Orange, New Jersey: 1856. Bound in half read morocco over marbled boards, filled with lined blue paper; a bit scuffed but binding tight. Comprised of 89 manuscript pages in a single hand, beginning January 1, 1856 and ending April 14, 1856 (with a gap of entries in February). Though no ownership inscription identifies the diarist by name, her detailed and research rich entries reveal that she is a young woman, living on her own away from family, and working as an elementary school teacher in New Jersey.
The diarist begins her writing on New Year's Day, feeling the isolation many single, independent women likely did. "How much this morning I wish I could have been at home...but after reviewing the occurrences of the past year, of the many evils I had escaped, the many choice blessings and privileges I had enjoyed as well as the many opportunities of 'doing good' I had allowed to pass by improved, my heart sent forth a prayer of gratitude." By the second day of the year, she begins work anew: "Went down to the school house but found it very cold from there not having been any fire there during the week...Had it not been for the happy smiles & cheerful exclamations of the greater number of pupils, should have almost been homesick." This kind of pull and push defines much of her experience throughout the year -- on the one hand longing for the stability of her family, on the other taking control of her destiny and working to expand beyond the limitations surrounding her.
Discussing daily tasks in the school and classroom, readers can learn a fair amount about 19th century pedagogy. But perhaps more important is her inner dialogue about that work. She expresses awareness that her job is serious, passing on more than rote knowledge to her students. On January 4, she writes, "The duties of a teacher are many and responsible & sometimes I feel like shrinking when I think about how great & highly important that responsibility is -- for, when the mind is not biased by the prejudices or opinions of mature age, or word or even a look or smile may be the means of leading that mind to form an opinion which may follow it through life -- how more careful then ought I to be of everything that may influence those entrusted to my care." She does her best to continue her own academic and social education, taking French lessons, and attending lectures with the Lyceum, including one by Poe associate, the poet Park Benjamin and one by Princeton geologist Arnold Guyot. She is aware that who she is as a person bleeds into her work; and she struggles with the didactic literature the 19th century has to offer on the standards to which she should hold herself. "Have been reading this account of a model teacher. Am I a model teacher? What a strange question! Me, with all my imperfections, and yet can I not strive to be?"
As the diarist continues into spring, we hear more about her colleagues, her friends, the far away family, and even her unnamed suitor (whom she calls "the beaux"). She gives details about classes, shopping, and reaching. More than anything, she continues to reflect on her selfhood, and about its place in the world. Lectures she attends on gendered behavior (including one on The Gentleman) rub her wrong; her ideas grow more complex and she begins questioning the content of church sermons. And she doubts whether she'll return to her work as a teacher, wondering whether she should push her education further. "Should very much like to peep into the future at the distance of about six months," she writes on February 4, "to see what I shall be doing. At least, I wish I knew what I am destined to be. A teacher or a scholar?" Her growing awareness of systemic unfairness leads her over the term to pay extra care to her female students, who seem to see something special in her, and express concern about her leaving the school. "I could not tell them," she says on several occasions, "I wish I could." Her discontent also leads to clashes with school administration, which wish to curb the messages she is conveying. After a gap of entries, she writes on March 11: "I have been told within the last few days that it will not be convenient for me to remain here much longer...the ladies cannot give a decided answer until they have consulted with their husbands. I find this is no place for 'Woman's Rights' subjects. I think I should be able to decide such a matter as that." By the diary's end, she has left her current school and found employment elsewhere, at Public School No. 1, teaching a class of boys.
Only eight years after the start of the Women's Rights Movement, a young teacher already has been shaped by its affects; and she passes her ideas on to the next generation. Though she does not leave her name, the diarist does leave much of herself to us. In this sense, she accomplishes her wish: "I should like to have a kind an empathizing friend near me to whom I could tell 'my story,' my hopes and aspirations" (January 9). (Item #3910)