My Mother’s Scrapbook: Memories of my School Days

Cornwall School

This photo of Old Cornwall School was shared on Historic PEI’s Facebook page.

I found another gem in my mother’s scrapbook. It’s a Guardian clipping from 1951 where F.H. MacArthur recalls his days at the Old Cornwall School. Something tells me that it may be a similar recounting the students of the Old Clyde River Schoolhouse would have. You tell me.

Well do I recall the look of the old Cornwall School, the dust-laden floor, the big pot-bellied stove that stood in the center of the room, the knife-scarred desks and seats, the huge blackboard and the raised desk, where ruled Lemuel Seller, my first teacher.

My very first day at school was made doubly miserable; because during the forenoon recess, I had managed to land a fair-sized stone on the dome of an eighth grader – a girl at that. Horror of horrors! Then I took French leave, as fast as my legs could carry me. The master sent a couple of the older boys to bring me in. When we approached the door, Mr. Seller stood framed in it, a ghost of a smile playing across his face.

“You’ll beat me,” I said, “I won’t go in.”

“No I won’t,” he promised. “Not if you promise to throw no more stones.”

Quivering with fright, I took my seat – the one next to the rear wall where the big boys had set up a noise-making gadget between the walls. To this gadget was attached a string and every time one of them came in or went out the string was given a yank that sent off a clanging of irons and bells much to Master Seller’s annoyance but greatly to delight of the pupils. Mr. Seller had a difficult time with the older pupils, especially with the big boys who went to school only during the winter months, when work on the farms had slowed down.

Today they are scattered far and wide like the graves of a household and some sleep in soldier’s graves far, far from their homes and loved ones; yet in fancy I still see them playing their impish pranks right under the nose of the teacher. When one of their number dragged from his seat by the burly master and made to stand in a corner with his face toward the wall, the others would bring out their bean slingers and pepper the culprit with such a shower of dried beans that the whole school resounded to the tat-tat-tat of bouncing pellets.

Mr. Seller had a faculty for contriving punishments suitable to the nature of the offense. For example, when Neil Walker let loose a flock of sheep-ticks gleaned from his father’s flock, and shook them on the back of the girls who sat in front of him, Mr. Seller retaliated with ten strokes of the cat o’nine tails – five strokes to each of Neil’s hands.

Scholars who told lies had to recite a long poem on Friday.

He also had other ways of persuading us to shun evil and take up the straight and narrow path. Those whose deportment measured up to his standard were permitted to go home half an hour earlier on Friday, while those who fell under the spell of the tempter had to remain in school one hour later doing difficult problems in math.

The primer was a small book, 5″ x 4″, with paper covers and cheap binding. Besides containing a number of pictures, the primer had “spelling words,” little folks’ poems, “Lessons and maxims for Children”, and so forth.

It was always a marked event when the school inspector arrived. If King George or Queen Elizabeth were to walk into the room where I am writing, they would not seem half so important to me as did the inspector who visited our school once or twice a year. He arrived in a wagon, his coming announced by some pupil who peeked through a crack.

The awful news was passed from one to another in throaty whispers. The teacher, too, glanced around uneasily. Then a heavy silence descended on the old school. This was broken by footsteps and a knock on the weather-beaten door. When the great man stepped across the threshold the stillness of death filled the room. How could anything we might do seem proper in sight of this august person?

In a matter of moments he got down to business. Lessons were heard, our longhand was looked over, and so on. How well I remember the first inspector, a Mr. Devereaux! The very size of the man filled me with fear. I also recall what he once said to the teacher about some new equipment.

“Get a new map of the world, and destroy those filthy slate rags. Why I declare some of them are putrefying.”

Then he walked out, puffing like a steam engine. When the door was closed behind him the spell was broken, and we resumed our mischief-making. The teacher gained his natural look, began to take up where he had left off, and the older boys play tat-tat-tat on the blackboard with their bean shooters.

Although it was cold, dirty and weather-beaten, the old school,  this scribe remembers it, prepared for the duties of life a fine group of Islanders.

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