by Alice A. Holmes
DeVinn Press, New York, 1888, 95pp
Miss Holmes, who was blind from the age of 8 and a pupil at NYIB from 1838 to 1844. She began to write poetry soon after leaving the school, about 1845. Chapter V is about her NYI student life. The rest of the book contains her poems.
Chapter 5: SEVEN YEARS IN THE NEW-YORK INSTITUTION FOR THE BLIND
New trials and new joys awaited me. As I grew older my thirst for knowledge increased, but I knew of no source from which I could obtain it. However, in my sixteenth year I again suffered from a severe attack of inflammation in my eyes, induced by cold, and was strongly advised to consult Dr. Condict, of New York City, who proved a very kind and friendly gentlemen. He prescribed a soothing remedy for the inflammation, but frankly told me that sight was extinct; and thus vanished the last ray of delusive hope which I had so long and vainly cherished. The doctor expressed much sympathy for my affliction and asked some questions regarding my education, and informed me that there was a institution for the blind then held in an old-fashioned mansion on Eight Avenue, between Thirty-third and Thirty-fourth streets, New-York City, and kindly advised me to make application for admission and try to bear my privation patiently. Upon inquiry, this school proved to be a New-York State institution, but received pupils from other States on reasonable terms.
On learning that the blind were there taught music, all the English branches, including , reading with the fingers, and several skillful arts, my desire to become a pupil knew no bounds; and upon due deliberation my father deemed it advisable to send me. But my mother hesitated to give consent, fearing I should miss her care and home comforts; but much to my delight it was finally settled that I should go for a year or two. And though my ardor to obtain an education never for a moment diminished, yet, when all preparations were completed and the day of my departure drew near, some gloomy shadows clouded my bright dreams, and golden fancies of future gladness, and in secret many tears were shed at the idea of leaving my companions, my Sunday school, and our home circle which was now large, bright, and happy, brother Thomas, in whose society I found much enjoyment, being at home and engaged in business with father.
The days flew by, and now dawned the 2d of January, 1838, on which I was to leave my home and enter the school whose instruction I was so eager to share. In taking leave of my prattling little sister Mary, I wept bitterly ; but being solaced by kind words a promise that she should be soon brought to see me, I banished my grief and strove to be brave and cheerful, and, accompanied by the beloved late Mrs. Elizabeth Gautier and my dear mother, on the afternoon of that day gladly entered the New York Institution for the Blind. We were courteously received by the superintendent, Mr. Silas Jones, with whose friendly manners I was at once much pleased. After my bonnet and wraps were removed, he pleasantly and smoothly passed over my head, saying my intellectual organs were pretty well balanced, and there was no doubt but that I would learn rapidly. By the first of these remarks I was greatly puzzled, for I then knew nothing of phrenology, and wondered what kind of organs he had discovered in my head. My mother and Mrs. Gautier remained but a short time, being anxious to return to jersey City before dark; and though a little sad at heart, I cheerfully bade them good-bye, promising to be a good girl and try to be contented.
I was now introduced to the matron, Miss Denny, and to the principal teacher, Mr. William Boggs, who escorted me to the girls' sitting-room, where several, learning that the new pupil from New Jersey had arrived, were assembled to receive me, and here I was at once made acquainted with Miss Frances J. Crosby, the celebrated blind poetess ; Miss Cyntlna Bullock, Miss Ann Smith, Miss Kate Kennedy, Miss Imogene Hart, Miss Josephine Marieuse, and others, all of whom extended to me warm and friendly greeting, and entertained me for some time with an account of the studies, rules, and regulations of the school. Then Miss Bullock, an expert reader of raised print, read me a chapter from the New Testament, to which I listened with delight. She then gave me the book for inspection, and when I had eagerly passed my hand over one or two of its pages, and found myself unable to distinguish a single letter, I was sadly discouraged, fearing I should never, by this method, learn to read; and that had been one of my most earnest desires. It was now tea time, and I was conducted to the dining-room by Miss Kate Kennedy and seated next to her, where, side by side, for seven years, we occupied the same place at table.
At eight o'clock, P. M., a service of prayer was held in a large, central room used as a chapel, at which all the pupils were required to be present. My name had been added to the roll, and when called, with mingled emotions, I distinctly responded.
My thoughts fondly wandered back to my home, though my heart beat high with joy at the realization of my brightest anticipations that I was now a pupil of this most excellent and very wonderful school which afforded the blind a fair English education. After prayers, we entered another apartment called the East Music Room, where an hour or more was consumed in chatting, playing, and singing by eight or ten of my new schoolmates, composed of girls about my own age, all of whom were so active, bright, and happy, I could not realize that they, like myself, were deprived of sight.
