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Grab, fold, push. Grab, fold push.
Nancy continued the rhythm as she kneaded the bread, the warm sourdough aroma filling her kitchen. Silently, she shifted through her mental check list. After the bread was in the oven, she would prepare supper for the family. When she and her daughter, Harriet, cleaned up the supper dishes, she needed to prepare bone broth to take to the less fortunate tomorrow. Then, if there was any time before bed, she wanted to tat some more lace for Harriet’s wedding veil.
As the dough stiffened, she molded it into a loaf and placed it in a pan. As she put it on the windowsill, she heard the factory whistle blow. Her heart flipped and she smiled softly. She loved hearing that sound– it meant her youngest son, Al, would be home from school soon.
Nancy crossed the kitchen and opened the larder and pulled out the cream and blueberries for Al’s after-school snack. At eight years old, Al was the most active of all her children. Both of her daughters had been quite subdued. Even her oldest son, William, hadn’t been so energetic when he was a boy. Even the three that had died before the family moved to Port Huron had never been so excitable… or so mischievous.
At that moment, the front door banged open and young feet ran through the living room and toward Al’s bedroom. Speaking of energy…
“Al! Shut that door!”
He didn’t answer. “Good Lord,” she murmured, jerking off her apron, “Please somehow use Al’s energy for good use when he grows up. But until then, grant me patience.” She marched towards Al’s bedroom, intent on knowing why he thought he could let in every fly in the county. As she approached his doorway, muffled sobs greeted her ears. Her frustration dissipated as quickly as it had come.
“Al?” Nancy peered in the room, her eyes landing on her son’s huddled form on his bed, his school books forgotten on the floor. Kneeling before the bed, she asked, “Sweetheart, what’s wrong? Did something happen on the way from school?”
Still crying, Al shook his head.
“Are you hurt?”
After sobbing for another minute, Al raised his head. “Teacher whipped me today ’cause I didn’t learn my lessons.”
Nancy pursed her lips. She didn’t wholly agree with Reverend Engle’s teaching methods. He subscribed to the old-fashioned method of making his students memorize the lesson, then expecting them to quote it perfectly. Many times in the past three months, Al had come home shamefaced because he had failed to say his lesson correctly, and been spanked with a leather strap in front of the other 38 students in punishment. Although she didn’t like it, there were no other educational options besides teaching him at home.
“I’m sorry, darling. We must not have worked enough on them last night.”
“No, Mother, we did.” Al sniffed and wiped his nose. “Reverend Engle says that I’m– I’m– addled.”
Nancy could only gape, her frustration against the schoolmaster growing hotter. “Addled?”
Al sniffed and nodded, pulling his bangs back. “He said that since my forehead is enlarged, there must be something wrong with my head. That’s why I can’t sit still. And why I can’t– I can’t learn.” With that, he burst into tears again.
Nancy pulled him close. “Oh, Al. That’s not true. Why, no one who’s as curious as you could be retarded.”
Al shook his head. “Reverend Engle says that smart children don’t ask questions and if I had any intelligence, I wouldn’t ask so many.”
Nancy’s blood boiled. Why that ignorant, short-tempered, ill-mannered– she thought. “Why, when I was a teacher, I welcomed questions like yours!”
Al laid his head against Nancy’s chest. “But Mother, he doesn’t! Every night, you help me memorize my lessons. But Reverend Engle makes us learn hard lessons, and I can’t read anything– all the letters jumble themselves on the page! Then he gets angry and yells at me. I get scared and can’t remember my lessons. Then he whips me!”
“Shh,” Nancy crooned, brushing his hair out of his face. “Don’t worry about it. You’ve only been attending school for a few weeks. You’ll learn how to read soon. And Reverend Engle was probably just having a bad day today. It will be better tomorrow.”
Al pulled away, stubbornness blazing on his face. “I’m not going back tomorrow. I don’t want to go back ever!”
“You need to, son. I’ll go with you tomorrow and talk to Reverend Engle. I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding. He’ll apologize, and things will get better.”
Al’s shoulders slumped, and Nancy’s heart went out to him. The thought had crossed her mind several times in the past three months to educate him at home, but she just wasn’t sure she could at this point. She was very involved in the church, especially with charity, and there was much to do for Harriet’s wedding next year. Nonetheless, she had no doubt that her precious son would do better at home under her tutelage than under Reverend Engle’s. Perhaps it would be better that way.
