AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles AmblesideOnline.org

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
______________________________________
The History of a "Backward" Child

by Caroline Southwood Hill
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 000-000


At seven years old, A. not only could neither write nor read, but he could not see, nor hear, nor think, like other children. He seemed completely shut up in the interior world of his own mind; and to judge by the expression of his face, which was singularly refined and joyful, it was a pure and happy world. He was less skilful in the management of his body, less active and bold in boyish sports, than B., at two years old. You heard nervous screams, but you never observed anything like purpose in his plays. He walked about seeing nothing, wishing for nothing, content with all events that came to him. You would have pronounced him an idiot, yet the phrenologists said he had extraordinary powers of mind. He only seemed roused to clear perception by tales of the horrible, or of the supernatural. The more gifted he was, the more necessary was it to help him to develop and turn to account these gifts; for we all know that unhappiness is the constant, and madness the frequent, consequence of unused energies. S. therefore undertook to teach him, and for her guide she took that beautiful sketch of practical systematic teaching, for which the world is indebted to Dr. Biber, contained in his "Life of Pestalozzi."

After he had learned reading some time, he was told to find words with various sounds in them; for instance, the sound a as in paper. He found they, day, paint, weigh, blade. Then he was led to observe the various ways in which he had obtained the sound. The practice of making sentences upon the words was very effective in inducing in him that consciousness of his feelings and ideas which he so much needed. There is something very affecting in looking over the lesson-books of this child, they are so simple and true; and it is easy to discover from them the kind of life he led, and all that was impressing him. One singular thing is that he never said I., or W., or H., or B., do so-and-so; but always "some boys," "some ladies."

"When boys fight with sticks, and roar, and speak all together, they make a din."--"A dot is a little thing; it's for i."--"Sun is a round thing in the sky, and it is very light indeed."-"Lane is a little path that people go through."--"Some people have a round face, and some a bad face, and some a long face."--"Blade is a thing that knives have." --"Some ladies buy little boys baskets." "Some boys ask other boys if they will tell their secrets." --"Lady Macbeth locked the door."--"Tom Thumb (his rabbit) eats groundsel."

These examples may suffice to indicate the sort of lessons by which it was endeavoured to lead this child on to thought. By the time he had gone through a copybook in this way, he was able to read Miss Edgeworth's "Frank," to write with ease, and he had wonderfully improved in the power of fixing his attention.

His next four books were intended as a grammar-course. He began with verbs--"I run, I walk, I dawdle, I love," &c.; he found out and wrote down twelve a day, and in this way collected four hundred verbs. The second grammar-book was a list of nouns--"I am a boy, a dawdle, a coward, a lad, a child, a wheeler, puller, peeler, runner, rider; " and he went on this way until he had found out upwards of two hundred nouns. The third grammar book was of adjectives, and a very curious list he made out. There are more than three hundred of them; and it was found necessary, in order to make plain to his teacher and himself his meaning, to require of him a sentence. A few extracts will show what must have been the effect of this lesson on the boy:-

"I am cowardly when I don't like fighting--before I go into the bath--when I'm deceitful.--I am happy when I see mamma--when they don't fight with me--when they dance.-I am mad when I was a little child.--I am good when I do my lessons.-I am wicked when I go and see wicked people hunt the squirrel.--I am round all about me.--I am manageable by S.--I am red when I'm very cold--when I'm hot.--I am comfortable when I'm dead; when I'm in bed; when there is a dinner-party.--I am gay when there is a dinner-party, and on Sunday, because I haven't got anything to do but what I like.--I am white in the globe of my eye.--I am delightful to S.--I am sad when somebody goes away. Don't I feel sad in my face?--I am bright when I am not dirty.--I am hard in my chest.--I am soft in my cheek.--I am contrary to dead.--I am trembling when I go into the bath.--I am alive now.--I am merry when S. is not angry on me.--I am proud when I have got new shoes.--I am sulky when S. don't hold of my hand; when S. is not fond of me.--I am more than a bit.--I am shameful when I beat a little boy like B.--I am unjust when I go before C. in a race."

In this manner he went through all the parts of speech, learning the construction of sentences, and gaining at every step self-knowledge. It was most striking to watch the rapid development of all his faculties under this discipline.

