The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Girls from Twelve to Sixteen

by Mary S. Simon.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 249-254

No. III.

The School-Girl From Twelve to Fifteen.

Three years in the life of that being who, because her foot rocks the cradle, rules the world! At first, when our Editor suggested this task, I felt a thrill of eager anticipation of the pleasure in store for me as the work should grow under my hand. But, alas, the more I considered woman, her influence upon the home, her country and the world; the more I shrank from the story of these three years; just these three years of all others when it is so difficult to analyse the course of development, either physical, moral or intellectual. Childhood is over and gone; the age when the mind opens to and accepts the facts of life and the individual relationship to these facts has not yet arrived, does not arrive in the ordinary course of things to the average girl until about the age of seventeen. What can one say, then, of this period of Nature's apparent inaction? What can we say, except what those of us who have studied this all absorbing subject must say, that Nature is only inactive to eyes accustomed to watch her working: and, alas, how many there are both parents and teachers, who misunderstand, and, misunderstanding, make fatal mistakes; and how easy it is to misunderstand. The eager, hurrying days of childhood are over; those years so dear to the watcher, during which every day leaves its own mark, and each year forms an epoch in development. It is a fact well known to all mothers that at no period do children learn so much as during the first decade of their existence, this is too well known to require more than the naming; these years are the period of discovery, wondering eyes fixed upon everything outside and surrounding its own personality, objects discerned, balances struck, all the world full of things, and these things seemingly made for and waiting upon the necessities of the young explorer. Somehow, one knows neither the day nor the hour, but we feel a subtle quite indefinable change; we all resent it at first, not being able to place it; but in spite of uneasiness the change goes on, and that period, the long stretch from twelve to thirty sets it; a period upon which the whole of life depends. A period which makes the woman, however prolonged her afterlife may be, and under whatever circumstances the drama of that life may be played out, the making time for "our selves, our souls and bodies." I have to deal only with the first three years of this period however, and, before I say anything on the subject of the school-girl from twelve to fifteen, I should like first to remove any false impression I may have made on the mind of the reader in regard to the importance of early, the very earliest, training of the child. I believe, with the great French savant, that the training which commences after the third year, is begun three years too late.

But to my task. How easy it would make things were there some sharp dividing line here and in so much else, abstract and concrete; but there must always be an "overlapping of the styles" in all departments of thought and work. The girl celebrates what we call her twelfth birthday and she is as she was yesterday, and will, to our eyes, continue to be for many tomorrows to come. But the mother knows, and the teacher knows, that in some inexplicable way they have, as the months glide on, a different being to deal with, curious attitudes of mind, new and sometimes startling conditions of thought and sentiment; sometimes, which is more bewildering, a seeming lack both of attitude and condition, and the tender mother feels she has lost a something which was very precious. Instead of the trustful faith in all things seen or unseen, she finds either a mental and physical lassitude which has all the appearance of indifference to and lack of interest in all those things which have hitherto made up the beauty and joy of life for the young creature, or, she finds a startling access of activity, mental and physical. There is no end to the questioning of things and principles. The girl begins, in fact, to realize, somewhat aggressively, that "things are not what they seem." Physically, she becomes the terror of the nursery and the budding champion of the hockey field. Of course there are degrees in both the classes I have quoted, but only in degree do they differ: the general effect of the passing into this period of a girl's life story is one and the same. And herein lies the difficulty, both for parent and teacher; and the fatal temptation, because classification is so easy and so obvious, to train mechanically. Only the other day I was talking matters over with a troubled mother, who summed up, "and they have all had the same training." Precisely so, and the result will always be just so much loss to the individual child in after life as we, parents and teachers, know. After thirty years' experience, I have yet to find the duplicate of the first girl who passed under my hand: well may every mother of her girls and every educator of those daughters take as her motto, "For their sakes I sanctify myself," and after the sanctifying, the setting of ourselves apart for this great work, having done all, what unprofitable servants we feel!

But let us return to the two classes into which I have ventured to place girls from the age of twelve to that of fifteen.