“So, you want to educate him at home?” Samuel clarified as he pulled on his night cap.
Nancy, sitting in front of her vanity mirror braiding her hair, nodded. “Certainly he could learn better with me than with that man.”
For a long moment, Samuel watched her before slowly answering, “I don’t know… Maybe Reverend Engle is right. Maybe there is something wrong with him.”
Nancy stopped and looked at her husband. Did no one else believe that Al could amount to anything? “What makes you say that?” She growled.
“Oh, come on, Nancy. He lacks common sense! Remember when he burned down the barn in Milan a couple years ago?”
Nancy vividly remembered it. Al had wondered what would happen to a burning building, so he had set their barn on fire. She had been terrified at first, thinking that he was still in the blaze. But when she and Samuel found him laying on the lawn watching the fire, they had been furious. “He was trying to discover the properties of fire. That’s all.”
Samuel blinked. “That’s all? We nearly lost all the livestock. We did lose all the grain feed. Any other child his age would never do something so foolish!”
Nancy stood and crossed her arms. “And we punished him. He learned! He hasn’t started another fire since! So he had to learn the hard way. But that’s not a bad thing!
“Not a bad thing? If he continues like this, he will never live a good, normal life!”
“What if God doesn’t want him to have a normal life? What if Al’s ‘good life’ will look different? What if by his questions he will change lives?”
Samuel only shook his head. “His questions,” he scoffed. “His questions never benefit anyone. Remember when he asked you why geese sit on the eggs in their nests?”
If she wasn’t so angry, she would have laughed. “What’s that got to do with anything? He just wanted to know if he could help the neighbor’s eggs hatch, too!”
“He broke all the eggs in the nest!”
“He was only five years old, Samuel!”
A quiet knock came from their door and Harriet stuck her head in the door. “Mother? Father? Al just woke up. He wants to know why you’re fighting, and he didn’t believe me when you said you were talking about politics.” Nancy and Samuel glanced at each other, embarrassed that they had been shouting without realizing it. “He wanted to come to see you, but I told him to stay in bed and let one of you come to him.”
Nancy nodded. “Thank you, Harriet. I’ll be in there in a little bit.” Harriet left, but Nancy didn’t budge. Nor did she look at Samuel. Silently, she tried to master her fury so Al wouldn’t see it when she went to him.
Samuel broke the silence first. “Look, all I’m trying to say is that maybe we should let a professional deal with his education. Reverend Engle should know how to deal with him better than we would.”
Should was right. Nancy looked at him and whispered back, “But I know him better. He only spends a few hours a day with Reverend Engle. I know how he thinks and learns. I am sure I can teach him in a way he can learn.”
Samuel climbed into their bed and sighed. “How about a compromise? For now, we leave him in school. When and if the day comes that it becomes obvious that he won’t get a decent education at that school, you can teach him here.”
“The moment we come to that realization?”
Nancy took a deep breath. It wasn’t the answer she wanted, but it was good enough for now. “Alright. We’ll wait for now.” And with that, she took the candle from the vanity and went to her son.
Early the next morning, Nancy and Al walked the short distance to the neighborhood school. The building was much larger than the school her other children had attended in Milan, Ohio. For one thing, this school had two rooms– one for the younger students and one for the older. But with a population of 1500, Port Huron was much bigger and needed a larger school.
Right before the door of the school, Al stopped. Clutching his books to his chest, he shook his head and looked up at Nancy. “Mother, I don’t want to go.”
Nancy turned him so he faced her. “Al, look at me.” When he obeyed, she continued, “Sometimes, you need to do things you don’t want to do. Mother and Father can teach you right from wrong, but Reverend Engle can best instruct your mind.” Even as she said it, she recoiled at the thought of that man teaching her son anything, wondering what damage he could do in the process. But she had to hold her peace for now.
“Why can’t you and Father instruct my mind, too?”
The school door swung open, saving Nancy from answering. Mrs. Engle stood at the door. If Nancy had been asked to describe her in three words, it would have been sharp, wiry, and grim. “Mrs. Engle, hello. We were just about to come in.”
“So I assumed,” Mrs. Engle sniffed. “My husband is at the desk in room one.”
As Nancy and Al entered the younger students’ room, she whispered to him, “Why don’t you go put your books on your desk. Then you can come join us.” Al nodded, making his way to the front of the classroom where all the first year students sat.
