When Sereny Maria Went To School

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Youth's Companion Vol. 73 No. 46 (November 16, 1899)

She was never called Serena Maria except in a letter, but was Sereny Maria in all the vernacular of her daily life. Even her school-teacher, Miss Mehitable Dyer, called her Sereny; had she said Serena, she might have been accused of putting on airs.

“Sereny Maria Baxter may come forward,” said she, with her usual sharpness, — which was assumed, although none of the scholars knew it, — on the first day of Sereny Maria's appearance at school.

Sereny Maria was only three years old, and sat on the very front bench of all, which had no desk before it. She wore a blue calico frock, cut low in the neck, and her pantalets were of the same material. Her small feet, in coarse shoes, dangled clear of the floor; she held tightly clasped in both hands her spelling-book.

She sat staring straight at the teacher, with a round-eyed look of wonder and awe, and did not stir when she was called forward. Sereny Maria, never having been addressed in public before, did not at once grasp her own identity in such a situation.

“Sereny Maria Baxter may come forward,” repeated the teacher.

When Sereny Maria continued to stare, with no comprehension in her blue eyes, the little girls at her right and left nudged her zealously with small, sharp elbows. They dared not whisper with the teacher's eyes upon them, even in such a good cause, but finally the girl who sat behind her slyly grasped the neckband of Sereny's dress, and gently impelled her to her feet, then gave a significant push.

When the teacher spoke again, Sereny Maria moved slowly forward, her heavily shod little toes clapping the floor at every step, and her starched pantalets rattling.

Then she stood before the teacher, looking at her with that same round-eyed innocence and wonder, and was closely questioned concerning her small progress in the ways of wisdom.

“Do you know your letters, Sereny Maria?”

“Yes, ma'am,” replied Sereny Maria, in a voice unexpectedly shrill with shyness.

“What town do you live in?”


“What county?”


“What state?”

Sereny Maria could not pronounce the letter s, therefore she said, “Mattatutett,” which caused the school to laugh and the teacher to call out, “Hush!” very sharply. Sereny Maria did not dream that they were laughing at her, and she turned around and looked at the school with a sort of forbidding innocence which gave rise to another stifled titter.

“Who was the first man?” the teacher asked next, and Sereny Maria replied, “Adam,” with great promptness. She was likewise thoroughly grounded in the names of the first woman, and who killed his brother, and built an ark, and was the oldest man, and so on.

“You may go to your seat,” said the teacher, and Sereny Maria returned to her seat in triumph. She had answered every question correctly, which was a great feat for so small a girl. She was called very bright for her age, and had fully lived up to her reputation.

“She is smarter than some twice her age,” Miss Mehitable Dyer told Mrs. Baxter that night, in a confidential whisper, lest Sereny Maria hear and be unduly puffed up with pride. Sereny Maria had gone home that night clinging fast to Miss Dyer's hand; the teacher was going to board at her house that week, and there would be sweet cake for supper every night.

“She had been a good girl, too,” the teacher told her mother, and this in Sereny Maria's hearing. The teacher might well have said that, for the little girl had not spoken nor moved nor scarcely breathed, unless bidden, all day.

When she had started for school that morning her mother had said to her: “Now, Sereny Maria, one thing you must remember, — I said the same thing to your brother Thomas when he begun to go to school and I kept my word, — if ever you are whipped at school, if the teacher punishes you because you are a naughty girl, you will be whipped when you come home.”

Poor Sereny Maria had always the dread of that double punishment before her eyes, but whipped she never was, and she went to school until she was sixteen.

However, she suffered many of the minor chastisements, for she was a nervous and restless child, and the enforced quiet of that first day could not be maintained forever. Often Sereny Maria stood in the floor with her toes on a crack for all the school to see, and sometimes, for her further discipline, she balanced a geography or a dictionary on her head. In the course of time she stood in all the corners of the room with her face to the wall, and, direst disgrace of all, she sat on the boys' side.

Punished With a Skein of Yarn.

Miss Mehitable Dyer had one curious method of punishment of her own, which was, however, for obvious reasons, adopted only in the cases of the youngest pupils. She was a very industrious woman, and generally brought her knitting-work to school, in order to improve every spare minute. She could knit and teach at the same time, and the scholars often ciphered and spelled to an accompaniment of clicking needles. Miss Mehitable sometimes allowed two scholars to hold and wind a skein of yarn for her knitting. The skein was always large, and it was quite an arduous task; it seemed strange that it should have been regarded as such a privilege, but it was.

The first occasion on which Sereny Maria was permitted to hold the skein, crooking out her little thumbs anxiously every time the yarn came round, while Sarah Jane White wound, was a memorable one. Alas! the very next skein which Miss Mehitable brought into the schoolhouse was made the instrument of her punishment for fidgeting to such an extent that she knocked off an inkstand from the desk behind her, and caused the ink to be spilled all over Angeline French's new calico.

