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.
These days you can’t pry members of the community away from their TV, their cans of beer, their computer games and their blogging activities. 🙂
Something to that: that was the thesis of “Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam.
Oops! I was going to ask if you’re in the school photo – then saw the date on it. Happy Centenary
Such practices did exist in my home town in the 19th century, I’ve seen documents about them, but they have since disappeared. The nearest thing that remained was the spelling bee, which is still run on a national basis.
Wow, really? I thought it was just the Waltons. Though I do remember my mother saying of them at school, but they weren’t called ‘bees’. What is the origin of that. Why a bee and not an Aye or See?
I gather the term emerges in English colonial times here, indicating a helping or benefit.
I’d been in a number of class spelling bees, myself. For some reason, I rarely did well in them, although a good speller. Though there was the time the class was split up between the boys and the girls, and I found myself facing four girls at the end.
Proving, of course, that girls excel in languages (sexist comment thrown in for free.) But well done for getting so far.
The girls did generally do better in everything academic at that age (5th grade) in my home town, so you can get away with that comment.
I did manage to win a class spelling bee, ONCE, in sixth grade. I was the last one standing. And then some other pupil complained, in violation of normal practice, that I had to spell one more word correctly to really win. No else had ever had to do this. Still, the teacher flipped open the dictionary to a random page and picked a word. The word was “psychology.” The toughest word to come up in that entire spelling bee . . . and I had just learned it the previous week! In fact, in an example of synchronicity that has never been surpassed in my life, I was even hoping that was the word the teacher would pick!
Lovely story. Reminds me of my 3rd yr, junior (not sure what grade that would be, but 9-10 yr old). Mondays we were given a list of 10 words to learn, lifted straight out of a dictionary, so at least we’d all get the first couple of letters right. We were tested on Friday morning. Failure to get 8/10 meant staying in all afternoon while others had games, to write out the correct spellings 100 times each. Well, I’d always succeeded in the 8-10 range until one week when I’d been ill, only returning to school on Thursday. The list of 10 words were particularly technical, and not words the average 9 year old would even know, yet alone use. But that made no difference, we still had to get 8/10 correct. I didn’t. I scored only 5. Oh dear, to stay in class all afternoon, with the bad boys who were always messing about, while my classmates had games – in the freezing cold wind, and the showery rain that soon turned to sleet. I was selective with my ability to score high after that. There are advantages to being marked down.
That would be an… interesting exercise in modern communities. On one hand, it might build a better relationship within the community, on the other, some parents are not friendly.
Your comment about certain types of parents reminds me of Huck Finn’s father telling him to stay away from school, that no son of his is going to grow up to think he’s better than his father. (That’s your comment that inspired that thought, Laura, not YOU!) Sigh. I was lucky. I had parents that wanted all of us kids to get as much education as we could, wherever it took us.
Thank you for the clarification – I think education’s a good thing too.
I suspect BYU agrees with you on that. 😉
I appreciate that they agree.