How Does Our Girl-Graduate Fit into the Home-Niche?

This is the fifth article in January of the School for Housewives 1910 series published on January 30, 1910, and talks about the transition period when a girl-graduate comes home from school. It is Marion’s opinion that girls should actually be equated closer to home so that they remain with family.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

How Does Our Girl-Graduate Fit into the Home-Niche?

I MET her upon the ferryboat this morning in company with her mother. The two were bound for a day’s shopping. The mother, whom I knew when she was herself a girl, recognized me and crossed the cabin to speak to me. The girl sat still. If she noticed that her companion had left her side, she gave no token of the consciousness. She continued to stare at a fixed spot on the opposite wall with eyes that were dreary and unseeing. Her attire was tasteful and quiet, as befitted the work of the day. She had an intelligent face that might be pretty when lighted up. Just now it was alike irresponsive to impressions from without and emotions from within. Somehow it made me think of a sheet of the gray, calendared paper affected by some of the correspondents.

By the time the mother had exchanged salutations with me the girl’s name took the lead in the conversation.

“Gladys”—I wondered, idly, why it seemed so much of course that the listless creature over there should have been christened “Gladys”—“will be at home this winter for the first time since she went to boarding school at 13. Then there was college—four years of it—and, last summer, seeing that she had graduated so high up in her class, her father and I thought the least we could do was to let her go to Europe with a part of girls conducted by Miss Blank Asterisk. You must have heard of her? She got back two months ago. Travel is very improving, and her father and I have tried hard to give her every advantage of education. But it will be real nice to have her home again! If only”—dropping her voice and her eyelids lest the girl might glance at her and divine the subject of our talk—“we can make her happy there! You see, things are so different now from what they were when her father and I were young! I got so low-spirited, thinking over it all last night, that I caught myself wishing that we hadn’t educated her so much, or that we were educated more.”

The Transition Period.

I spoke as consolingly as conscience would allow me, to minister to her pain. For pain it was, loath as she was to admit it. It was a relief when the boat bumped the wharf and the mother hurried back to her charge. The latter did not offer to meet her halfway, or to notice me. Her unaffected indifference to our interview advertised as plainly as words could have done that her mother’s friends were not hers by natural selection.

I was still thinking of the incident and of what it implied and prophesied when I got home and picked up the topmost letter from the pile on my desk. It was from another mother, and one who is an utter stranger to me. I copy a paragraph:

“You have the ear of the women of our country. Won’t you, some time, write some words of counsel to mothers and to daughters that may pilot both over the transition period succeeding the return of the girl from boarding school or college, with a diploma in her trunk and the world before her?”

She might have added, “A world of which she knew next to nothing when she left that home to be ‘educated’ by hired professors.”

I wish I could take it for granted at the outset of these “Words” that the girl was not sent away from the supervision of her natural guardians until they were convinced that she could not be properly educated as a day pupil in a really good school in the vicinity of her home. My views upon this branch of our subject are pronounced.

A woman to whom I said this one day returned “And antiquated!”

I answered, “I beg your pardon! The ‘finishing school’ under the very same name was familiar to fashionable mothers and parvenus in Fanny Burney’s and Maria Edgeworth’s day.”

Now, as then, the mother would have her children wiser than herself and better fitted to fill their places in society. The one disinterested affection possible to human nature comes out strongly here. Her son may be ashamed of her when he reaches intellectual and social heights she can never climb. She has studied her limited sphere to small advantage if she does not admit the probability that her daughter will pity and patronize her when she has taken the polish of the finishing school Amen! So let it be! They must increase in mental stature, though she be dwarfed by comparison. Let them shine, though her feeble light be quenched in the outer darkness.

There’s not one mother in ten thousand whose own education was meager who does not face as a strong probability this result of sending her child from her for a term of years to be spent in acquiring learning and accomplishments she cannot hope to get under the parental roof. After more than a half century of patient study of the problem, I am today unable to comprehend why either boy or girl should be banished from a home where refining and intellectual influences make an atmosphere in which mind, morals and manners must develop healthfully, and this at an age when the mother’s watchful care of physical growth and the father’s restraining hand over youthful rashness and imprudence are imperatively needed. In a word, I fail to see why my boy should be committed at 12 years of age to the training of teachers and guardians and subjected to the perils of body and soul that are rife in boarding school, when he can live at home and attend as good a school on the next block to my comfortable abode. It is a greater mystery to my dull comprehension why I should be compelled by public opinion and social decree to banish my 13-year-old girl from the house of which she is the joy and pride to a fashionable seminary, to take her chances of good and evil among 500 other girls of varying characters and mixed antecedents. God gave the child to me to be guarded, drilled and loved, and made, so far as mortal can mould her, into a “perfect woman, nobly planned.” I would have her a “hand-made article,” not one turned out by contract and machinery.

This is so unlike the popular conception of maternal duty and the ideal education for girls that, according to the data collected by the clever author of a clever paper entitled “Our Undisciplined Daughters” in a late number of a popular magazine, there are 500 “finishing schools” in the United States. I quote from the paper before mentioned:

“Five hundred of them, and the ‘receive’ from 2000 to 2100 pupils each! All it an average of 60 to the school, and you will be conservative. That means that there are 30,000 of our young girls continuously engaged in the absorption of that sole quality of mental training which these places have to offer; that close up 7500 are each autumn admitted, and 7500 each spring turned loose upon us, and that, finally, in the process there is spent fully a million and a half parental dollars per annum.”