His next book was a description of his body, on the plan of Pestalozzi's "Manuel des Meres." "I have a head, a face, a forehead, a right eyebrow, a left eyebrow, a right upper eyelid," and so on. After going through the body in this way, simply naming the parts, he arranged them according to their number. Next he made a list of the parts of his body which are round and roundish. Then he took other qualities, such as colour, shiningness, fluidity, solidity, movability, immovability, flexibility, &c.

When S. began to teach him arithmetic, it seems as if he never could be made to understand it; but, by using cubes instead of ciphers, or making him put dots on his slate instead of ciphers--by making everything tangible to him--by beginning at the very beginning, and taking every step without presuming to omit one--it all became clear and delightful to him, and he was able to answer very difficult questions in mental arithmetic. We refer those who wish to know the mode of teaching number, which was pursued in this case, to Dr. Biber's "Life of Pestalozzi."

It would be tedious, and indeed almost impossible, to detail all the means which were taken to clear up this puzzled head. Whatever he saw or felt was the material to which alone his observation was directed. He made a book containing a list of the flowers in bloom in each month, and drawings of some of them. His account of January is as follows:-

"In flower--primroses, wallflowers, stocks, lauristinas; mosses very beautiful. We walked on the frozen pond. The birds used to be fed by the window. Most trees are without leaves."

"FEBRUARY.--in flower--snowdrops, hepaticas, daisies, primroses, wallflowers, violets, periwinkles, crocuses, furze. The birds sing sweetly--thrushes, robins, yellowhammers, larks, and blackbirds."

This lesson should be carried on through every year, growing more and more full, until from the bare list that the above is, it might become connected with and made the groundwork of botany, or medicine, or poetry, or drawing.

His observation was excited by such questions as the following; and we will select a few of the answers to them:-

"What do you see in this room?" ---"Two tables, six chairs, a carpet, a rug, a mattress, four bookshelves, two doors, one window, some curious stones, a wineglass full of flowers, four desks, many books, an inkstand, a portfolio, plaster casts, &c."

"What can you do with your mouth?"--"Bite, sing, talk, chatter, laugh, speak, whistle."

The above was one of a series of questions on the functions of the body, an exercise which should follow that upon structure.

Sometimes he was told to describe an object; for instance, a slate. "It has red leather round it, three lines at each corner, a pencil-case, a wooden frame." In this way he was taught botany, by describing minutely what he saw; and to everything that he did, drawing was as much as possible added.

"What is flat?"-"My hand is flat; my book is flat; my rule is flat; the floor is flat; the glass is flat; the table is flat; the ceiling is flat."

When he was sufficiently awakened and regulated to derive benefit from the use of the knowledge of others, which is to be found in books, S. suffered him to leave the world of observation for awhile, and gave him questions, the answers to which he could partly answer, but for their complete solution he was obliged to refer to books. The uses of animals to man, were what he began with, and we subjoin some specimens:-

"Dogs give skin to line things; they watch the house and the sheep; they lead the blind; they hunt; they point. In China the people eat them. They draw little carts and sledges."--"Moles give their skin, and they make drains."--"Squirrels give their fur; they are eaten."

His next work was the uses of plants; for instance-

"Wheat. We eat the seed and the stalk is called straw, and it is put into farmyards to make beds for the cattle, and it is made into hats, and mats, and other things." "Rushes. The stalk is made into baskets and seats of chairs, and the pith is made into the wicks of candles."

After he had gone through all the plants he knew of, in this way, naming the uses of each of its parts, the lesson was turned round, and he had to answer:

"What stalks are of use?" "Rhubarb, rushes, flax, wheat, &c." "What seed-vessels are of use?" "Apple, orange, melon, &c."

"What seeds are of use?"  "Peas, walnut, coffee, corn, &c."

This carried on, would lead to a knowledge of manufactures, and of science too; but manufactures would of course precede, as being more within the reach of childish comprehension.

The natural history of animals was very much to A.'s taste, and often he preferred drawing pictures, and writing descriptions and anecdotes of them, to what he called play. When he had got on pretty well with the above realities, S. thought it time to initiate him into the mysteries of geography, history, French and Latin. Geography she taught him in the following manner.

We quote it as being not perfect, but good in some respects, and of some value, as being experimental. He would draw a map of Africa, for instance; and then she told him things about it, of which the following is his recollection:--"Africa is very hot and very sandy, and the negroes were carried to America and made slaves. Many of the Africans do not know much. The Egyptians knew more than the rest of the world many hundred years ago. There are camels in Africa, and camelopards, and lions, and elephants, ostriches, wild dogs, leopards, gazelles, buffaloes, hippopotami, rhinoceri, monkeys, locusts, ants, snakes, and many other animals. There are in Africa, palm-trees (on which grown coca-nuts), and acacias, and tamarinds, and cotton-trees, and many other trees; and wheat, rice, millet, and maize grown there; a great deal of bread is made of maize-root."