First: the girl who becomes careless, indifferent, apparently selfish, having no influence, making no impression on the home or school life which flows on around her; pursues the "noiseless tenor of her way," unconcerned as to her share in the "way" of anyone else, never realizing that she is a necessary unit in one great whole. She gives no active trouble, disturbs no one so long as she is left in undisputed possession of a corner of the window seat and her book. Her school work is always ready by class time; no teacher is ever heard to complain of discourtesy towards herself or her work. She is in fact one of the type so apt to become the favourite of the schoolmistress who forgets to keep herself alert, for she "gives no trouble." All the crises of school life, those times of public searching of hearts which, as in the greater world outside, make school life pass over, or by her and leave no perceptible mark. She, in a word, is capable of passing through her entire school-life untouched by its good or ill. When mother and teacher discuss this class of girls, and, with endless variety, it is so large class, the anxious and somewhat bewildered mother asks how is it that her daughter was so different as a "little child at home." Quite true, and the change is as apparent at home as at school. And just at this critical moment is the time for the fullest and most loyal union between mother and teacher being cemented. The teacher, however experienced, needs help and only the mother can supply that help, the missing link between the nursery and the schoolroom--with the key placed in her hand by the mother, the teacher can unlock the door of a girl's heart and set the imprisoned soul and body at liberty. It has been done, of course, hundreds of times without maternal help; but at what a loss to all concerned, loss to the mother, to the teacher who lacks knowledge of a child's past, loss incalculable to the girl herself. There is one thing however, that every teacher should know, and knowing should never lose sight of, and that is, that during these three years nature is working in every girl's body as she has never worked before; and that, so great an influence has this physical condition upon the girl, that there is hardly an intellectual pose or a moral act, good or bad, which is not influenced, I had almost said created, by this state of development. No words can exaggerate the influence which the body has upon the mind and character of a women during these three years, twelve to fifteen. And what I say here holds good when we come to deal with the second class into which, for the sake of convenience, I have divided my subject. Under these conditions how are our girls to be helped? Girls of this class left to themselves develop into the women the description of whose lives would require a separate article; but we all know them. So we dare not leave the girl to herself, what is to be done? "Rousing" will not do. Nature has hoisted her danger flag. We have many names for it, timidity, lassitude, indifference; but all the same it is Nature's danger flag. I must not enter into details as this subject grows under my hand and threatens to become of undue length.

To put the work of the teacher at this crisis, and always, in the fewest possible words. She must study Nature's dealings with each separate girl, learn her lesson as the handmaiden of Nature; and in short, lay to heart the lesson Charles Kingsley makes Mother Carey teach the excited fairy who came to tell the great Mother sitting all alone with her deep thoughtful eyes fixed on the quiet sea, that she had made a butterfly, "Yes, my dear, you have done a great thing: but go away and learn how to make things make themselves."

Then we have the second class of girls with all its variations, but developing broadly on the lines indicated above, each according to her temperament. This girl after twelve quite naturally increases the speed at which she lives. A change which tells sorely on the nerves of her elders; and "you are too old for that kind of thing now" is the refrain of many a reproof from the exhausted governess. I have known girls of this class perform feats of strength and skill worthy of a full-blown acrobat, perform prodigies in her class work no less remarkable and have abundant time after all for countless acts of mischief. Again, there are others whose activity seems merely physical: tireless, unceasing movement; rules are not "broken," merely ridden over as she steeplechases through her day. Strange, almost weird fits of repentance have all these girls mostly, nay, always at night; fears lest the loved ones at home should die before they learn how she loves them; the repentance as full of storm and tempest as that of which is it the result. This mood however is a secret, not guessed at by the ordinary observer and never seen except by the few, the very few; for these aggressive spirits, who apparently live their lives on the crest of the wave, on the top of the tumult they create are very reticent, they are awkward, sensitive to ridicule, and above all ashamed of being suspected of having "feelings." I need not analyse this class further, every mother recognizes the type, every teacher knows it. How to treat this untamed many-sided creature, so full of contradictions, is the problem. For a very intricate problem is this girl; though less likely to be wrongly handled than the girl of the first class. This may seem strange; but long experience has taught me that the non-committal nature of the character of the first group fails so often to attract the attention of those in authority, while the very nature of those in the second demands attention--and gets it. But, curiously enough, in both cases the teacher's only safe guide is, as in one so in the other, a watchful study of Nature. Unless we train on the exact lines of each girl's nature, we train amiss; the result of the opposite method we see around us only too often. The teacher who tries to hurry on the development of these girls blinds herself by her very anxiety to the origin of what she sees, therefore attacks the effect and so misses the cause. There is one and only one method of universal acceptance in our treatment of this class of girls, varied of course a hundredfold, and that is, the gradual cultivation of the sense of admiration for high and noble standards, and the equally gradual opening of the mind of the girl to the possibility of attaining that standard; then the exubriant energy finds food for its most active display; destruction melts into construction, mischief into fun, and loudness into brilliance, that quality of which we have sadly too little.

But, in conclusion, there are no Rules by which we teachers can train an immortal soul; only by self-dedication, self-control and boundless love and patience can we prepare ourselves for this great work; this great work of searching for and finding the divine spark in the individual soul, this work of convincing the girl of the possession of this divine nature, and then, the work half done, the patient standing aside, watching and sympathising, as the struggle of development goes on. Who is sufficient for these things?

Typed by happi, Mar 2020; Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020