Living by Rule.

To sum up my own individual and antiquated theory upon the subject: If a mother feels herself unable to superintend her daughter’s education and wishes her to grow into other likenesses than she is likely to acquire in the home to which God sent her, she is justifiable in passing her over into the hands of hirelings. If she is competent to perform the work assigned to her in the gift of the child, and can rise to the holy mission of growing with her pupil and achieving a higher and nobler womanhood by means of keeping step with her in the upward path, nothing but loss of health excuses her for shirking her duty.

Pass we to the return of our girl graduate to the home of her childhood. She left it at the most plastic age for mind and principles. She has, as was inevitable, taken the stamp of the school. It is as inevitable that she should find it hard to adjust herself to what have become, during the years of absence, unfamiliar surroundings. Every girl who has been for several terms at a boarding school will confirm the assertion that the most depressing feature of the new life, “which is the old,” is the abrupt cessation of routine. She lived by rule all these years. Every hour of the day had its appointments of tasks and recreations. Whether she went through the round with zest or found it a bore, the harness was worn by day and by night, and she is awkward without it. After the pleasing excitement of the homecoming is over, she feels lost, bewildered and “blue.”

She is exceptionally sensible or amiable if she do not attribute her depression to discontent with home and home people. “Mamma is sweet and dear, but she had odd ways of speaking,” and “things” somehow are plainer than the girl expected to find them. At the holidays there was a joyous bustle, and the aim of every member of the household, from her father down to the cook, was to make much of the visitor. She is no longer a visitor, nor is she one of and with them. By and by, when she is fairly launched upon the sea of society, she will have something to do and find her element–perhaps! In the doleful ennui of the present she cannot hope for any change from the dead level of domestic boredom.

She is utterly out of touch with the former life, and early associates are strangers to the full-fledged woman.

A higher educated mother, one of the most accomplished women I know, told me a story not long ago that was a revelation to me. For reason that were cogent to her apprehension, she had put her only daughter, at 12 years of age, into a first-class boarding school, and had herself gone abroad for a year. The correspondence between the two was regular and, to the mother, gratifying. Constance studied well, was healthy and contented, and not impatient for the return of her parents. When they again look up their residence in their native land the three were together in the girl’s vacations and intermediate holidays.

“She was graduated with distinction at 18,” related my friend.

“Then she came home for good. A month later I looked up from my sewing one afternoon, struck by the long silence that had fallen between us, and found her eyes fixed upon me with such singular intensity that my heart actually stood still. I had the instant impression of being on trial, or of being under a microscope.

“‘What is it my dear? I asked, faintly.

“‘I am thinking, mother, of you!’ She said it slowly and her intense gaze never wavered.

“I tried to laugh. ‘And may I know the result of your meditations, or are you ready to give it?’

“‘I think I am,’ in the same grave, thoughtful way. ‘I have been studying you ever since I came home. I have hardly known you for the last five or six years. I was afraid we might not harmonize when we became really acquainted. I have come to the conclusion that we shall. We are quite simpatica, as the Italians say.’

“I could have cried heartily, so great was my relief. But she does not like emotional demonstrations. She has wonderful self-poise for one so young. I had some studying on my own account, and it would have broken my heart if this fine young creature had not found me ‘simpatica’ upon closer view.”

The letter that led me to think out this subject upon paper strikes the same keynote.

“Our girls are the dearest things living,” writes the fond mother. “If you could buy say something that would lead them to a right understanding of us, their parents, you would do a great good for us all. The work for readjustment into their rightful place in the old home is difficult to them, and sometimes an agony to us.”

Is it strange that, with the memory of that other mother’s meek submission to the tribunal of her child’ judgement and taste fresh in my pitying soul, I uttered aloud in folding the letter in a sort of passionate protest the cry that breaks, as through cooled lava, upon the calm sequence of narrative in Thackeray’s masterpiece:

Daughters, Be Charitable!

“O it is pitiful—the bootless love of mothers for children in Vanity Fair!”

This problem is not new in our country. Over 80 years ago an eminent New England divine, who had paid much attention to the subject of “Female Education,” wrote:

“Thousands of American mothers, impressed with the importance of knowledge which they do not possess, are willing to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of the most rigid economy, that their daughters may be favored with means of improvement greatly superior to what they have enjoyed.”

It is not one of the “little ironies of fate” that the love and the sacrifice so often result in “Agony” to those who have borne the heat and burden of the day, sustained by hopes of what the homecoming of the girls will be in yearning, prideful mother-heart. It is domestic tragedy.

“O, ye poor! be charitable to the rich!” cries the parson in Bulwer’s “My Novel.”

If I might stand, face to face, with our girls, my plea would be “O, ye daughters! be charitable to those who have impoverished themselves in all except their wealth of love for you!” To come down to the bare truth, is what you have gained worth what she has lost?

Suffer a last quotation from our clever magazine writer:

“If the proper end of education be individual happiness, then the form and mode of education is a matter of individual taste. If the proper end of education be usefulness, then the proper mode and form are not the mode and form of the average finishing school.”

Marion Harland

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