At a quarter before ten, Miss Crosby announced that she would t take charge of the new pupil from New Jersey, as I was to room with her, and at once, with a kind good-night to all, taking me by the hand, she started off at a pace which rendered me rather timid, every step being new and strange to my "unfrequented feet," which, observing, she told me not to be afraid as she would not let me break my neck; and after crossing one of the main halls and reaching the third door beyond a long flight of stairs, she remarked, " Here we are; this is our room." We entered, and closing, the door she said, " Now, Dollie (which was one of her pet names), this is a square room facing Eighth Avenue, and right here on this side is your bed, and here is your trunk, and here is a place to hang your clothes"; in short, she " tended me like welcome guest." Before saying our prayers, however, she inquired into my religious views, adding that she was a Methodist, and I at once declared myself In Episcopalian, to which she humorously replied, " Oh, then you are a churchman," and made a rhyme which ran something, like this:
Oh! how it grieves my poor old bones,
To sleep so near this Alice Holmes;
I will inform good Mr. Jones
I cannot room with a Churchman
Then she hoped I would not be offended or feel hurt, as she was only in fun; and with a warm good-night retired to her side of our apartment. Being weary, I crept into my new bed and was soon in the arms of Morpheus,
" Dreaming of home, dear old home--
Home of my childhood and mother."
Next morning, at the 6 A. M. bell, my dreams vanished and I awoke rather bewildered; the mingled sounds of tramping, feet, the hum of unfamiliar voices, the opening and shutting of doors at once greeted my ears, and some moments elapsed before I could locate my surroundings, but was soon fully aroused by a pleasant morning salutation from Miss Crosby, who informed me it was time to rise, as the next bell would announce breakfast, and if we failed to reach the dining-room within five minutes after its welcome ring we should not gain admission; thus, I was soon up and duly prepared for the morning meal, which over, a general separation ensued, each going his or her way as inclination or duty directed. I was taken to the sitting-room and shown an alphabet card of large and small letters in raised print, and in half an hour was highly delighted to find that I could distinguish several of the large letters at the top, and guess at some of the small ones at the bottom, spelling monosyllables.
Morning prayers were field at 8 A. M., followed by a brief lecture on phrenology to the entire school, young and old, great and small, by Mr. Jones, closing with a series of personal questions relative to the subject, to which he received several erroneous and rather amusing answers, proving that all were not interested in the subject of phrenological organs; but this did not seem to surprise or annoy the good-natured lecturer, who dismissed us with a pleasant good-morning.
The regular day-school now opened, and, being divided into classes of different grades, assembled in their respective rooms. I was seated at the foot of the junior spelling-class, numbering twenty-five pupils, under the tuition of Mr. Boggs, who was a most excellent, faithful, and patient teacher. Next to me sat a pleasant-spoken kid, named Joseph Lazzay, of Brooklyn, who seemed disposed to be quite friendly, and asked me if I could spell. "Yes," I replied, " a little," rather timidly, having already learned it was contrary to rules for the boys and girls to hold any communication. Nineteen words were correctly spelled, and the next was "askew," missed by four successively, while I quaked, fearing it should reach me, but much to my relief it was spelled by my new friend, Joseph, who thereupon left my side and went four above me. My word was "gladness," and I proudly spelled it correctly. In the next two or three rounds there were several failures; but Joseph seemed to be the champion and was now at the head of the class.
The lesson consisted of a hundred words, out of which but one remained; "Tweezers," and this was misspelled in every possible way till it reached me, fifth from foot of the class, which, by some wonderful chance, to my own surprise, I correctly spelled and went to the head, where I was welcomed by Joseph, who softly whispered, " I am glad you are here." A new lesson of fifty words was now spelled and pronounced, first by the teacher, then repeated several times by teacher and pupils altogether; this being the method of instruction. An hour had expired, and the class adjourned to an opposite room, where the rudiments of grammar were taught by Mr. Jairus Bottom, a blind gentleman, who, though still a pupil, assisted in teaching the primary branches. I was here taken to my seat by a girl who had greatly failed in spelling, and seemed to be quite out of temper, muttering to herself, "I don't like this old grammar, nor Jairus Bottom either," and when all were seated and silence prevailed (as if to give vent to her ill-humor), she prevail abruptly said, in a loud tone, " Mr. Bottom, the new pupil from New Jersey is here," to which he gently replied, "That will do, Carrie, your information is quite unnecessary; I am fully aware of her presence."
At this I was a little surprised, knowing he could not see, but afterward learned he was informed by the superintendent, who left the room as the class entered. Mr. Bottom now commenced the exercises by reviewing a previous lesson treating of the parts of speech, at which I was much puzzled, for, knowing nothing of grammar, I wondered what articles, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, etc., could have to do with language; but the class seemed to understand it quite well, as all the questions were readily answered. Mr. Bottom then inquired if I had ever studied grammar, and I frankly acknowledged that I did not; but be kindly assured me that by paying attention I would find it easy, and told me to repeat after him with the other pupils. A new lesson on nouns, pronouns, and their properties, was now unparted with much perseverance by the indefatigable blind teacher, who, on the stroke of eleven, dismissed us with the injunction to assist each other.