Angeline, with her arm to her weeping eyes and the ink trickling down her beautiful pink gown, her indignant big sister following to repair the damages if possible, retired from the room; then Miss Mehitable turned to Sereny Maria. “Sereny Maria Baxter may come forward,” said she, and Sereny Maria, who by that time, being turned of five, could at once identify herself under public address, came forward, trembling.

Then did Miss Mehitable Dyer slip the great skein of strongest blue homespun yarn under Sereny Maria's armpits, and ignominiously hoist her thereby, until her tiptoes barely brushed the floor, and fasten her to a stout peg near the desk, and leave her suspended there for the space of half an hour.

The girls as well as the teacher brought their knitting- and needle-work to school, and it was considered quite industrious and meritorious to sit in the house during recess, and sew and knit instead of playing out-of-doors. Many a quilt for use in future village homes was pieced in school between study hours.

Triumphs in Needlework.

Sereny Maria, being more nervously active, did not confine herself as closely as many; still she was such a rapid worker that she accomplished a great deal. She achieved veritable triumphs in samplers and knitted lace and bead bags, and one masterpiece in the shape of a picture done with crewels in cross-stitch. Sereny Maria, looking at the house, painfully wrought in even stitches of a whitey drab, with the pink worsted rose-bush in the front yard, with the worsted willow-tree overarching the roof, and the worsted woman going in at the front door, felt all the triumphant emotion and reminiscent pain of a creative artist.

Sereny Maria's triumphs in needle-work were rather dearer to her humble feminine soul than those in her studies, although she was considered a wonderful scholar. She was always in great demand at a spelling-match, and was renowned for standing up last. Always when the committee came in she was called upon to read a composition, or speak a piece, or explain a sum.

When Sereny Maria first went to school, she studied the spelling-book; then she was advanced to a quaint little volume called, “The Child's Assistant,” published by a benevolent gentleman of the village, who was much interested in the education of the young.

The opening lesson was entitled, “The Character of a Good Child,” and one feature in this and many subsequent lessons used to puzzle Sereny Maria. They all seemed to be written with a special regard to the improvement in behavior and morals of little boys, and not of girls; there was scarcely a feminine pronoun in the book. Sereny Maria, while striving to gain wisdom from the precepts therein, was always painfully conscious of a lack of personal application.

She was especially bewildered by one chapter entitled, “Of Behavior in Company,” which instructed the reader to sit in an easy and genteel posture, with one hand in the bosom of his waistcoat, and the other laid easily upon his knee. She used to fear that only her brother Thomas could be easy and genteel in company, on account of his exclusive possession of the waistcoat.

However, Sereny Maria graduated from “The Child's Assistant,” even mastering thoroughly those long chapters entitled, “The Character of General Washington” and “An Account of the American Indians.”

Then she was promoted to “The American Preceptor.” Once started in that excellent school-book, she progressed steadily through “Select Sentences,” “Hints to Parents,” “A Short System of Virtue and Happiness,” “The Child Trained up for the Gallows,” “The Beggar's Petition,” “Brutus's Speech on the Death of Cæsar,” “ General Wolfe's Address to his Army,” and all the rest.

Sereny Maria's brother Thomas was quite celebrated for the manner in which he could speak “Brutus's Speech on the Death of Cæsar.” When he stood before the school, and often before the committee or the parson, bowed in a dislocatory manner, scraped his foot on the floor, waved his right arm in his hitching jacket-sleeve, and began at the top of his voice, “Romans, countrymen and lovers!” there was a hush of admiration and delight, and the proverbial pin might have been heard to drop, and Sereny Maria was so proud that she was afraid to look at people lest they find it out, and call her stuck-up.

That glory, however, was while Sereny Maria was quite a small girl, and before she had gone into the “American Preceptor” herself. By that time Thomas had left school, and was married to one of the big girls who had been in his class.

Sereny Maria missed Thomas sadly when he left school, for he had always taken her part against the other boys, who were some of them inclined to be rough and teasing, although not really ill-natured. “You jest let my little sister alone!” Thomas would say, with a sturdy shove aside, when Sereny Maria was being pressed into a game of snowball or a race against her will.

Soon after Thomas left, however, Sereny Maria found another champion in Nathan Goodnow. Nathan was a pretty, curly-haired boy, in a bright blue jacket cut down from his father's; he was one of the best boys in school.

Sereny Maria's friendship with him dated from the day on which she brought her little rag doll, which her Aunt Ann had made for her, to school, and Solomon Gregg, who was one of the big boys, stole it while she was standing in the corner as a punishment for looking around. Sereny Maria was full of agony at recess, when she saw him ruthlessly dangling it by its dear little wig of stocking-ravellings.

