, for all my enjoyment of intellect. I have no doubt, that, had a severe and chilling discipline been pursued with me at home, as it was at school, I should always have been a dull and ignorant being, perhaps an idiot. To a good, faithful, intelligent mother, what gratitude and respect do not her children owe! I shall always vindicate the cause of woman.” –Ladies’ Magazine.
William H. McGuffey, McGuffey’s Eclectic Fourth Reader (New York: Clark, Austin & Smith, 1849), Lesson XVII (from Google Books).
Portrait of William McGuffey from Ask.com. Used According to Ask.com Terms of Service.