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Barn School, Free School

By Janeen Grohsmeyer.

A story of Dorothea Dix (1802-1887), Unitarian teacher and social reformer.

"Finish eating your supper, Anna," said Florence. "We mustn't be late to school."

Anna nodded and ate another spoonful of soup. She was happy to get a piece of potato in the warm salty broth, instead of only cabbage. Usually she ate slowly, to make the food last longer, and usually after supper she stayed home. But she had turned six years old yesterday, and so tonight, her older sister Florence was taking her to school.

"Why can't I go?" her older brother Michael asked. He had finished his soup.

"You've already been," their mother answered. "Two full years at the public school. Now that you're twelve, you need to work. And you two girls need to be quick. Off you go!"

Anna finished her soup. Then she and Florence put on shawls and bonnets and kissed their mother goodbye. Their father was a sailor, away at sea, so they couldn't kiss him. He had left two years before. Anna didn't remember him very well.

Outside, the city of Boston smelled of dead fish and wet ropes, as always. Down at the harbor, the white sails on the tall ships snapped and billowed in the breeze, like sheets hung out to dry on a clothesline.

"How far do we have to walk?" Anna asked, as she and Florence went down the alley. They lifted their skirts to keep them out of the mud and hopped over puddles.

"Not far," Florence answered. "The school is at the teacher's house."

"In her house?" Anna asked, wondering if they would meet in the kitchen.

"Not in her house. At her house. Behind it. The school is in a barn."

Now Anna wondered if they would meet in a stall. "Are there horses?" she asked hopefully. "Or chickens?"

"No," said Florence. "The family doesn't keep horses or chickens anymore. The barn is clean."

"I would have liked a chicken," Anna said wistfully. "Or a goat."

The girls waited for a horse and cart to go by so they could cross a street. The horse's tail and mane were the dark gold color of straw, and its coat was a deep brown that looked red in the evening sunshine. Mother said a horse with those colors was called chestnut, just like the shiny, dark-brown nuts that people roasted to eat at Christmas time. The horse's hooves clip-clopped on the cobblestones as it went up the hill. The cart creaked along behind.

The cobblestones felt cold and rough through the thin soles of Anna's shoes. She hoped Florence might get a pair of shoes before winter, and then give her old shoes to Anna to wear. They would have thin soles, too, but at least they wouldn't squeeze her toes.

"What will we do at school?" Anna asked next.

"After prayers, we sit at a long table and do lessons. We read and spell and do sums. Sometimes the teacher tells us about stars or how the mountains were made. In the summer we learned about flowers almost every day."

Anna was pleased. She liked flowers and stars, and she wanted to learn about mountains, for she had never seen one. "What's the teacher's name?" Anna asked.

"Miss Dorothea Dix," Florence told her.

Anna repeated the name silently to herself so she wouldn't forget and practiced saying, "Good evening, Miss Dix" under her breath. She hoped Miss Dix would like her.

Anna could tell from the houses that they were getting close to the school. Instead of small, wooden houses with unpainted shutters like the one she lived in, the houses on this street were very large, with window panes of glass. They had tall brick chimneys and shining brass handles on their doors. Many houses had barns out back. Some even had gardens.

The girls passed a fine brick church. On the other side of the street Anna saw a dozen girls in pretty dresses sitting in a garden. All of them were busy sewing.

"Is that the school?" Anna asked, for she knew twelve girls couldn't all be sisters.

"That's Mrs. Rowson's Female Academy for young ladies," Florence said. "Girls come from all over the country to attend. I hear it's very expensive."

"Is our school expensive?" Anna asked, suddenly worried. Their family couldn't afford an expensive school. Their family couldn't afford new shoes. Some days they couldn't afford food. Mother worried about money all the time.

"No," Florence said. "Our school is free."

"Free?" Anna repeated in surprise.

"Free," her sister said firmly. "During the day, Miss Dix teaches a class for young ladies, and they have to pay. In the evening, Miss Dix teaches children like us, and it's free."

Anna didn't know many people who did things for free. "Why does she do that?"

"Miss Dix believes it's everyone's duty to help each other. She says that those who have enough have a special duty to give to those who don't. Some people give money; Miss Dix gives a school."

"A school in a barn," Anna said, but she didn't mind. She was just glad to have a school. Their family couldn't afford to pay, and girls couldn't go to public schools like their brother had. Their mother had never been to school at all.

"A free school," Anna said. "A barn school." She liked the sound of that so much she said it again, skipping along with the words: "Barn school, free school. Barn school, free school."

Florence started skipping too. "Barn school, free school," they chanted until finally Florence stopped. "Here's the barn," she said. "And here's the school."

In front of them was a very large house in a garden. Beautiful flowers lined all the paths, and Anna realized that the air didn't smell like dead fish and wet ropes anymore. It smelled soft and fresh and sweet.

Off to one side was a little cottage and farther back was the barn. A row of trees stood tall against a fence. "Those are Dix pear trees," Florence said. "Miss Dix's grandfather developed them years ago. The pear I brought home last month grew from those trees."

Anna remembered that pear. She and her mother and brother and Florence had each had one slice. Anna had never eaten a pear before, and she had thought it was most delicious thing in the whole world.

"Her grandmother lives in the cottage, along with Miss Dix," Florence explained as they walked down one of the paths between the beautiful flowers. "They rent the big house to other people."

"And they let us use the barn for free!" Anna said in delight. She might have started skipping and chanting "Barn school, free school" again, but then she saw Miss Dix, standing at the door of the barn.

Miss Dix was tall and slender. She wore a pretty blue gown with tiny white ruffles at the sleeves and a soft white shawl around her shoulders. She wasn't old at all. Her hair was a deep brown touched with red, just like the chestnut color of the horse. "Good evening, Florence," she said, and her voice was soft and sweet, just like the scent of the air.

"Good evening, Miss Dix," Florence replied.

"Good evening, Miss Dix," Anna repeated, just as she'd practiced.

"This is my sister, Anna," Florence explained. "She's six years old, and she wants to learn."

"Good evening, Anna," Miss Dix said, and her smile was as beautiful as the flowers. "Welcome to the school. I'm glad you're here."

Anna smiled back. "Thank you, Miss Dix. I'm glad I'm here, too."

They went inside, and Florence showed her where to hang their shawls and bonnets. As Anna sat at the long table and started on her very first lesson, she chanted very softly: "Barn school. Free school."

And then she whispered, "Thank you, Miss Dorothea Dix."

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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