"The river Nile is supposed to be two thousand miles long; it runs over the banks every year, which does good to the land. It had once seven mouths; five are nearly choked up with sand. The Sphynx, the pyramids, the ruins of Thebes are in Egypt." Then comes as an afterthought, "There are zebras, and crocodiles, and the largest trees in the world, the calabash and the mangrove, in Africa." Of whatever country he was studying, he drew four maps; the first was filled up with names of animals living therein; the second with names of plants growing therein; the third was a picture of rivers, lakes, and mountains; the fourth consisted of travel, or rather, I should say, of his hearing about travels; for portions were read to him carefully selected and reduced to the level of his capacity.

He was taught French on the same principle as he had been taught English. If he met with a sound formed by different letters he was led to observe the fact. For instance, in the sentence, "Regardezles bergersdes troupeaux," the sound "a" as in the English word "pain," is obtained in the first word by "ez," in the second by "es" and in the third by "ers." After he had learned to read and spell, he went over his language lessons again, "Je suis fils, je suis garcon, je suis frere." Second series: "Je suis bon, je suis paresseux." Third series: "Jemange, jevois, J'ecoute, &c." and so on to the composition of sentences. Besides this exercise, he used to read a good deal every day, in order to give him a copia verborum. The literal English of each word was told him, and impressed upon him by various methods: the most successful seemed to be making him find out the English derivatives, as from "bon" bun, "cuellir," scullery, "saliere," saltcellar, &c. &c.

As for Latin, he learnt the declensions of nouns by first being told the Latin for a word, and then making a sentence with it. At first the sentence would have but one Latin word in it, but by-and-by he was able to put in adjectives and verbs. The first sentences were such as these:--Oculi nautarum watch terram.We eat mellem, et poman, et porcellas, et uvas.Columbae carry litteras.--filia est felix.--filius est fortis.--Manus reginae parva est.--Rosa puellae parva est.

From these small beginnings, he gradually rose up to the power of writing Latin and the habit of writing gave him a great facility in reading. S. was careful to give him interesting things to read, both in French and Latin; and she succeeded so well, that usually he was so anxious to get at the meaning of what he was reading, that he pushed through the difficulty of language eagerly. He was very fond of looking at the prints of Shakespeare, and hearing portions of him read. Julius Caesar one day caught his eye, and a miserable picture of Brutus killing himself. "Oh, do tell me the story, S.!" said he.

"No, you shall read it for yourself;" and she gave him extracts from various Latin authors which told the tale, and with a little help he laboured through it gladly. Many parts of "Cornelius Nepos" he read with the same interest and pleasure, and Caesar's account of Britain too was a great pleasure to him.

Another extract from S.'s journal will show her mode of dealing with his difficult mind.

"A. read to-day:--

"Ah, spare yon emmet, rich in hoarded grain:

He lives with pleasure, and he dies with pain."

First of all, I told him that an emmet was an insect. Then I asked What is rich? A. The emmet. S. What in? After a long pause, he answers--Grain. Then I explained "hoarded" which led me into an account of the habits of the emmet, which interested him. By this time he had quite forgotten that "spare" here means don't kill. After he had thought, or rather sat, for a long time, I said: The lady, when she says spare, tells the little boy not to do something: guess what. A. Not to tease it, not to tread on it, not to hurt it, not to push it, not to kill it. S. What did she say to him? A. Not to kill him. S. Tell me not to kill him. A. After some time--Don't kill him. S. Now let us have that line again. A. Don't kill you. S. What do you mean? A. I dun know. S. That. Now the line. A. Don't kill that emmet, rich in heaped-up grain." S. Why should he not kill the emmet? A. Then paused; and S. foolishly referred him, forsooth, to the book, instead of to his own heart. After a long time, it struck him that the act of death would be painful; and then S. asked him for a second reason. He could not make it. S. then said Who ought to be pleased, the little boy or the emmet? Suppose the little boy is yourself. The clear and instant answer was--The emmet. S. And which would he like best, to live, or to die.? A. To live.

