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- STORY OF WELLESLEY - 5/33 -
Life was keyed high in Mr. Durant's home, and the keynote was Wellesley College. While the walls were rising he kept workman's hours. Long before the family breakfast he was with the builders. At prayers I learned to listen night and morning for the prayer for Wellesley--sometimes simply an earnest 'Bless Thy college.' We sat on chairs wonderful in their variety, but all on trial for the ease and rest of Wellesley, and who can count the stairways Mrs. Durant went up, not that she might know how steep the stairs of another, but to find the least toilsome steps for Wellesley feet.
"Night did not bring rest, only a change of work. Letters came and went like the correspondence of a secretary of state. Devotion and consecration I had seen before, and sacrifice and self-forgetting, but never anything like the relentless toil of those two who toiled not for themselves. If genius and infinite patience met for the making of Wellesley, side by side with them went the angels of work and prayer; the twin angels were to have their shrine in the college."
On September 8, I875, the college opened its doors to three hundred and fourteen students. More than two hundred other applicants for admission had been refused for lack of room. We can imagine the excitement of the fortunate three hundred and fourteen, driving up to the college in family groups,--for their fathers and mothers, and sometimes their grandparents or their aunts came with them. They went up Washington Street, "the long way", past the little Gothic Lodge, and up the avenue between the rows of young elms and purple beeches. There was a herd of Jersey cows grazing in the meadow that day, and there is a tradition that the first student entered the college by walking over a narrow plank, as the steps up to the front door were not yet in place; but the story, though pleasantly symbolical, does not square with the well-known energy and impatience of the founder.
The students were received on their arrival by the president, Miss Ada L. Howard, in the reception room. They were then shown to their rooms by teachers. The majority of the rooms were in suites, a study and bedroom or bedrooms for two, three, and in a few suites, four girls. There were almost no single rooms in those days, even for the teachers. With a few exceptions, every bedroom and every study had a large window opening outdoors. There were carpets on the floors, and bookshelves in the studies, and the black walnut furniture was simple in design. As one alumna writes: "The wooden bedsteads with their wooden slats, of vivid memory, the wardrobes, so much more hospitable than the two hooks on the door, which Matthew Vassar vouchsafed to his protegees, the high, commodious bureaus, with their 'scant' glass of fashion, are all endeared to us by long association, and by our straining endeavors to rearrange them in our rooms, without the help of man."
When the student had showed her room to her anxious relatives, on that first day, she came down to the room that was then the president's office, but later became the office of the registrar. There she found Miss Sarah P. Eastman, who, for the first six years of the college life, was teacher of history and director of domestic work. Later, with her sister, Miss Julia A. Eastman, she became one of the founders of Dana Hall, the preparatory school in Wellesley village. An alumna of the class of '80 who evidently had dreaded this much-heralded domestic work, writes that Miss Eastman's personality robbed it of its horrors and made it seem a noble and womanly thing. "When, in her sweet and gracious manner, she asked, 'How would you like to be on the circle to scrape dinner dishes?' you straightway felt that no occupation could be more noble than scraping those mussy plates."
"All that day," we are told, "confusion was inevitable. Mr. Durant hovered about, excited, anxious, yet reassured by the enthusiasm of the students, who entered with eagerness into the new world. He superintended feeding the hungry, answered questions, and studied with great keenness the faces of the girls who were entering Wellesley College. In the middle of the afternoon it had been discovered that no bell had been provided for waking the students, so a messenger went to the village to beg help of Mrs. Horton (the mother of the professor of Greek), who promptly provided a large brass dinnerbell. At six o'clock the next morning two students, side by side, walked through all the corridors, ringing the rising-bell,--an act, as Miss Eastman says, symbolic of the inner awakening to come to all those girls." Thirty-nine years later, at the sound of a bell in the early morning, the household were to awake to duty for the last time in the great building. The unquestioning obedience, the prompt intelligence, the unconscious selflessness with which they obeyed that summons in the dawn of March 17, 1914, witness to that "inner awakening."
The early days of that first term were given over to examinations, and it was presently discovered that only thirty of the three hundred and fourteen would-be college students were really of college grade. The others were relegated to a preparatory department, of which Mr. Durant was always intolerant, and which was finally discontinued in 1881, the year of his death.