After a recess of five minutes we were summoned to the study of elementary arithmetic, under Mr. Charles Coe, also an advanced blind pupil, who was very proficient in the science of numbers, and taught with ease and ability. Carrie was still at my side, and having gained her equilibrium of temper, politely introduced me to Mr. Coe, who, in a pleasant and affable manner, welcomed me to his class, and inquired if I was at all familiar with arithmetic. I replied, " No, I have never ciphered and only know the tables, and understand notation and numeration." With this he seemed pleased, and hoped I would prove attentive and rapidly advance in the study. Then, turning to the boys, who were talking and shuffling with their feet, said, "Come boys, get still there," and proceeded with a general rehearsal of former lessons, preparatory to ciphering, which he stated he would commence with the class in a few days, and occupied the remainder of the hour in exercises of mental arithmetic.
It was now noon, and the loud ringing of a handbell announced dinner, to which all hastily repaired; but, alas for me! this was soup-day, and soup I very much disliked; but, on reaching my place It table, found a dish already served, and a plate of meat and potatoes for which I had but little relish. Miss Kennedy inquired if I was enjoying my dinner. No," I replied, " I cannot eat it." Just then, one of the waiters in charge, observing my soup untasted, while ethers had disposed of theirs and, like " Oliver 'Twist," were asking for more, kindly drew my plate nearer, saying, " Here is your soup, it will get cold." "Thank you," I answered, " but I am not fond of soup." " Oh ! " she said, " I am sorry," and went away, returning soon, however, with a cup of tea, and some nice bread and butter, provided by permission of the matron as a special favor to a new pupil.
The afternoon session of literary studies, under Mr. Boggs, closed at 3 P.M. and was directly followed by instruction in vocal and instrumental music, and several mechanical arts, under various teachers. Mr. Anthony Reiff, of New-York City, principal teacher in the musical department, by years of patient and untiring zeal won the love and esteem of all under his kind and masterly tuition. The girls not engaged in music immediately repaired to the sewing-room, where I was presented and cordially received by the teacher in this department, who gave me a seat near her, and inquired if I could knit or sew; to which I answered that I could knit lace and stockings and sew a little, though not very neatly since I lost my sight. "Can you thread your own needle ? " she asked. "Oh, no," I replied, "my mother or sisters always did that." "Well, by practice," she encouragingly added, "you will soon learn," and with a needle already threaded gave me a towel to hem, and when I had finished it she inspected the sewing and pronounced it very good, and told me she would now give me some finer work, and, to my great surprise, that same afternoon, I found myself making the sleeves of a shirt, and wondering what my dear mother would say to that, who never seemed to appreciate my kind of sewing, being so very neat and particular herself.
General employment ceased at 5 P.M., and an hour for rest or recreation ensued. Chatting, and promenading two by two up and down the long balls, or on the veranda, was a favorite pastime with many of the pupils, in which I was invited by Miss Kennedy to participate until tea-time, after which a number of the girls gathered in the sitting-room, and several inquired for the new pupil, each and all seeming anxious to show me some attention. I now learned that every evening before prayers, an hour's reading was given by Mr. Boggs, and knowing I should greatly enjoy this, went with Miss Bullock to the reading-room; and here, I must not omit to mention that Miss Bullock is the authoress of a very pretty book of poems, entitled "Bunch of Pansies." Mr. Boggs first read the daily papers, then pleasantly remarked, "Well, the book I ordered has not come up; but I have here a choice selection from various authors which I will read this evening."
After prayers, I returned with Miss Bullock to the sitting-room, which seemed the very shrine of social enjoyment; and thus ended the pleasant programme of my first day's experience in that delightful school, where the sunshine of knowledge, sympathy, and gladness shed their sweet halos over the dark path of the lonely and desolate blind. I soon became familiar with the house and could find my way alone to the different apartments, and learned the names and voices of most of my kind and cheerful companions; and though I often fondly thought of friends and the dear ones at home,
I was resolved to be contented and improve the opportunities now within my reach. In a few weeks I could fairly read the raised print and was promoted into several of the higher classes, and began to study the rudiments of music. Mr. Jones was a most excellent superintendent; firm in discipline, but kind, fatherly, and patient with the unfortunate class under his care, and I deeply regret that the limited pages of this little book will not permit fond memory to linger over the bright and happy scenes of seven golden years, in which I so highly enjoyed the benefits of this noble institution, from which, at the close of 1844, I graduated with the high compliment from the Board of Managers that I had well learned all that was there taught.