You ever have one of those days when you don’t seem to be making any progress, and nothing comes out right? Well, that’s been Emily Fisher’s day so far. She’s encountered a half-sister she’s not sure she wants to have, talked with an evasive religious leader, and then ineffectively quizzed the main suspect in a murder case. So Emily decides to do just what you or I would in the same circumstances: see if she can screw something else up, too. It’s time for a family reunion with her parents and sister in chapter 10, “Elsie,” of Prophecies and Penalties, my weekly serial about a murder set in a religious commune.
There’s one quaint custom Elsie mentions which may be unfamiliar to many readers. Back before there were standardized tests in schools, and school plays that only the parents of the children attend, there was something even worse, a custom Elsie calls Assembly Day. The purpose of Assembly Day (by whatever name it was known) was for the school teachers to demonstrate to the community how much the students had learned. All the townspeople would gather in a hall or auditorium. And then the teachers would have the students perform various exercises which would not only show off their learning but reinforce community values. They would recite sentimental verse and sing patriotic songs, be quizzed on American history, and draw maps of their home state. The exact program varied from town to town. The highlight would usually be a speech by the school’s best student, declaiming on the greatness of God, the manifest destiny of America, the glory of the sovereign state of Vermont, the virtuous town of Quasopon, the learned teachers, the wise parents, and the friendly mongrel that belonged to the gatekeeper at the town dump.
Assembly Day was a hybrid of the tradition that students had to demonstrate their knowledge in public, which is still officially the case for doctoral candidates defending their dissertations, and a community gathering to assess its own health and reassure its citizens. And as both of those practices have become obsolete, Assembly Day has vanished, usually surviving in vestigial form as the valedictorian’s graduation speech. Though a few towns continue the practice. One of them happens to be Quasopon.