Mr. Durant's ideals for the college were of the highest, and in many respects he was far in advance of his times in his attitude toward educational matters. He meant Wellesley to be a university some day. There is a pretty story, which cannot be told too often, of how he stood one morning with Miss Louise Manning Hodgkins, who was professor of English Literature from 1877 to 1891, and looked out over the beautiful campus.
"Do you see what l see?" he asked.
"No," was the quiet answer, for there were few who would venture to say they saw the visions in his eyes.
"Then I will tell you," he said. "On that hill an Art School, down there a Musical Conservatory, on the elevation yonder a Scientific School, and just beyond that an Observatory, at the farthest right a Medical College, and just there in the center a new stone chapel, built as the college outgrew the old one. Yes,--this will all be some time--but I shall not be here."
It is significant that the able lawyer did not number a law school among his university buildings, and that although he gave to Wellesley his personal library, the gift did not include his law library. Nevertheless, there are lawyers among the Wellesley graduates, and one or two of distinction.
Mr. Durant's desire that the college should do thorough, original, first-hand work, cannot be too strongly emphasized. Miss Conant tells us that, "For all scientific work he planned laboratories where students might make their own investigations, a very unusual step for those times." In 1878, when the Physics laboratory was started at Wellesley, under the direction of Professor Whiting, Harvard had no such laboratory for students. In chemistry also, the Wellesley students had unusual opportunities for conducting their own experimental work. Mr. Durant also began the collection of scientific and literary periodicals containing the original papers of the great investigators, now so valuable to the college. "This same idea of original work led him to purchase for the library books for the study of Icelandic and allied languages, so that the English department might also begin its work at the root of things. He wished students of Greek and Latin to illuminate their work by the light of archeology, topography, and epigraphy. Such books as then existed on these subjects were accordingly procured. In 1872 no handbooks of archeology had been prepared, and even in 1882 no university in America offered courses in that subject."
His emphasis on physical training for the students was also an advance upon the general attitude of the time. He realized that the Victorian young lady, with her chignon and her Grecian bend, could not hope to make a strong student. The girls were encouraged to row on the lake, to take long, brisk walks, to exercise in the gymnasium. Mr. Durant sent to England for a tennis set, as none could be procured in America, "but had some difficulty in persuading many of the students to take such very violent exercise."
But despite these far-seeing plans, he was often, during his lifetime, his own greatest obstacle to their achievement. He brought to his task a large inexperience of the genus girl, a despotic habit of mind, and a temperamental tendency to play Providence. Theoretically, he wished to give the teachers and students of Wellesley an opportunity to show what women, with the same educational facilities as their brothers and a free hand in directing their own academic life, could accomplish for civilization. Practically, they had to do as he said, as long as he lived. The records in the diaries, letters, and reminiscences which have come down to us from those early days, are full of Mr. Durant's commands and coercions.
On one historic occasion he decides that the entire freshman schedule shall be changed, for one day, from morning to afternoon, in order that a convention of Massachusetts school superintendents, meeting in Boston, may hear the Wellesley students recite their Greek, Latin, and Mathematics. In vain do the students protest at being treated like district school children; in vain do the teachers point out the injury to the college dignity; in vain do the superintendents evince an unflattering lack of interest in the scholarship of Wellesley. It must be done. It is done. The president of the freshman class is called upon to recite her Greek lesson. She begins. The superintendents chatter and laugh discourteously among themselves. But the president of the freshman class has her own ideas of classroom etiquette. She pauses. She waits, silent, until the room is hushed, then she resumes her recitation before the properly disciplined superintendents. In religious matters, Mr. Durant was, of course, especially active. Like the Christian converts of an earlier day, he would have harried and hurried souls to Christ. But Victorian girls were less docile than the medieval Franks and Goths. They seem, many of them, to have eluded or withstood this forceful shepherding with a vigilance as determined as Mr. Durant's own.
But some of the letters and diaries give us such a vivid picture of this early Wellesley that it would be a pity not to let them speak. The diary quoted is that of Florence Morse Kingsley, the novelist, who was a student at Wellesley from 1876 to 1879, but left before she was graduated because of trouble with her eyes. Already in the daily record of the sixteen-year-old girl we find the little turns and twinkles of phrase which make Mrs. Kingsley's books such good reading.
Wellesley College, September 18th., 1876. I haven't had time to write in this journal since I came. There is so much to do here all the time. Besides, l have changed rooms and room-mates.
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