PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Memory of classroom humiliation endured for decades

By Roger J. Di PAOLO | Record-COurier Editor Published:

Nelson Augustus Pinney was born in 1844 on the banks of Eagle Creek in the northwestern corner of Paris Township. He was, in his words, "reared amid the somewhat wild and rude society of a rustic backwoods settlement."

His formal education was severely limited. After he was 9 years old, he only attended the one-room schoolhouse near his home during the three-month winter term, but managed to educate himself in history, geology and astronomy and other subjects which were not taught in the classroom.

He also became a gifted writer. As his life drew to a close, he compiled a memoir entitled "Old Paris Township Days" that the Ravenna Republican published in installments.

When he died in 1920, the newspaper printed an abridged autobiography as a tribute to the man it eulogized as "a sturdy, honest pioneer, patriot and soldier of the republic, schooled in the every day discipline of industry and self-reliance."

In his autobiography, Pinney mentioned in passing that he was "endowed with a very remarkable memory."

That is an understatement, as his reminiscences of his days as a school boy -- compiled 70 years later -- attest.

Nelson Pinney was barely 5 years old when he started school, but he already knew the alphabet and could spell one-syllable words, thanks to his mother, Betsey Streator Pinney, who had come to Paris Township as a school teacher.

Eliza Prosser was Nelson's first teacher. She earned $1.50 per week -- roughly $40 today -- and taught six days per week, with every other Saturday off to do her laundry and ironing. She oversaw 40 to 60 students, including many her own age or older.

Miss Prosser was "a neat, tidy handsome girl ... dressed in a close-fitting, checked gingham dress," Pinney recalled in his 1920 memoir. He also listed the names of the youngsters who went to school with him.

He shared fond memories of other teachers. Maron Streator, his mother's cousin, boarded with the Pinney family. Milton Woodworth, a medical student from Wisconsin, taught during the winter term; it was customary for a male teacher to be hired for winter classes because older boys attended them. He also recalled a teacher who "was one of the best in the county" and another "who was no match for the little savages ... and gave it up and resigned."

And then there was Mrs. Phalancia Holcomb, perhaps his most memorable teacher. But not because he was fond of her.

Even as a 76-year-old, Nelson Pinney still recalled her as a woman who "seemed to have a spite toward all the little kiddies in the neighborhood."

He was 7 years old when he encountered Mrs. Holcomb.

The schoolhouse was located along the road (in a portion of Paris Township that is now part of the Ravenna Arsenal), and the passing wagons and buggies sometimes distracted the young scholars. "The road was level with the schoolhouse, so an adult could look out without rising, but youngsters had to get out of their seats," Pinney recalled.

Mrs. Holcomb had a rule that youngsters looking out the window at the traffic would be punished. "The rule was broken every day," he wrote, and punishment could be severe.

When one of his classmates, Hen Chapman, was caught looking out the window, "he was seized (by Mrs. Holcomb) and his head thrust under the (window) sash with such force that he cut a gash in his forehead that when healed could be seen from a distance."

Young Nelson received a different punishment, "an outrageous form," he recalled.

"I suppose I ought to have been whipped," he admitted, "But she set me up on the teacher's desk, put a dunce cap on my head, split the quill end of a goose quill and set it astride my nose just like a clothespin over a line. I dared say nothing while she stood making sarcastic remarks about my appearance."

The humiliation rankled almost as painfully as Hen Chapman's encounter with the window sash. When Nelson returned home and shared what had occurred, "To say that my mother, an ex-teacher, was hopping mad would be putting it mildly."

Nelson Pinney's formal education, for the most part, ended shortly after his unfortunate experience with Mrs. Holcomb. He attended school during the winter terms until 1862, when he turned 18. That summer, he enlisted in the 104th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and served with the Union Army through the end of the Civil War.

The "green looking and freckled boy dressed in soldier blue" fought in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, where he was severely wounded during a batttle.

He returned to Paris Township after the war and spent most of the rest of his life there. His memoir of pioneer days was published by the Republican in the final year of his life. He died on Nov. 19, 1920; several installments of his narrative were published posthumously.

The writer with "a very remarkable memory" never forgot being punished for looking out the schoolhouse window in 1851. Decades later, as he recounted the experience, Nelson Pinney had this advice for any prospective teachers: "Whatever you do, don't ever make fun of your pupils. It will be the one thing that will be remembered of you in the years to come."

That definitely was true for him as far as Mrs. Phalancia Holcomb was concerned.

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