S. Why? A. Because then he could make himself happy. S. How? A. He could see his friends; he could eat; he could pile up. S. Very well. Now tell me the two reasons why we should not kill insects? A. Because killing hurts them; and because they like to live, because they are happy.

As soon as A. had sufficient command of his pen, he used to write a journal. At first, of course, it was but a bare record of doings; soon after, came in descriptions and remarks; and, last of all feelings. It is a great proof of the goodness of a plan when you can see that, throughout life, it may be carried on with advantage; and that, in proportion as the being improves, his execution of the design will improve. That is the case with all the lessons which we have reported here; there is not one of them that the man will not love better, and execute better, than the boy. After-life will be but a carrying on, not a change, of studies to A. With regard to journals, every one who has kept one for some time, must observe how much his journal improves as his being improves. Two or three of A.'s journals will exemplify this:

JULY: I got up. I bathed. I ran in the passage. I had my breakfast. I did my plant-book. I did my journal. I did some counting. I did some reading. I drew. Tea came. A boy came with a tortoise and some white mice. I went to bed.

AUGUST. I got up, bathed, and ran. I had my breakfast. We went out--said that we saw a bull. We went on. At last we got to the pond; we might not fish, so we came back; and as we came back we went to T--. We went on. We cut some reeds. At last we came home. We had our tea. We went to bed.

JANUARY. In the afternoon we went to T--. We drew the church. We went through some very beautiful fields. At last we got to church. ---drew the church. We could see for miles and miles. We saw the sun sink behind hill. When we were going home, both my shoes were lost in the mud; at last we got them again. We went on. When we got home, I had tea. I went to bed, and to sleep.

This journal, though so short is a great improvement on the first, which had too much of the word I in them, and that I followed simply by a verb. His journals afterwards became very interesting; he drew in them, and put down his recollections of reading, and wrote down all his lessons in them, and anything which interested his head or his heart.

When he first came under the care of S., he was extremely nervous, but afterwards he got in some measure over it; partly because his health improved, and partly because he struggled so much against it. He was one day overheard, as he stood on the brink of a low sandbank, saying to himself, "No I must, MUST, MUST do it!" After trying ineffectually to gain courage to take the leap, off he went at last, and practised again and again, until it was no longer difficult to him. He exercised the same strength of mind and purpose about climbing; he shook like an aspen when he first climbed, but by dint of perseverance succeeded in gaining more nerve.

It would not be doing justice to our hero not to mention, perhaps, the most remarkable trait in his character, and that which more than anything else lifted him out of the state of confusion and helplessness in which he has been described to have been at first. This was his extraordinary affection for S. In so young a child it was very remarkable. Everything beautiful, which he found, was given to her; if any one spoke slightingly of her, he was sure to hear and to resent it; if he caressed any one besides her, he was sure to go to her instantly, and give her double the caresses he had bestowed on the other person. He was so jealously sensitive about her feelings, that he divined what they were towards others, and could measure them pretty nearly as exactly as she could herself. The instant question upon the mention of a new name was, "Do you like that person?" If she had been absent from home, upon her return he would stand beside her, speaking only by happy looks; and whereas the other children would keep on saying, "When will S. come? When will S. come?" he would say nothing; he would have learned the exact minute when she might be expected, and would not give himself the pain of being told again that she could not arrive before that minute. But the greatest proof of his affection was in the way in which he commanded himself, in order to become what he knew she esteemed. Never would he have got over his nervousness as he did, never would he have exerted the mental energy he did, but under the strong stimulus of winning or losing her sympathy. All this is but an exemplification of the power of affection, which alone of terrestrial things is eternal and omnipotent; by its blessed magic, guilt fades "like the baseless fabric of a vision," sorrow is transformed into joy--weakness into strength--earth into heaven.

Patriot, philanthropist, philosopher, reformer, parent, sacred band who war with evil and ignorance, despair not; if you love the object of your struggles, they shall prevail. Not in vain did the tear of sorrow and of love fall from the eyes of Christ at the tomb of Lazarus; nor in vain over suffering humanity did He pour the pathetic remonstrance of benevolence-"How often would I have gathered ye beneath my wings, and ye would not!"

As Lazarus rose from the tomb at the sound of the voice he loved, so shall that same love subdue all things to itself, and at length raise to life, and light, and happiness the whole human race. The warm radiance of our affections must shine on the evil and on the good. Through such agency alone can the evil be converted into good.

See related article on 'backward' (disabled) children


Proofread by Judy Elliot