“Pooty 'ittle baby!” said Solomon Gregg, with an affected drawl of maternal solicitude; “pooty 'ittle baby, so it was!”

Sereny Maria could not snatch the doll away, no matter how hard she tried, and Solomon Gregg was totally impervious to her tears.

Nathan to the Rescue!

Then it was that brave little Nathan Goodnow, his black eyes flashing, his cheeks as red as roses, stole upon the oppressor from behind, and rescued the doll with a great leap and snatch, and restored her to her rightful owner; then had a rough-and-tumble fight with Solomon, and emerged victorious, although Solomon was a half-head taller and twenty pounds heavier.

Nathan and Solomon were both punished for fighting, for Miss Mehitable treated victors and vanquished impartially in that respect, and poor Sereny Maria wept all the time with her smooth, brown head in a ring of little dimpled arms on her desk. After school Nathan came to her, gave her a piece of spruce gum, and begged her not to feel bad, for it didn't hurt him a mite.

After that Nathan was Sereny Maria's acknowledged champion and attendant. The shutters of the old schoolhouse were movable wooden ones, and often of a winter noon, when the teacher was gone, the big boys used to remove them, and use them for sledges to coast down the hill behind the schoolhouse. Many a ride on a wooden shutter, bumping over the icy ridges of the hill, did Sereny Maria enjoy, with Nathan, so to speak, at the helm; and she had blissful slides on a frozen pool near the schoolhouse, when she held fast to a stick, the other end of which was grasped by Nathan, who was a brave skater.

Nathan, with the other big boys, used to take turns in replenishing the hearth fire with great logs of pine and cedar from the pile outside. These logs were drawn into the schoolhouse on a hand-sled with unnecessary clamor and exertion, and starting aside of all in the way. The fireplace was mighty and the fire imposing, although those nearest scorched, and those farthest froze in severe weather. Always there was a row of ink-bottles thawing before the fire on a cold day, and often their owners, stamping furtively their half-frozen feet, having received permission to warm them before returning to their polar seats in the rear of the house.

When the snow was very deep, Sereny Maria wore thick blue yarn stockings over her shoes when she went to school; often her dinner of apple-pie and doughnuts was frozen solid and had to be thawed at the fire with the ink-bottles.

“Please, ma'am, may I set my dinner to thaw?” was a frequent request in those days.

Still in the heyday of youth the frost of material discomfort does not seriously nip the spirits. Sereny Maria went to school with half-frozen toes and wholly frozen dinners, and she had impossible precepts enjoined upon her in her school-books, and was very happy and radiantly contented.

School in Summer-time.

There were pleasant happenings in the summer-time also. It was both pleasure and privilege to be allowed to pass the gourd dripping with cold water to the mouths of the thirsty school. It was pastoral delight and the gratification of innocent vanity to have one's head crowned with spring blossoms, and sidle consciously into school so decked. It was bewildering happiness, as from the overflow of a spring of pure delight in giving, to find the earliest spring flowers in secret places of the woods, and carry them, bound in mighty nosegays, to deck the teacher's desk.

Sereny Maria went to the district school, with three changes of teachers, until she was sixteen years old. She distinguished herself more and more under every new rule, until she was openly pronounced by the third teacher, a man who had served a long and faithful apprenticeship in his arduous profession, to be the smartest scholar he had ever had, although with the farther consideration, a natural one enough, perhaps, in those days, that it was a pity she was a girl.

“She has a head for the higher mathematics and philosophy,” Master Zenas Wray told the squire, “and it will all be wasted over the vegetable-pot and the bread-trough. But such is the will of providence.”

At her final examination day, Sereny Maria covered herself with glory, which long endured in the estimation of her relatives and friends.

Sereny Maria, at the end of those hours of severe mental exercise, had spoken a piece which had brought tears to the eyes of all, according to the local paper; she had read a composition “equal to anything in the Preceptor;” she had performed sums, which, it was confidently believed, either the lawyer or the parson would have stumbled over; she had stood up last in a spelling-match; and in short, had ended her days in the district school at the head of every class, and with trophies of sampler, and worsted picture, and patchwork quilt in addition.

As a crown and cap-sheaf to her last day at the district school, Sereny Maria, her brown hair looped up with a tortoise-shell comb, with the exception of six smooth curls, three on each side, dangling against her pink cheeks, in her best gown of fine crimson wool, and her worked lace collar, and her embroidered black silk apron, stood before them all, with a sweet humility of bearing in spite of all her merits, and received an elegant copy of “The Young Lady's Companion” bound in red and gold.

“She has advanced in all womanly accomplishments and graces, as well as in the knowledge of her books, and will make a notable housewife and be the pride and ornament of her home,” Master Wray told the squire.

His prediction came true, for Sereny Maria married Nathan Goodnow, after a year at a private school, wherein she obtained some knowledge of botany, philosophy and astronomy, and became a pattern housewife of her native village.