Walking past rows of desks, Nancy approached the teacher’s desk and smiled softly. Before marrying Samuel, she had taught school in Canada. That was so long ago, yet the memories were so pleasantly vivid.
“Mrs. Edison, what a surprise,” Reverend Engle said in a very unsurprised tone. “I assume you’re here to talk about Al’s performance yesterday.”
“Actually, I was hoping you could clear something up. Al came home yesterday very upset because he believed you called him addled.”
“And so I did. His grades are very poor and he can never concentrate on learning his lessons. He spends his time wiggling in his seat, looking out the window, and asking those confounded questions.” He pursed his lips and continued in a mocking tone, “‘Reverend Engle, how does a candle work? Reverend Engle, why don’t we use thous and thees like in the Bible? Reverend Engle, how would you measure Lake Erie– by feet or pounds? Reverend Engle, why do nuts turn brown when autumn comes? Reverend Engle, how did the horses get here?’ His questions alone will drive me insane. But combine that with his energy, and he is a distraction to everyone else in the class.”
Nancy pursed her lips as she took a deep, settling breath. “But Reverend, those are all very good questions. Why didn’t you answer them?”
“No one with good sense would ask such ridiculous questions. Most of the students who sit here only need to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. There are a few who sit in these seats that will continue to the next class to learn advanced subjects; but only those who have potential to become ministers, teachers, and politicians. Since all the rest will be laborers and farmers, I don’t see how questions can be at all helpful.”
Nancy glared at the narrow-minded man before her. “Al’s questions stem from his intelligence. He’s curious about how the natural world works. Would you destroy his desire to learn?”
“Curiosity killed the cat, Mrs. Edison. He doesn’t have enough interest in Biblical matters to become a minister. He’s not smart enough to be a teacher. And I don’t see him going to Detroit or wherever the next state capitol will be if the legislators ever make up their minds. If he does not become more demure and quickly, a quiet life following his father as a tailor or working on the railroad will never be enough for him. He will become a wild man. Perhaps even a desperado.” He leaned forward and stared intently into Nancy’s eyes. “Do you really want your son to amount to less than nothing?”
Nancy glanced over at Al, who was watching them with heartache glittering in his eyes, absently fingering the desk. His look pierced her to the heart and she realized that he would learn nothing so long as he was under Reverend Engle’s hard hand. She faced the Reverend again and drew herself up to her full height. “Reverend, he has just as much potential as any of your prize pupils! His questions are vital. The more questions he asks, the more he learns and the more his mind is shaped. And if he doesn’t fit into your tiny mold of appropriate manhood, then that’s all the better for him. He will amount to more than anything any of us could imagine!”
Reverend Engle leaned back in his chair with a smirk. “So you’re going to do what? Teach him yourself?” He chuckled incredulously.
“There’s nothing stopping me, Reverend,” then she turned to her son, “Al, pick up your books.” She turned back to Reverend Engle. “I hereby withdraw my son from your school.” Al ran to her side and they walked out of the school building. Nancy, still furious, swore to herself that she would never darken the door again.
“Mother?” Al asked as soon as they were back on the road. “Did you mean it?”
“Yes,” she hissed. “You could change the world. Curbing your curiosity will only hinder your full potential.”
Over the next mile, Nancy’s fury slowly lessened and she began to plan. She was grateful that they had a McGuffy Reader and a book of Elementary Algebra from the older children. Besides, Port Huron was blessed to have a fairly large library. If she could just teach him the foundational principles and instill in him a love for learning, she was certain Reverend Engle would be forced to eat his words one of these days.
“Mother?” Al pulled her from her thoughts and plans. “Mother, I’m going to learn everything and change the world. I’m going to make you proud someday– promise! I’m going to be everything I possibly can be.”
Nancy’s eyes filled with tears. She swallowed hard and pulled him into a hug. “You already have, Thomas Alva Edison. You already have.”
Thomas Alva Edison did, indeed, grow to astound everyone who knew him. Although he is best known for inventing the incandescent lightbulb, he had more than a thousand other patents to his name before he died. After his mother died, he said of her, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me: and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”
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For Further Reading…
The Education of Thomas Edison by Foundation of Economic Education
Thomas A. Edison by University of Maryland Baltimore County
Thomas Edison Depot Museum by Port Huron Museum
Edison Biography by ThomasEdison.com
Michigan State Capitol by HistoricDetroit.org
Thomas Alva Edison Birthplace and Early Life by Rutgers
Copyright © Angela Cornell 2016