“The Neighborhood Children:”
A School Teacher's Story

Mary E. Wilkins

From Friends' Intelligencer Vol. 44 No. 29 (July 16, 1887)

“My father died when I was three months old, and my mother when I was a year and a half,” said the pretty, young school teacher. She and two of her oldest girls were having a chat at noon.

“Why, who brought you up then?” asked one of them wonderingly.

“The neighborhood.”

“Why Miss Gove, what do you mean?” cried the girls together.

“Just what I say, the neighborhood brought me up, and not only me, but my two brothers and my five sisters — there were eight of us in all.”

“But how could the neighborhood bring you up; I never heard of such a thing.”

“Nor I.”

“Well I'll tell you about it,” said Miss Gove, laughing. “I guess there'll be time enough. You see after father died, mother had a pretty hard time to get along, but she was a very smart, courageous woman, and she managed to keep us all comfortable. She owned our little house clear, and with our cow and hens and garden, we had nearly enough to eat. Then she used to leave the younger children in charge of the older ones, and go out to do day's work for the neighbors. They were good, honest, kind-hearted country people, who make the best neighbors in the world. She had a good faculty about patching and mending, and making our clothes last, and we got along very well till she took cold and died very suddenly of pneumonia. Then the outlook was bad. There we were eight of us, the oldest only fourteen, with nothing in the world but a bit of a house and a cow and a few hens, besides our little patched garments.

“There were no relatives living to do anything for us; we were all alone. Of course I was too young to remember anything of this, but I tell it as I heard it afterward. People talked of sending us all, except my oldest sister, Annie, and my oldest brother, Frank, who, they thought, might go to live in families and work for their board, to the almshouse. We would be kept there until we were able to work. I don't know how this plan came to be changed, or which of those blessed, good neighbors started the one which was finally adopted.

“My very first recollection of anything of the whole matter is centered in a sweet, pretty young girl, whose name was Agnes Dean. But I did not know her by that name at all; I always called her mamma. That word, to this day, is always associated in my mind with a fair, slender, young girl, with beautiful yellow curls hanging down her back, and the mildest, rosiest, sweetest face. I can remember walking with her, holding tight to her hand and looking up at her. Long before that, they tell me, she used to drag me about in a little carriage, and rock me and tend me every minute she could get out of school. She was my sister Annie's friend. Poor Annie had everything she could do to keep the house tidy and cook. She had no sewing or mending to do. One of the neighbors looked out for each of us, and we were well and tastily clad. Agnes Dean and her mother made my little things. I can remember some of them now; they were nicer than my own poor mother could have got me, I suppose. There was a little pink cashmere hood, trimmed with swansdown, which I had one winter, and there was an embroidered blue dress, too. I don't suppose all the other children fared quite as daintily as I perhaps. I was the youngest, and that may have made some difference; then the Deans were well-to-do people. But all of us had enough. Then, every week, the neighbors, by twos, took turns in cooking for us. Each Saturday night great batches of cookies and pies, loaves of bread, and a big piece of roast meat came to our house. They lasted us over Sunday and far into the week if we managed prudently and we were all well instructed in prudent management by the neighbors. Perhaps, on the whole, we received more lasting benefit from their good advice than we did from their nice food and their warm dresses.

“I have heard a good deal about its being a poor plan for children to have many masters, but it certainly worked well in our case, and we are none of us any the worse for it. I suppose these neighbors must have been actuated by so much loving kindness and unselfish charity that they made wise rules. They all seemed to agree in them, too; perhaps they consulted before making them. One rule, which I remember, was: three cookies per day, and no more, for each child. Another was: to take off our best things and hang them up nicely in the closet, and put on our old ones, when we came home from church Sundays. When we were very naughty and it came to the neighbors' knowledge we were punished. My sister Annie had too gentle a disposition to make much of a disciplinarian, and we met with about all the retribution for our misdeeds away from home.

“I can remember very well being called into a Mrs. Simmons' one night, on my way from school, and being treated to a little switching with a twig of birch. I had flatly disobeyed my sister Annie in the presence of one of the neighbors, and Mrs. Simmons, being told, had taken the matter into her own hands. After I had been whipped she kissed me, and told me with tears in her eyes that she did it for my good, because I hadn't any mother to teach me, and she wanted me to grow up to be a good woman.

“We went by the name of the ‘neighborhood children.’ Everybody for half a mile around seemed to have an interest and proprietorship in us, the young as well as old. I remember one funny thing which happened at school. One of the little boys was teasing brother Charlie, when another boy, mere mite himself, stepped up indignantly with: ‘I should think you'd know better than to plague one of these children, Willy Tompkins.’

“The neighbors never deserted us; we were the neighborhood children till we were children no longer and able to do for ourselves. One after another grew up and found a place in the world. I am the youngest, and here I am teaching. All of us are comfortable and prosperous, and I believe we owe it all to being brought up by the neighborhood. They keep their kind interest in us now; we think of them as so many fathers and mothers. They are always looking out for us in some way. Why, I owe my situation here to one of them. There, now, you know how I was brought up by the neighborhood.”

The bell was just beginning to ring. “Miss Gove,” said one of the girls, hesitatingly, “you didn't tell us what became of the girl with the yellow curls, the one you called ‘mamma.’”

“She is dead, dear; she and her husband both. And — Annie and I are bringing up her little orphan daughter.”